Authors: Maria Edgeworth

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English-born Irish novelist, essayist, short-story writer, and children’s author.

January 1, 1768

Black Bourton, England

May 22, 1849

Edgeworthstown, Ireland

Biography

Maria Edgeworth was an important figure in the development of the novel. She was one of twenty-two children born to Richard Lowell Edgeworth, an Irish educator. Her mother was Anna Maria Elers, the first of Richard Edgeworth’s four wives; Maria was their third child (the second to survive), and the oldest girl. Born in Black Bourton, in Oxfordshire, England, she spent her earliest years with her mother's family in England, being largely ignored by parents, whose marriage was not a success. After her mother died in 1773, Edgeworth's father was quickly married again, to Honora Sneyd, and Edgeworth subsequently went with them to her father's estate, Edgeworthstown, in County Longford, Ireland.

Maria Edgeworth

(Library of Congress)

Between 1775 and 1782, Edgeworth returned to England to attend school, first in Derby and later in London. In response to her rather lackluster letters to her family, her father began to request that she write stories for him. He also began making the first of a great many suggestions about writing—suggestions that Edgeworth would follow throughout her long writing career. When an eye infection threatened her sight, her father decided that it was time for her to rejoin her family, and by mid-1782 she had returned to Ireland, where she made her home in Edgeworthstown, surrounded by her numerous siblings and nurtured by a protective father.

During the 1780s Edgeworth occupied herself by serving as her father’s bookkeeper and assistant in the management of the family estate. Thus began her dependency on her father, who saw in her the means by which he could test his theories about the education and training of children and young people. A great deal of critical controversy has focused on the relationship between Maria Edgeworth and her father. Many commentators have concluded that his influence on her was negative, but a number of scholars suggest that Richard Edgeworth’s character may have been at least partially misread; certainly he should be credited with instilling in his daughter the habit of critical thinking, a rarely cultivated trait among for women of her class and era. He was also responsible for the freedom with which Edgeworth moved about the estate and acquired the experiences that led to her most important novels.

In 1795 Maria Edgeworth published her first book, Letters for Literary Ladies, which was followed the next year by her first volume of children’s stories, The Parent’s Assistant (1796). Her first collaboration with her father was Practical Education (1798), a handbook for training children. Two years later came her first novel, Castle Rackrent (1800), probably her masterpiece and certainly the book on which her later fame was built. She published Belinda (1801) the following year.

A family tour through England, Scotland, and France in 1802 and 1803 led to Edgeworth’s only romance. In Paris, she met a Swedish nobleman named Abraham Niklas Edelcrantz, the private secretary to the king of Sweden. The pair fell in love, but the romance was doomed by Edelcrantz’s need to return to Sweden and Edgeworth’s reluctance to leave her family to live in a foreign country. The Edgeworths returned to England in 1804, and she never saw Edelcrantz again.

Between 1804 and 1848 Edgeworth wrote and published collections of tales, essays, educational treatises, children’s stories, plays, and novels. After her brother’s mismanagement created huge debts for the family following their father’s death, she took over the running of the estate and enabled the family to keep their land and the income it generated. Her last novel, Orlandino, was published in 1848, one year before her death.

Maria Edgeworth’s work influenced Sir Walter Scott to write his own stories with Scottish backgrounds, and to some degree she also inspired James Fenimore Cooper and William Makepeace Thackeray as well. Using Ireland as her locale, Edgeworth portrayed the Irish realistically and wrote of what she knew firsthand of her father’s Irish estate and the tenant system. She was one of the first to introduce the lower classes into fiction, but because her general attitude was based on reason rather than on emotion, many of her characterizations were comic rather than realistic. Schooled by her father in empiricism, she admired the philosophy of utilitarianism with its emphasis on common sense and conservatism. Not only primitivism but sensibility generally was against her persuasion.

Most critics consider Castle Rackrent her best novel. The story, told by an old servant, traces the degeneration of a contemporary Irish estate under the mismanagement of several squires and the emotionalism and lack of common sense of the tenants. Without principles, these people blindly follow money until there is none. Though written in the tone of the manners novel, the plot is a tragedy. The Absentee (1812) is similar in theme and plot, except that the mismanagement of the Irish estate in this case becomes nonmanagement while the hero is away in London trying to maintain his social status in society.

Ormond (1817) offers as its theme, implicit rather than stated, the idea that passion without reason is nothing more than sentimentality. Vivian (1812) presents the theme that reason without action is only procrastination, in one respect the reverse of that presented in Ormond. Whether or not any human being would ever be capable of all the virtues hinted at in these novels, they pleased a wide public, both professional and general.

Author Works Long Fiction: Castle Rackrent, an Hibernian Tale, 1800 Belinda, 1801 (3 volumes) Leonora, 1806 (2 volumes) Ennui, 1809 (in Tales of Fashionable Life, series 1) The Absentee, 1812 (in Tales of Fashionable Life, series 2) Vivian, 1812 (in Tales of Fashionable Life, series 2) Patronage, 1814 (4 volumes) Harrington, a Tale; and Ormond, a Tale, 1817 (3 volumes) Helen, a Tale, 1834 (3 volumes [UK; 2 volumes in US]) Orlandino, 1848 The Novels of Maria Edgeworth, 1893 (12 volumes) Short Fiction: Tales of Fashionable Life, 1809 (series 1; 3 volumes) Tales of Fashionable Life, 1812 (series 2; 3 volumes) Tales, and Miscellaneous Pieces, 1825 (14 volumes) Garry Owen; or, The Snow-Woman; and Poor Bob, the Chimney-Sweeper, 1832 Tales and Novels, 1832–33 (18 volumes) Tales and Novels, 1848 (9 volumes) Classic Tales, 1883 The Most Unfortunate Day of My Life, 1931 Drama: Comic Dramas in Three Acts, pb. 1817 Little Plays for Children, pb. 1827 The Knapsack, a Drama in Two Acts, for Youth, pb. 1843 Nonfiction: Letters for Literary Ladies, 1795 Practical Education, 1798 (2 volumes; with Richard Lovell Edgeworth; also known as Essays on Practical Education, 1811) A Rational Primer, 1799 (with Richard Lovell Edgeworth) Essay on Irish Bulls, 1802 (with Richard Lovell Edgeworth) Essays on Professional Education, 1809 (with Richard Lovell Edgeworth) Readings on Poetry, 1816 (with Richard Lovell Edgeworth) Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth Esq., 1820 (2 volumes; with Richard Lovell Edgeworth) A Memoir of Maria Edgeworth, with a Selection from Her Letters, 1867 (3 volumes; Frances A. Edgeworth, editor) The Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth, 1894 (2 volumes; Augustus J. Hare, editor) Maria Edgeworth: Chosen Letters, 1931 (F. V. Barry, editor) Romilly-Edgeworth Letters, 1813–1818, 1936 (Samuel H. Romilly, editor) Letters from England, 1813–1844, 1971 (Christina Colvin, editor) Children’s/Young Adult Literature: The Parent’s Assistant; or, Stories for Children, 1796 (3 volumes), 1800 (6 volumes) Early Lessons, 1801 (10 volumes; contains Harry and Lucy, parts 1–2; Rosamond, parts 1–3; Frank, parts 1–4; The Little Dog Trusty; The Orange Man; and, The Cherry Orchard) Moral Tales for Young People, 1801 (5 volumes), 1802 (3 volumes) Popular Tales, 1804 (3 volumes) The Modern Griselda: A Tale, 1805 Continuation of Early Lessons, 1814 (2 volumes) Rosamond: A Sequel to Early Lessons, 1821 (2 volumes) Frank: A Sequel to Frank in Early Lessons, 1822 (3 volumes [UK; 2 volumes in US]) Harry and Lucy Concluded: Being the Last Part of Early Lessons, 1825 (4 volumes) Translation: Adelaide and Theodore; or, Letters on Education, 1783 (of Stéphanie Félicité du Crest de Saint-Aubin, comtesse de Genlis’s Adele et Théodore, ou Lettres sur l’education) Bibliography Bilger, Audrey. Laughing Feminism: Subversive Comedy in Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen. Wayne State UP, 1998. Humor in Life and Letters Series. Reveals feminist traits in the comedic works of these eighteenth-century writers. Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Clarendon Press, 1975. Contains an important chapter on Edgeworth. The overall context of the Napoleonic era is taken into consideration. The obvious contrast between Edgeworth and Austen, and its consequences for the development of English fiction, results in a stimulating critique of Edgeworth’s output. Butler, Marilyn. Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography. Clarendon Press, 1972. The standard biography on Edgeworth, strongest when dealing with the complex and voluminously documented Edgeworth family history. Literary criticism as such is kept to a minimum. Provides a comprehensive sense of immediate family background. The overall social and cultural context of Edgeworth’s work receives less detailed treatment.

Corbett, Mary Jean. “Another Tale to Tell: Postcolonial Theory and the Case of Castle Rackrent.” Criticism, vol. 36, no. 3, 1994, pp. 383–400. Examines Castle Rackrent from a postcolonial perspective. Argues that the story comically exploits Irish and English relationships. Contends the story articulates the shifting relations of power between colonizer and colonized. Flanagan, Thomas. The Irish Novelists, 1800–1850. Columbia UP, 1959. Devotes a section to Edgeworth’s Irish novels, locating them in the context of Edgeworth’s inaugurating role in Irish fiction, with emphasis on her class, its sociopolitical context, and its influence on her writing. The methodology and some of the conclusions have been implicitly challenged by more recent criticism. Genet, Jacqueline, editor. The Big House in Ireland: Reality and Representation. Barnes & Noble, 1991. Discusses Castle Rackrent as the first so-called Big House novel in Ireland. Claims the men of Rackrent are victims not of adverse circumstances, but of their own degeneration. Gilmartin, Sophie. Ancestry and Narrative in Nineteenth-Century British Literature: Blood Relations from Edgeworth to Hardy. Cambridge UP, 1998. Examines familial relationships in Edgeworth’s works. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Hack, Daniel. “Inter-Nationalism: Castle Rackrent and Anglo-Irish Union.” Novel, vol. 29, no. 2, 1996, pp. 145–64. Academic Search Complete, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=9606271211&site=ehost-live. Accessed 22 Aug. 2017. Argues that the logic of Castle Rackrent is the logic of Derrida’s supplementarity, which fosters an understanding of Union as a continuing process of assimilation in which the absorption of Ireland into England never ends. Harden, Elizabeth. Maria Edgeworth. Twayne Publishers, 1984. A survey of Edgeworth’s life and works, organized around the theme of education. This approach reveals in broad outline the range of Edgeworth’s sympathies and activities. Supplemented by an excellent bibliography. Hollingworth, Brian. Maria Edgeworth’s Irish Writing: Language, History, Politics. St. Martin’s Press, 1997. A good examination of the Irish works, especially the novels Castle Rackrent and Ormond. Includes detailed notes and bibliography. Hurst, Michael. Maria Edgeworth and the Public Scene: Intellect, Fine Feeling and Landlordism in the Age of Reform. Macmillan, 1969. Deals with Edgeworth’s artistically unproductive later years, during which she attempted to come to terms with the changing social and political landscape. Provides a brisk analysis of Edgeworth’s ideological commitments. Kaufman, Heidi, and Chris Fauske, editors. An Uncomfortable Authority: Maria Edgeworth and Her Contexts.U of Delaware P, 2004. Collected essays examining Edgeworth’s works through various cultural and ideological contexts. A scholarly study with bibliography and index. Kowaleski-Wallace, Elizabeth. Their Fathers’ Daughters: Hannah More, Maria Edgeworth, and Patriarchal Complicity. Oxford UP, 1991. Explores the question of what it means for a female writer to identify with her father. Devotes several chapters to Edgeworth’s life and work. Includes detailed notes but no bibliography. McCann, Andrew. Cultural Politics in the 1790s: Literature, Radicalism, and the Public Sphere. St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Discusses the political and social views of various writers, including Edgeworth, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and William Godwin. McCormack, W. J. Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literary History from 1789 to 1939. Clarendon Press, 1985. An intellectually far-reaching essay in the sociology of Irish literature. Firmly establishes the ideological lineage of Edgeworth’s work, with special reference to the writings of Edmund Burke. Assesses the role of her work in articulating the outlook of her class.

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