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
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
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.