Maria Edgeworth, prolific and influential English novelist

Maria Edgeworth

Maria Edgeworth (January 1, 1767 – May 22, 1849), was an Anglo-Irish author whose work has lately been considered deserving of reconsideration. She is best known for novels of Irish life and children’s stories.

Now overshadowed by her contemporaries, Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, there are compelling arguments in favor of why her work still matters.

The  following biography was adapted from the entry in Dictionary of National Biography, 1885–1900, by Leslie Stephen (who happened to be Virginia Woolf’s father):


Early years and education

The daughter of Richard Lovell Edgeworth and his first wife, Anna Maria Elers, Maria was born in Black Bourton, Oxfordshire, England on January 1, 1767, and spent her infancy there.

According to Britannica:

“She lived in England until 1782, when the family moved to Edgeworthstown, County Longford, in midwestern Ireland, where Maria, then 15 and the eldest daughter, assisted her father in managing his estate. In this way she acquired the knowledge of rural economy and of the Irish peasantry that was to be the backbone of her novels.

Domestic life at Edgeworthstown was busy and happy. Encouraged by her father, Maria began her writing in the common sitting room, where the 21 other children in the family provided material and audience for her stories.

She published them in 1796 as The Parent’s Assistant. Even the intrusive moralizing, attributed to her father’s editing, does not wholly suppress their vitality, and the children who appear in them, especially the impetuous Rosamond, are the first real children in English literature since Shakespeare.”

Maria suffered from attempts to increase her growth by mechanical devices, including hanging by the neck. In spite of this contrivance, she always remained small.

She learned to dance, though she could never learn music; she had given early proofs of talent at her first school; she was a good French and Italian scholar, and, like Scott, won credit as a storyteller from her schoolmates.

Some of her holidays were spent with Thomas Day, her father’s great friend, at Anningsley, Surrey. He dosed her with tar water for an inflammation of the eyes, which had threatened a loss of sight, but encouraged her studies, gave her good advice, and won her permanent respect.


Gaining responsibilities in young womanhood

In 1782, she accompanied her father and his third wife to Edgeworthstown, and at his suggestion began to translate Mme. de Genlis’s Adèle et Théodore.

Though still very shy, she saw some good society; she was noticed by Lady Moira, who often stayed with her daughter, Lady Granard, at Castle Forbes, and was frequently at Pakenham Hall, belonging to Lord Longford, a connection and a close friend of Mr. Edgeworth’s.

Her father employed her in keeping accounts and in dealing with his tenants. The education of her little brother Henry was entrusted to her care.

She thus acquired the familiarity with fashionable people and with the Irish peasantry which was to be of use in her novels, as well as a practical knowledge of education.

Her father made her a confidential friend, and though timid on horseback, she delighted in long rides with him for the opportunity of conversation. He became her adviser and to some extent her collaborator in the literary work which for some years was her main occupation.

Maria began to write stories on a slate, which she read to her sisters, and copied out if approved by them. She wrote the “Freeman Family,” afterward developed into “Patronage,” for the amusement of her stepmother, Elizabeth, when convalescing in 1787.

In 1791 her father took his wife to England, and Maria was left in charge of the children, with whom she joined the parents at Clifton in December.


First published writings

They returned to Edgeworthstown at the end of 1793. Here, while taking her share in the family life, she first made her appearance as an author. The “Letters to Literary Ladies,” a defense of female education, came out in 1795.

In 1796, the first volume of the “Parent’s Assistant” was published. In 1798 the marriage of her father to his fourth wife, to whom she had at first a natural objection, brought her an intimate friend in her new stepmother.

For fifty-one years their affectionate relations were never even clouded. The whole family party, which included, besides the children, two sisters of the second Mrs. Edgeworth, Charlotte Sneyd, and Mary Sneyd, lived together on the most affectionate terms.

In 1798 she published, in conjunction with her father, two volumes of Practical Education, presenting in a number of discursive essays a modification of the theories started by Rousseau’s Émile and adopted by Mr. Edgeworth and Thomas Day.

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Belinda by Maria Edgeworth

Of Maria Edgeworth’s many novels,
Belinda (1801) is best known today
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Maria Edgeworth’s novels for adults

In 1800, Maria began her novels for adult readers with Castle Rackrent. It was published anonymously, and written without her father’s assistance. Its vigorous descriptions of Irish character made it a quick success, and the second edition appeared with her name credited.

Belinda followed in 1801, followed in 1802 by Essay on Irish Bulls,, a collaboration with her father. Maria had now achieved fame as an author.

Practical Education had been translated by M. Pictet of Geneva, who also published translations of the Moral Tales in his Bibliothèque Britannique. He visited the Edgeworths in Ireland; and she soon accompanied her father on a visit to France during the peace of Amiens, receiving many civilities from distinguished literary people.


Turning down marriage for a literary life

In Paris, Maria met a Swedish count, Edelcrantz, who made her an offer. As she could not think of retiring to Stockholm, and he felt bound to continue there, the match failed.

Her spirits suffered for a time, and though all communication dropped she remembered him through life, and directly after her return wrote ‘Leonora,’ a novel intended to meet his tastes.

The party returned to England in March 1803, and, after a short visit to Edinburgh, to Edgeworthstown, where Maria set to work upon her stories. She wrote in the common sitting-room, amidst all manner of domestic distractions, and submitted everything to her father, who frequently inserted passages of his own.

Popular Tales and the Modern Griselda appeared in 1804, Leonora in 1806, the first series of Tales of Fashionable Life (containing “Eunice”’ “The Dun,” “Manœuvring,” and “Almeria”) in 1809. The second series (“Absentee,” “Vivian,” and “Mme. de Fleury”) in 1812.

She finished Patronage, which she had begun in 1787. It finally came out in 1814. She set to work on Harrington and Ormond, published together in 1817. She received a few sheets in time to give them to her father on his birthday in May 1817. He had been especially interested in Ormond, to which he had contributed a few scenes. He wrote a short preface to the book and died the following June.


Family and health troubles

After Mr. Edgeworth’s death, his unmarried son Lovell kept up the house. Mr. Edgeworth had left his Memoirs to his daughter, with an injunction to complete them and publish his part unaltered.

She had prepared the book for press in the summer of 1818, though in much depression, due to family troubles, sickness among the peasantry, and an alarming weakness of her eyes.

She gave up reading, writing, and needlework almost entirely for two years, when her eyes completely recovered. Her sisters, meanwhile, acted as amanuenses. She visited Bowood in the autumn of 1818, chiefly to take the advice of her friend Dumont on the Memoirs.

The Memoirs were published during her absence in 1820 and were bitterly attacked in the Quarterly Review. Still, they reached a second edition in 1828, and a third in 1844, when she rewrote her own part.


More literary endeavors

Maria continued settling into her domestic and literary occupations. For the rest of her life, Edgeworthstown continued to be her residence, though she frequently visited London, and made occasional tours.

The most remarkable was a visit to Scotland in the spring of 1823. Sir Walter Scott welcomed her most heartily, and, after seeing her in Edinburgh, received her in Abbotsford. She had read the Lay of the Last Minstrel on its first appearance during her convalescence from a fever in 1805.

Scott declared (in the last chapter of Waverley, and later in the preface to the collected novels) that her descriptions of Irish character had encouraged him to make a similar experiment on Scottish character in the Waverley novels. He sent her a copy of Waverley on its first publication, though without acknowledging the authorship, and she replied with enthusiasm.

During the commercial troubles of 1826, Maria resumed the management of the estate for her brother Lovell, having given up receiving the rents on her father’s death. She showed great business talent and took a keen personal interest in the poor on the estate.

Although greatly occupied by such duties, she again took to writing, beginning her last novel, Helen, about 1830. It didn’t appear until 1834, and soon reached a second edition. It had scarcely the success of her earlier stories. Her style had gone out of fashion.


Later years and legacy 

Amidst her various occupations, Maria’s intellectual vivacity remained. She began to learn Spanish at the age of seventy. She kept up a correspondence which in some ways gives even a better idea of her powers than her novels. She paid her last visit to London in 1844.

She knew more or less most of the eminent literary persons of her time, including Joanna Baillie, with whom she stayed at Hampstead, Bentham’s friend, Sidney Smith, Dumont, and Ricardo, whom she visited at Gatcombe Park, Gloucestershire.

Jane Austen sent her Emma soon after its first publication. Maria admired her work, though it doesn’t appear that they had any personal relations.

During the famine of 1846, Maria did her best to relieve the sufferings of the people. Some of her admirers in Boston, Massachusetts, sent one hundred and fifty barrels of flour addressed to “Miss Edgeworth for her poor.” The porters who carried it ashore refused to be paid, and she sent to each of them a woolen comforter knitted by herself.

The deaths of her brother Francis in 1846 and of her favorite sister Fanny in 1848 tried her severely, and she was already weakened by attacks of illness.


Summing up the life and work of Maria Edgeworth

Maria Edgeworth was of diminutive stature, and few portraits of her exist. It seems from Scott’s descriptions that her appearance faithfully represented the combined vivacity, good sense, and amiability of her character. No one had stronger family affections, and the lives of very few authors have been as useful and honorable.

The didacticism of the stories for children has not prevented their permanent popularity. Her more ambitious efforts are injured by the same tendency. She has not the delicacy of touch of Miss Austen, more than the imaginative power of Scott.

But the brightness of her style, her keen observation of character, and her shrewd sense and vigor make her novels still readable, despite obvious artistic defects. Though her puppets are apt to be wooden, they act their parts with spirit enough to make us forgive the perpetual moral lectures.

She died in the arms of her stepmother on May 22, 1849.

More about Maria Edgeworth

Major works

In addition to the works for adult readers listed following, Maria Edgeworth’s books for children have been reprinted in innumerable forms, and often translated. The first collective edition of her novels appeared in fourteen volumes, 1825, others 1848, 1856.

  • Letters to Literary Ladies, 1795.
  • Parent’s Assistant, first part, 1796; published in 6 vols. in 1800
  • Practical Education, 1798
  • Castle Rackrent, 1800
  • Early Lessons, 1801
  • Belinda, 1801.
  • Moral Tales, 1801
  • Irish Bulls, 1802
  • Popular Tales, 1804
  • Modern Griselda, 1804
  • Leonora, 1806
  • Tales from Fashionable Life (first series), 1812.
  • Patronage, ca.1814
  • Harrington, 1817
  • Ormond, 1817
  • Comic Dramas, 1817
  • Memoirs of R. L. Edgeworth (vol. ii. by Maria), 1820.
  • Sequels to Harry and Lucy, Rosamond, and Frank, from the Early Lessons, 1822–5.
  • Helen, 1834
  • Orlandino, 1834

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