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Miss Edgeworth advises …

Second in our Blog post series on the five Honorary Members featured in our exhibition ‘Prodigies of learning: Academy women in the nineteenth century.’ This month we look at Maria Edgeworth, Hon. MRIA.

In January 1838, a few days after her seventieth birthday, the celebrated writer, Maria Edgeworth, received a letter[1] from Ireland’s pre-eminent scientist, Sir William Rowan Hamilton, then thirty-two. Hamilton, recently elected President of the Royal Irish Academy, was not sending birthday greetings; rather, he was looking to Miss Edgeworth for advice on an Academy matter – improving the position of literature in the Academy where it languished in comparison to other fields of study. Edgeworth’s advice would inform his inaugural address to the Academy later that month.

Left: Extract of a letter from William Rowan Hamilton to Maria Edgeworth, 3 Jan 1838 (MS 24 F 23/1 (1))
Right: Castle Rackrent was hugely popular and its style and themes influenced other writers including Sir Walter Scott’.

Hamilton carefully couched his approach to Maria in the context of her Academy connection via her late father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817), scientist and founder member, and friend and correspondent of scientists throughout Europe. Furthermore, Hamilton acknowledged her eminence as a literary figure ―

‘it is known to all the world that you are not only a lover of literature, but a successful pursuer and powerful promoter of it, and that on any point connected therewith, your opinion must be most valuable’

Extract of a letter from William Rowan Hamilton to Maria Edgeworth, 3 Jan 1838 (MS 24 F 23/1 (2))

The letter was not a ‘cold call’. Maria was well known and respected in the world of science from the early days when she had travelled widely with her father and met the greatest scientific minds of the age. Respected as much for her educational publications and opinions, she maintained a lively correspondence with both literati and scientists and continued to meet many of them in London or Paris or at the family home in Edgeworthstown. Hamilton had met Maria there in 1824. She summed up the nineteen-year old Trinity student then: ‘he has both the simplicity and the candour which make true genius’[2]. Respect was mutual and the two became firm friends.

Maria’s confidential advice was considered —

  • medals should be awarded to the winners of prize essay competitions,

  • members’ subscriptions for Academy events should be at affordable levels to permit attendance by the men of literature who were not usually well off.

With the voice of experience of the almost exclusively male world of science and learning, Maria advised Hamilton in his role as President to-

‘speak less than others – and hold the balance’.

Letter from Maria Edgeworth to William Rowan Hamilton, 6 Jan 1838 (MS 24 F 23/2 (5))

More controversially, she advised that ladies might be admitted to Academy meetings. Hamilton’s lengthy response (of which a draft and final version are held) dealt forensically with the advice offered, postponing the matter of admitting the ladies until he could no longer avoid the issue.

Women’s attendance at meetings would not work, he argued, for reasons of lack of space and because administration of Academy business would oblige visitors to withdraw and ‘it would be hard to ask ladies to do so’. Is it too fanciful to imagine Hamilton blushing as he wrote this? His tone suggests that he is trying to convince himself. He was a rational man of science with an inclusive view of the role of literature and the humanities — his engagement with Maria Edgeworth’s suggestions is considered, but his response to the question of women is uncharacteristically weak.

Miss Edgeworth’s proposal was a bridge too far for a conservative society. The time was out of joint. Hamilton was ‘holding the balance’ in an institution of which he had the measure. Writing to a woman for confidential advice was one thing, proposing the participation of women was quite another.

Portrait of Maria Edgeworth. Image © National Gallery of Ireland

Maria Edgeworth was elected an honorary member of the Academy in 1842, the fourth woman to be so honoured. She died in 1849. Hamilton resigned as president in 1846[3].

A hundred years, universal suffrage and the declaration of the republic would all pass before the Academy elected women to full membership — in March 1949[4].

Siobhán Fitzpatrick,
Librarian to the Academy.

Maria Edgeworth featured in our exhibition on the first five honorary women academicians ‘Prodigies of learning’: Academy women in the nineteenth century.

[1] Edgeworth-Hamilton correspondence, RIA MS 24 F 23/1-4. There are five letters, commencing with Hamilton’s to Edgeworth, 3 January 1838 and ending with her response of 15 February 1838. The collection was purchased for the Library in 1973 by eight Academy members.

[2] Cited in Valerie Pakenham (ed.), Maria Edgeworth’s letters from Ireland (Dublin, 2018).

[3] This was another innovation on Hamilton’s part; hitherto, the presidency was for life.

[4] The first women elected to full membership were: Phyllis Clinch, Françoise Henry, Eleanor Knott, and Sheila Tinney (née Power). These four were all the subjects of posthumous portraits executed by Irish artist, Vera Klute, as part of the Academy-Accenture campaign, ‘Women on Walls’

The Academy currently has 502 members of whom 86 are women, and 87 honorary members of whom 15 are women.