The Royal Irish Academy/Acadamh Ríoga na hÉireann champions research. We identify and recognise Ireland’s world class researchers. We support scholarship and promote awareness of how science and the humanities enrich our lives and benefit society. We believe that good research needs to be promoted, sustained and communicated. The Academy is run by a Council of its members. Membership is by election and considered the highest academic honour in Ireland.

Read more about the RIA

DIB entry of the day: Maria Edgeworth

21 May 2019

To mark the anniversary of Maria Edgeworth's death in 1849, we have posted the DIB entry of one of Ireland's greatest writers, by Edwina Keown.

Edgeworth features in the current RIA Library exhibition ''Prodigies of learning': Academy women in the nineteenth century'.

Maria Edgeworth (1768–1849), novelist, essayist, and educationist, was born at Black Bourton Manor, Oxfordshire, England, the estate of the Hungerford family; her maternal grandmother was a Hungerford heiress. Her date of birth is sometimes given as 1 January 1767. Edgeworth considered her date of birth to be 1 January 1768; records at Black Bourton support this. Her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth (qv), gentleman landowner of Edgeworthstown Estate, Edgeworthstown, Co. Longford, married four times and fathered twenty-two surviving children. Maria was the second surviving child of Richard's first marriage (by elopement) to Anna Maria Elers. As part of an educational project her older brother Richard was sent away for schooling on the Continent and became estranged from the family. After the death of her father's second wife, Honora, Edgeworth became his assistant and intellectual correspondent. 

Childhood and education  Edgeworth passed her infancy in England, with her mother's family, apart from her father until 1773, when she moved to Ireland after her mother's death and her father's subsequent marriage to Honora Sneyd. Richard's and Honora's union was a marriage of hearts and minds. Together they initiated their ideas for practical education, believing that a child must be disciplined before the age of five. Edgeworth, past this age and undisciplined, was sent (1775–81) to Mrs Latuffiere's boarding school in Derby, England, where she learned to compose her letters and herself, encouraged by her father, who sent her compositions and exercises to perform. In April 1780 Honora died and Richard married her sister Elizabeth Sneyd on 25 December 1780. In 1781 Edgeworth attended Mrs Dervis's fashionable institution in Upper Wimpole St., London. This was the end of her formal schooling. In 1782 she returned to Edgeworthstown with her family, to be educated by her father in topics such as law, Irish economics and politics, science, European history, and literature. 

Edgeworth maintained a lifelong correspondence with the Lunar Group, whose dispersed membership – based in the English midlands, of mechanical innovators and educationalists engaged with enlightenment practices – included her father Richard, Thomas Day (influenced by Rousseau), Dr Erasmus Darwin, the engineer James Watt, the industrial chemist James Keir, and the potter Josiah Wedgwood. The importance of letter writing and scientific experimentation influenced the form and substance of her writing career as a novelist. Her first publication, Letters for literary ladies (1795), was a response to Thomas Day's belief that women should not be authors or taught to think. 

Edgeworth's theoretical education was counterpointed with a practical one, as her father's assistant in estate management and educating her younger siblings. Edgeworth and Richard collaborated on a series of educational books for children such as The parent's assistant: or stories for children (1796),  Practical education (1798), and Early lessons (1801), that evolved from Richard and Honora's educational experiments of 1777–80. Edgeworth observed and noted her siblings’ development. As her father's assistant, she rode around the Edgeworthstown estate, which had become run down owing to the family's absence between 1777 and 1782, observing and recording the habits and details of everyday Irish life, in particular the idioms of the peasantry. Her father's schooling in objectivity and precision left its mark in a preference for writing that was sparse, lucid, and factual. 

Domestic life and Castle Rackrent  Edgeworth wrote: ‘I enjoy amusement and compliments and flattery all in their just proportion, but they are as nought in my scale, compared with domestic life.’ From 1782 until her death in 1849, her home and focal point was Edgeworthstown House, her father and family and an extended family of servants and tenants: the anchor for her life and literary work, the fulcrum for her world view. Edgeworth's literary realism evolved out of writing instructive stories and plays on local Irish topics for her family. This creative centre and audience for her work extended, through anecdotal letters, to her paternal aunt Margaret Ruxton and cousin Sophy at Black Castle, Co. Meath, and, to a lesser extent to two Co. Longford families: the Forbes and the Pakenhams. Kitty Pakenham, a close friend of Edgeworth, married Arthur Wellesley (qv), later duke of Wellington. Margaret Ruxton was an influential critic for the embryonic author. Whereas Richard favoured facts, Margaret favoured lively character scenes and abhorred vulgarity. She supplied Edgeworth with the novels of William Godwin and Anne Radcliffe, and encouraged her to write Castle Rackrent (1800) – based on the family chronicle The Black Book of Edgeworthstown – because of the character Thady Quirk. Castle Rackrent established Edgeworth's popular appeal. Richard wrote in 1800: ‘We hear from good authority that the king [George III] was much pleased with Castle Rackrent – he rubbed his hands and said what – what – I know something now of my Irish subjects’ (R. L. E. to D. A. Beaufort, 26 Apr. 1800,  NLI, MS 10166). The novel is a gothic-satirical portrait of Anglo-Irish abuses ‘before the year 1782’. Edgeworth was the first Anglo-Irish writer to adopt the voice of an Irish catholic outsider as her narrator: Castle Rackrent's steward Thady Quirk, who ironises the negligence of four generations of Rackrents that fed the unrest of the 1790s which resulted in the rebellion of 1798 and the act of union (1801). By the end of the novel Thady's son, the lawyer Jason Quirk, owns Castle Rackrent, symbolising the rise of the catholic-Irish middle class whom Edgeworth feared would replace the Anglo-Irish.  Castle Rackrent is an important document in the struggle for Irish national identity at a major political crossroads, and introduced the big house and gothic novel into Anglo-Irish literature. 

Edgeworth personally experienced the unrest of the 1780s and 1790s. In Co. Longford, catholic Defenders targeted protestant landlords and agents, burning houses, mutilating cattle, and assaulting individuals. Richard favoured the French revolution, thereby exciting the fears of the local Longford gentry, who almost lynched him for being a French spy. Edgeworth herself was more conservative and identified with the landowning class. Her novels, in particular her Irish ones, arise from her direct experience of life at Edgeworthstown during this period: Castle Rackrent (1800), Belinda (1801),  Essay on Irish bulls (1802), Ennui (1809), The absentee (1812), Patronage (1814), and  Ormond (1817). They outline a clear political history of the time. 

Travels  Fortunately for Edgeworth, in 1798, the year of the United Irish rebellion, her father married Frances Beaufort, daughter of his politically moderate English friend the Rev. Daniel Augustus Beaufort (qv). Frances was a year younger than Maria and filled the important role of lifelong confidante. At Dr Beaufort's instigation, Edgeworth's world view expanded to encompass continental and English experience. In 1799 the Edgeworths went to London. In 1801 Marc-Auguste Pictet visited Edgeworth at her home. Pictet was founder-editor with his brother Charles of the Genevese scientific and literary journal  Bibliotheque Britannique, the most important cultural link existing between England and the Continent during the Napoleonic wars. He reviewed Edgeworth's Practical education in this journal, introducing her authorship to the Continent. In 1802 Edgeworth went on a tour of the English midlands and continental Europe with Richard and Frances. She was exposed to the intellectuals of Paris through the progressive-rationalist circle of the Delesserts. There she also met Abraham Niclas Clenberg-Edelkranz, a bachelor of 46, commissioned by the Swedish king to examine new innovations in Europe, who proposed marriage to her on 3 December 1802. Despite being attracted to him, Edgeworth rejected Edelcrantz for Edgeworthstown and her writing career. Although she never saw him again, his memory spurred her writing, especially Patronage

Initially Edgeworth favoured Paris over London. Her trip to London in May 1813, where she was received as a literary lion, and subsequent visits, overturned this opinion. This progression was instigated by Etienne Dumont, with whom Edgeworth carried on an epistolary flirtation, who advised the visit to improve the social portraits in her novels with real copy. He became a valued critic of her work: a utilitarian, he advised Edgeworth to make her didacticism implicit and move from the individual to public themes. 

Ormond  The result of this was Ormond. Edgeworth turns the Bildungsroman into a national tale, as the eponymous hero, Harry Ormond, and his adventures symbolise Ireland's potential growth, from adolescence to maturity, as a modern European nation at the end of the eighteenth century. Ormond explores social and political transitions, from catholic landlords in former times to protestant landlords, in the years before the French revolution (1789) and the act of union (1801). Harry Ormond's father, a protestant Irish army captain, abandoned his first wife, Harry, and Ireland, for India and a wealthy marriage. Two landowning cousins educate the now orphaned Harry: Mr Cornelius O'Shane (‘King Corny’) of the Black Islands, and Sir Ulick O'Shane of Castle Hermitage (a bosom friend of Harry's father). Both represent extreme poles in the Irish landowning caste: the older disenfranchised catholic gentry and the new protestant landowners. As their names suggest, although blood kin, the two groups are now isolated from each other. Cornelius O'Shane retains the catholic faith and lifestyle of the Gaelic gentry; Sir Ulick O'Shane, a protestant convert, is a new type of Anglo–Irish landlord, paying court at Dublin castle, looking to England for political direction. The novel favours Cornelius's ability, honesty, and ecumenical perspective over Sir Ulick's jobbing, but asserts that Cornelius must modernise and politically engage with the whole of Ireland, beyond his fiefdom. 

The Anglo–Irish Lady Annaly shows Ormond an enlightened third way. Her son, Sir Herbert Annaly, is the ideal Irish landlord because he combines abstract justice with a kind heart. On a grand tour of Paris, Ormond values the Annalys’ domestic circle over the French court, and deems it the equal of Parisian intellectual circles. He impresses M. l'Abbé Morellet (one of the Encyclopèdistes; Edgeworth met him in Paris in 1802) and Jean-François Marmontel (whose moral and philosophical tales, Contes moraux (2 vols, 1763), influenced Edgeworth's fiction), whose ideas Ormond brings back to Ireland. Ancien régime Paris is a warning to Irish protestant landlords in the nineteenth century, as Edgeworth spotlights the French nobility's blind contempt for the ordinary citizen. 

Harry Ormond combines the best in Cornelius and Sir Ulick O'Shane: he is an Irish patriot open to Continental and English values, a protestant landlord who understands his catholic neighbours and treats his tenants with respect. He receives his economic, and thereby political, independence not from the older catholic Irish gentry or new protestant landlord system, but from colonial trade after the fortuitous death of his stepmother and half-brother in India. Ormond's wealth enables him to marry Florence Annaly and purchase either the Black Islands or Castle Hermitage. He chooses the Black Islands, and his marriage creates a utopian Ireland where protestant landlords inherit the Gaelic tradition and its values, using it to build a modern protestant Ireland, the equal of European nations. Ormond implicitly rejects the union and profligate landlords; it favours a patriotic Irish identity, concern for the educational, moral, and physical well-being of Ireland, and interest in trade with the Americas and the East. 

Later years  Edgeworth's father died in June 1817. She was devastated and spent most of 1817–20 incapacitated. She completed his  Memoirs but was deeply hurt by their adverse reception when published in 1820. After this, Edgeworth revived and flourished for the next decade as a literary social presence. She visited Paris in 1820 and London in 1821, 1822, and 1830 with Frances, and her favourite step-sisters, Fanny and Harriet. She became a brilliant centre for London society; as a talented anecdotist she entertained politicians and scientists. In 1823 she visited Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford, one of the most enjoyable experiences of her life. Scott returned this visit in 1825. From this point onwards Edgeworth's world contracted to focus on her home in Edgeworthstown. William Wordsworth visited her there in 1829; she was underwhelmed. 

Edgeworthstown estate suffered financial difficulties under the trusteeship of Edgeworth's brother, Lovell. In 1826 she took over estate management until 1839 and proved a tough businesswoman, steering it through this crisis. She spent her final years at Edgeworthstown, only visiting London twice more (1840, 1843). On 22 May 1849 she returned from a drive with a pain around her heart and died a few hours later in the arms of her stepmother and friend, Frances. 

Reputation and influence  Edgeworth was a prolific writer – both for children and adults – an astute businesswoman, and an engaging companion, adroit at observing and mimicking life. Lionised in her own time, she was superseded by the Victorian novelists, but enjoyed a renaissance from the 1970s with Marilyn Butler's biography, new invigoration in the field of Anglo-Irish studies, and the republication of her work in the 1990s by Oxford University Press, Penguin Classics, and Pickering & Chatto. Edgeworth is the first novelist to examine human society through focusing on the local. Jane Austen admired her, Sir Walter Scott modelled  Waverley (1814) on The absentee, and there is an apocryphal story that Turgenev's peasant sketches draw on Edgeworth's. Her Irish novels, exploring relations between protestant settler and catholic native mindsets, were instrumental in developing the realist novel in English, and gave birth to the following sub-genres: the regional novel, national tale, socio-historical novel, and big-house novel. 

The bulk of Edgeworth's manuscripts and letters are in the NLI. The locations of other manuscripts are listed in Butler (p. 501). Christina Colvin has edited Edgeworth's letters from England (1971). A detailed bibliography of her published work can be found in Bulter (p. 504) and in Slade. 

Bertha Colledge Slade, Maria Edgeworth 1767–1849: a bibliographical tribute (1937); Christina Colvin (ed.), Maria Edgeworth: letters from England 1813–1844 (1971); Marylin Butler, Maria Edgeworth: a literary biography (1972) 

© 2019 Cambridge University Press and Royal Irish Academy. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution. Learn more about DIB copyright and permissions.

Fan ar an eolas le nuachtlitir Acadamh Ríoga na hÉireann

Sign up now