EDGEWORTH, MARIA (1767-1849), Irish novelist, second child and eldest daughter of Richard Lovell Edgeworth (q.v.) and his first wife, Anna Maria Elers, was born in the house of her maternal grandparents at Black Bourton, Oxfordshire, on the 1st of January 1767. Her early efforts in fiction were of a sufficiently melodramatic character; for she recollected one of her schoolgirl compositions, in which the hero wore a mask made of the dried skin taken from a dead man's face. Her holidays were often spent in the house of the eccentric Thomas Day, for whom she entertained a genuine respect. She had ample opportunities for society among her father's neighbours in Ireland, among whom were the second Lord Longford, whose daughter, "Kitty" Pakenham, became later duchess of Wellington, Lady Moira at Castle Forbes, and Maria's aunt, Margaret Ruxton, at Black Castle. She gained a first-hand experience of the Irish peasantry by acting as her father's assistant in the management of the estate. The Edgeworths were in Ireland from 1793 onwards through that dangerous period, and Maria's letters, always gay and natural, make very light of their anxieties and their real perils.
Mr Edgeworth encouraged his daughter's literary instincts. It has been the fashion to regard his influence over Maria's work as altogether deplorable, but against the disadvantages arising from his interference must be weighed the stimulus she undoubtedly derived from his powerful mind. Her first publication was a plea for female education, Letters to Literary Ladies (1795), and in 1796 appeared the collection of stories known as The Parent's Assistant (2nd ed., 6 vols., 1800), an unpromising title which was not chosen by the author. The stories had been submitted as they were written to the juvenile critics of the Edgeworth nursery. They were therefore children's stories for children, even though the morals were Mr Edgeworth's. In 1798 Mr Edgeworth's fourth marriage threatened the family harmony, but Maria soon became a close friend of her stepmother. Practical Education (2 vols., 1798) was written in conjunction with her father, who also collaborated with her in the Essay on Irish Bulls (1802). Miss Edgeworth's first novel, Castle Rackrent, an Hibernian Tale taken from Facts, and from the Manners of the Irish Squires before the year 1782, was written without her father's supervision, and appeared anonymously in 1800. It is the story of an Irish estate and its owners, the Rackrents, as told by Thady, the steward. Its success was immediate, and a second edition soon appeared with the author's name. Perhaps because of the absence of Richard Lovell Edgeworth's co-operation, the book is the most natural and vigorous of her novels. The course of the story is not altered to suit any moral, and the personages appear to be drawn immediately from the natives of Edgeworthstown, though Miss Edgeworth asserts that only Thady himself was an actual portrait. In her realistic pictures of Irish peasant life she opened up a new vein in fiction, and even if the unquestionable excellences of Castle Rackrent were less, it would still be a noteworthy book. In the "General Preface" to the 1829 edition of his novels Sir Walter Scott, writing of the publication of Waverley, says: "I felt that something might be attempted for my own country, of the same kind with that which Miss Edgeworth so fortunately achieved for Ireland," and in the "Postscript, which should have been a preface," in the original edition of Waverley, he describes his aim as being "in some distant degree to emulate the admirable Irish portraits of Miss Edgeworth, so different from the 'Teagues' and 'dear joys' who so long, with the most perfect family resemblance to each other, occupied the drama and the novel." Belinda (1801) is a society novel, and one of her best books. Mr Saintsbury thinks that Miss Austen's heroines owe something of their naturalness to Belinda, who was one of the earliest to break with the tradition of fainting and blushing. Moral Tales for Young People (5 vols.) and Early Lessons, which included "Harry and Lucy," "Rosamond" and "Frank," appeared in 1801.
In 1802 the Edgeworths went abroad, first to Brussels and then to Paris. They had already connexions in Paris through their kinsman, the abbé Henri Allen Edgeworth de Firmont, who was, however, then in exile. They met all the notabilities in Paris, and Maria refused an offer of marriage from a Swedish count named Edelcrantz. Although Leonora, not published until four years later, is said to have been written to meet his taste, she apparently remained then and always heart-whole; but her stepmother thought otherwise, and maintained that she suffered severely for her decision (Memoir, i. 144). Returning to Edgeworthstown, Miss Edgeworth resumed her writing, which was always done in the rooms commonly used by the whole family. Popular Tales was published in 1804, and The Modern Griselda in the same year; Leonora in 1806; and in 1809 the first series of Tales of Fashionable Life, three volumes containing "Ennui," "Madame de Fleury," "Almeria," "The Dun" and "Manœuvring"; the second series (3 vols., 1812) included "The Absentee," one of her best tales, which was originally designed as a play, "Vivian" and "Emilie de Coulanges." In 1813 Maria and her parents spent a considerable time in London, and her society was much sought after. When Waverley was published, Miss Edgeworth received a copy from the publishers, and at once recognized the authorship. She wrote a long letter of appreciation (23rd of October 1814) to "the author of Waverley," which she began with the phrase aut Scotus, aut diabolus, but the letter was merely acknowledged by the publishers. Patronage (4 vols., 1814), the longest of her novels, and Harrington, a tale, and Ormond, a tale (3 vols., 1817) complete the list of the works which received what her father called his imprimatur.
After his death in 1817 Miss Edgeworth occupied herself with completing his Memoirs, which were published in 1820. The book was the excuse for an attack on Mr Edgeworth's reputation in the July number of the Quarterly Review, which Miss Edgeworth had the courage to leave unread. Her life at Edgeworthstown was varied by visits to London, to Lord Lansdowne at Bowood, Wiltshire, to the Misses Sneyd in Staffordshire, and to many other friends. In 1820 she was again in Paris, and in 1823 she spent a happy fortnight with the Scotts at Abbotsford. In 1825 Scott went to Edgeworthstown, and their relations were always cordial.
Miss Edgeworth's production was less after her father's death. Sequels to "Rosamond," "Frank," "Harry and Lucy" in the Early Lessons were published in 1822-1825. Comic Dramas appeared in 1817, and Helen in 1834. She worked to the last, and in 1846 laboured strenuously for the relief of the famine-stricken Irish peasants. She died on the 22nd of May 1849.
Miss Edgeworth's novels are distinguished by good sense, humour and an easy flowing style. As the construction of a plot is not her strong point, she is generally more successful in tales than in lengthy novels. The vivacity of her dialogues is extraordinary; and in them her characters reveal themselves in the most natural way possible. Her books are character-studies rather than intensely interesting narratives. Sobriety of judgment is seen throughout; and passion, romance and poetry rarely, if ever, shed their lustre on her pages. Three of her aims were to paint national manners, to enforce morality, and to teach fashionable society by satirizing the lives of the idle and worldly. She expressly calls some of her stories "Moral Tales"; but they all fall under this category. In her pages the heroic virtues give place to prudence, industry, kindness and sweetness of temper. There are few instances of overwhelming emotions or tumultuous passions in her works; and it is remarkable how little the love of nature appears. She never uses material which does not yield some direct moral lesson. But the freshness of her stories, her insight into character, lively dialogues, originality of invention, and delightfully clear style render it quite possible to read her works in succession without any sense of weariness. Among the many sweet memories her unsullied pages have bequeathed to the world, not the least precious is her own noble character, which ever responded to all that is best and most enduring in human nature.
See A Memoir of Maria Edgeworth, with a Selection from her Letters (1867), by her stepmother, F.A. Edgeworth, privately printed. A selection from this was made by Augustus J.C. Hare, and printed under the title of The Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth (2 vols., 1894). See also Maria Edgeworth (1883), by Helen Zimmern, in the "Eminent Women" series; Grace A. Oliver, A Study of Maria Edgeworth ... (3rd ed., Boston, U.S.A., 1882); and Maria Edgeworth (1904), by the Hon. Emily Lawless in the "English Men of Letters" series. Among the numerous shorter articles dealing with Maria Edgeworth and the family circle at Edgeworthstown may be mentioned a friendly appreciation of Miss Edgeworth's novels by George Saintsbury in Macmillan's Magazine (July 1895), and a charming description of her family circle and surroundings in the preface supplied by Lady Thackeray Ritchie to Macmillan's edition of the novels (1895).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)