Maria Edgeworth (Zimmern 1883)/Chapter 1

Maria Edgeworth  (1883)  by Helen Zimmern
Chapter I. Introductory



Too many memoirs begin with tradition; to trace a subject ab ovo seems to have a fatal attraction for the human mind. It is not needful to retrace so far in speaking of Miss Edgeworth; but, for a right understanding of her life and social position, it is necessary to say some words about her ancestry. Of her family and descent she might well be proud, if ancestry alone, apart from the question whether those ancestors of themselves merit the admiration of their descendants, be a legitimate source of pride. The Edgeworths, originally established it is believed at Edgeworth, now Edgeware, in Middlesex, would appear to have settled in Ireland in the sixteenth century. The earliest of whom we have historical record is Roger Edgeworth, a monk, who followed in the footsteps of his sovereign, Henry VIII., both by being a defender of the faith, and by succumbing to the bright eyes of beauty, for whose sake he finally renounced Catholicism and married. His sons— Edward and Francis—went to Ireland. The elder brother, Edward, became Bishop of Down and Connor, and died without issue. It was the younger, Francis, who founded the house of Edgeworth of Edgeworthstown; and ever since Edgeworthstown, in the county of Longford, Ireland, has remained in the possession of the family whence it derived its name. The Edgeworths soon became one of the most powerful families in the district, and experienced their full share of the perils and vicissitudes of the stormy period that apparently ended with the victories of William III. Most members of the family seem to have been gay and extravagant, living in alternate affluence and distress, and several of Maria Edgeworth's characters of Irish squires are derived from her ancestors. The family continued Protestant—the famous Abbé Edgeworth was a convert—and Maria Edgeworth's great-grandfather was so zealous in the reformed cause as to earn for himself the soubriquet of "Protestant Frank." His son married a Welsh lady, who became the mother of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, a man who will always be remembered as the father of his daughter. He was, however, something more than this; and as the lives of the father and daughter were throughout so intimately interwoven, a brief account of his career is needful for a comprehension of hers.

Richard Lovell Edgeworth was born at Bath in 1744, and spent his early years partly in England, partly in Ireland, receiving a careful education. In his youth he was known as "a gay philosopher," in the days when the word philosopher was still used in its true sense of a lover of wisdom. Light-hearted and gay, good-humoured and self-complacent; possessed of an active and cultivated mind, just and fearless, but troubled with neither loftiness nor depth of feeling, Richard Lovell Edgeworth was nevertheless a remarkable personage, when the time at which he lived is taken into account. He foresaw much of the progress our own century has made, clearly indicated some of its features, and actually achieved for agriculture and industry a multitude of inventions, modest as far as the glory the world attaches to them, but none the less useful for the services they render. Many of his ideas, rejected as visionary and impracticable when he first promulgated them, have now become the common property of mankind. He was no mere theorist; when he had established a theory he loved to put it into practice, and as his theories ranged over many and wide fields, so did his experiments. Even in late life, when most persons care only to cultivate repose, he threw himself, with all the ardour of youth, into schemes of improvement for the good of Ireland; for he was sincerely devoted to her true welfare, and held in contempt the mock patriotism that looks only to popularity. In early life he sowed a certain quantity of wild oats, the result of the superabundant animal spirits that distinguished him, and at the age of sixteen contracted a mock-marriage, which his father found needful to have annulled by a process of law. After this escapade he was entered at Corpus Christi, Oxford, as a gentleman commoner. During his residence he became intimate with the family of Mr. Elers, a gentleman of German descent, who resided at Black Bourton, and was father to several pretty girls. Mr. Elers had previously warned the elder Edgeworth against introducing into his home circle the gay and gallant Richard, remarking that he could give his daughters no fortunes that would make them suitable matches for this young gentleman. Mr. Edgeworth, however, turned a deaf ear to the warning, and the result was that the collegian became so intimate at the house, and in time so entangled by the court he had paid to one of the daughters, that, although he had meanwhile seen women he liked better, he could not honourably extricate himself. In later life, he playfully said: “Nothing but a lady ever did turn me aside from my duty.” He certainly was all his days peculiarly susceptible to female charms, and, had opportunity been afforded him, might have rivalled Henry VIII. in the number of his wives. This second marriage gave as little satisfaction to his father as the first, but the elder Edgeworth wisely recognised the fact that he was himself not wholly blameless in the matter. He, therefore, a few months after the ceremony had been performed at Gretna Green, gave his consent to a formal re-marriage by license. Thus, before he was twenty, Richard Lovell Edgeworth was a husband and a father. The marriage entered upon so hastily, proved unfortunate; the pair were totally unsuited to one another; and though Mrs. Edgeworth appears to have been a worthy woman, to judge from the few and somewhat ungenerous allusions her husband makes to her in his biography, they did not sympathise intellectually, a point he might have discovered before marriage. The consequence was, that he sought sympathy and pleasure elsewhere. He divided his time between Ireland, London, and Lichfield. The latter city was the centre of a somewhat prim, self-conscious, exclusive literary coterie, in which Dr. Darwin, the singer of the Botanic Garden, Miss Anna Seward, the “Swan of Lichfield,” and the eccentric wife-trainer, Thomas Day, the author of Sandford and Merton, were conspicuous figures. They were most of them still in their youthful hey-day, unknown to fame, and, as yet, scarcely aspiring towards it. Here, in this, to him, congenial circle of eager and ardent young spirits, Richard Lovell Edgeworth loved to disport himself; now finding a sympathetic observer of his mechanical inventions in Mr. Watt, Dr. Darwin, or Mr. Wedgwood; now flirting with the fair Anna. He must have posed as a bachelor, for he relates how, on one occasion, when paying compliments to Miss Seward, Mrs. Darwin took the opportunity of drinking “Mrs. Edgeworth's health,” a name that caused manifest surprise to the object of his affections. Here, too, he became imbued with the educational theories of Rousseau, which clung to him, in a modified degree, throughout his life, and according to which, in their most pronounced form, he educated his eldest son. Here, further, at the age of twenty-six, he met the woman he was to love most deeply. From the moment he saw Miss Honora Sneyd, Mr. Edgeworth became enamoured, and in his attentions to her he does not seem to have borne in mind the fact that he was a married man.

“I am not a man of prejudices,” he complacently wrote in later life, “I have had four wives.[1] The second and third were sisters, and I was in love with the second in the life-time of the first.”

The man who could make this public statement, and who could, moreover, leave to his daughter the task of publishing the record of his ill-assorted union with the woman who was her mother, was certainly one in whom good taste and good feeling were not preeminent. The birth of this daughter, who was destined to be his companion and friend, is an event he does not even note in his memoirs, which are more occupied with his affection for Miss Sneyd, from whose fascinations he at last felt it would be prudent to break away. He left England for a lengthened stay in France, taking with him his son, whose Rousseau education was to be continued, and accompanied by Mr. Day, who, to please Miss Elizabeth Sneyd, was about to put himself through a course of dancing and deportment, with a view to winning her consent to a marriage if he could succeed in taming his savage limbs and ideas into proper social decorum. The death of his wife recalled Mr. Edgeworth to England. With all possible speed he hastened to Lichfield, proposed to Honora Sneyd, was accepted, and married her within four months of his wife's demise. Mr. Edgeworth, the elder, had died some time previously; the son was now, therefore, master of Edgeworthstown. Immediately after his marriage he set out for Ireland, taking with him his bride and four little children. From that date forward a new era in his life commenced; it was not to run any longer in a separate course from that of his family.

  1. It was his habit, and that of his family, to drop all mention of the earlier marriage