Maria Edgeworth (Zimmern 1883)/Chapter 4



On their return the Edgeworths at first inclined to think that the English papers had exaggerated the Irish disturbances. Accustomed to a condition of permanent discontent, they were relieved to find that though there were alarms of outrages committed by “Hearts of Oak Boys” and “Defenders” though there were nightly marauders about Edgeworthstown, though Mr. Edgeworth had been threatened with assassination, still, all things considered, “things in their neighbourhood were tolerably quiet.” In this matter as in others, of course, the basis of comparison alone constitutes the value of the inference deduced. In any case the family resumed their quiet course of existence; Mr. Edgeworth busy with the invention of a telegraph, Miss Edgeworth writing, helping to educate the little ones, visiting and being visited by her aunt Ruxton. In the evenings the family gathered round the fireside and the father read aloud. Late in 1793 Miss Edgeworth writes:—

This evening my father has been reading out Gay's Trivia, to our great entertainment. I wished very much, my dear aunt, that you and Sophy had been sitting round the fire with us. If you have Trivia, and if you have time, will you humour your niece so far as to look at it? I had much rather make a bargain with anyone I loved to read the same book with them at the same hour, than to look at the moon like Rousseau's famous lovers. “Ah ! that is because my dear niece has no taste and no eyes.” But I assure you I am learning the use of my eyes main fast, and make no doubt, please Heaven I live to be sixty, to see as well as my neighbours. I am scratching away very hard at the Freeman Family.[1]

That Miss Edgeworth was not affected by the current sentimentalism of the period the above remark shows. Indeed, her earliest letters evince her practical straight-forward common-sense. Romance had no place in her nature. In 1794 she was engaged upon her Letters to Literary Ladies. She wrote to her cousin:

Thank my aunt and thank yourself for kind inquiries after Letters to Literary Ladies. I am sorry to say they are not as well as can be expected, nor are they likely to mend at present : when they are fit to be seen—if that happy time ever arrives—their first visit shall be to Black Castle. They are now disfigured by all manner of crooked marks of Papa's critical indignation, besides various abusive marginal notes, which I would not have you see for half-a-crown sterling, nor my aunt for a whole crown as pure as King Hiero's.

The arts of peace, as she herself expresses it, were going on prosperously side by side with those of war; the disturbances, of which Miss Edgeworth continues to write quite lightly, having become sufficiently serious to require military intervention.

In 1795 the Letters to Literary Ladies were published. Considering the time when the work was written it showed much independence and advance of thought, though to-day it would be stigmatised as somewhat retrograde. It is nothing more than a plea in favour of female education, repeating arguments that of late years have been well-worn, and of which the world, for some time past convinced of the wisdom of according education to women, no longer stands in need. The book is interesting to-day merely as another proof of how much Mr. Edgeworth and his daughter were advanced in thought. They could not be brought to the common opinion then prevalent that ignorance was a woman's safe-guard, that taste for literature was calculated to lead to ill-conduct, though even a thinker so enlightened in many respects as Mr. Day endorsed Sir Anthony Absolute's dictum that the extent of a woman's erudition should consist in her knowing her letters, without their mischievous combinations.

Not even the honours of first authorship could cause Miss Edgeworth's private letters, then any more than afterwards, to be occupied with herself. “I beg, dear Sophy,” she writes to her cousin, “that you will not call my little stories by the sublime title of 'my works'; I shall else be ashamed when the little mouse comes forth.” It is the affairs of others, the things that it will please or amuse her correspondents to hear, that she writes about. The tone is always good-humoured and kindly.

Ever and again the noiseless tenor of her way was disturbed by the insurgents. She writes, Jan. 1796:

You, my dear aunt, who were so brave when the county of Meath was the seat of war, must know that we emulate your courage: and I assure you, in your own words, “that whilst our terrified neighbours see nightly visions of massacres, we sleep with our doors and windows unbarred.” I must observe, though, that it is only those doors and windows that have neither bolts nor bars that we leave unbarred, and these are more at present than we wish even for the reputation of our valour. All that I crave for my own part is that if I am to have my throat cut, it may not be by a man with his face blackened with charcoal. I shall look at every person that comes here very closely, to see if there be any marks of charcoal upon their visages. Old wrinkled offenders, I should suppose, would never be able to wash out their stains, but in others a very clean face will, in my mind, be a strong symptom of guilt,—clean hands proof positive, and clean nails ought to hang a man.

In 1796 appeared the first volume of the Parent's Assistant. It is agreeable to learn from a letter of hers that she was not responsible for this clumsy title.

My father had sent the Parent's Friend, but Mr. Johnson has degraded it into the Parent's Assistant, which I dislike particularly from association with an old book of arithmetic called the Tutor's Assistant.

The book was so successful that the publisher expressed a wish for more volumes, to be brought out with illustrations. Miss Beaufort, the daughter of a neighbouring clergyman, was entrusted with the artistic commission, which led to an intimacy between the families. Meanwhile Miss Edgeworth, stimulated by success, continued to write new stories and to correct and revise old ones. The Moral Tales were conceived at this time, and the idea of writing on Irish Bulls had occurred to her. She was also busy upon Practical Education. At the same time Mrs. Elizabeth Edgeworth's health, that had long been precarious, gave way, and in November 1797, to the sorrow of all the circle, she fell a victim to consumption. As before, Mr. Edgeworth was soon consoled. It was in the direction of Miss Beaufort that he turned his eyes. There must certainly have been something attactive in this man, now past fifty, three times a widower, with a numerous family by different wives, that could induce a young girl to regard him as a wooer. Miss Edgeworth frankly owns that when she first knew of this attachment she did not wish for the marriage. But her father, with his persuasive tongue, overcame her objections.

Mr. Edgeworth himself announced his intending nuptials to Dr. Darwin, at the end of a long letter dealing with the upas tree, frogs, agriculture, hot water-pipes, and so forth.

And now for my piece of news, which I have kept for the last: I am going to be married to a young lady of small fortune and large accomplishments—compared with my age, much youth (not quite 30) and more prudence—some beauty, more sense—uncommon talents, more uncommon temper—liked by my family, loved by me. If I can say all this three years hence, shall not I have been a fortunate, not to say a wise man?

He was able to say so not only three years after, but to the end of his life. Whatever may be thought of Mr. Edgeworth's many and hasty marriages, it must be admitted that they all turned out to the happiness of himself and his children. Miss Edgeworth wrote a long letter to her future stepmother, characteristic both of her amiable disposition, her filial piety, and her method of regarding love. “Miss Edgeworth's Cupid,” as Byron observed, “was always something of a Presbyterian.” In it she assures Miss Beaufort (who was her junior) that she will find her “gratefully exact en belle fille”; a promise she fulfilled beyond the letter.

Within seven months of his late wife's death, just as public affairs were assuming a still stormier aspect, and the nation about to burst into the rebellion of 1798, Mr. Edgeworth was once more a bridegroom. The wedding trip of the couple took them through the disturbed districts; they beheld rebels hidden in the potato furrows, and passed a car between whose shafts the owner had been hanged—a victim to the “Defenders.” But in the house of Edgeworthstown there was, as ever, peace and concord; and the trying situation upon which the new wife was called to enter was smoothed for her even by the children of the woman whom she had so quickly displaced in their father's affection.

In an incredibly short time all things and people found themselves in their proper places, and the new Mrs. Edgeworth soon proved herself a fitting person to hold the reins of household government. Only a month after the marriage Miss Edgeworth can tell her cousin:

We are indeed happy: the more I see of my friend and mother, the more I love and esteem her, and the more I feel the truth of all that I have heard you say in her praise. So little change has been made in the way of living, that you would feel as if you were going on with your usual occupations and conversation amongst us. We laugh and talk and enjoy the good of every day, which is more than sufficient. How long this may last we cannot tell. I am going on in the old way, writing stories. I cannot be a captain of dragoons, and sitting with my hands before me would not make any of us one degree safer. I have finished a volume of wee-wee stories about the size of the Purple Jar, all about Rosamond. My father has made our little rooms so nice for us; they are all fresh painted and papered. Oh, rebels! oh, French! spare them. We have never injured you, and all we wish is to see everybody as happy as ourselves.

The summer passed with immunity from open insurrection in county Longford; but it shortly appeared that the people were secretly leagued with the rest of their countrymen, and only waited the arrival of the French to break into rebellion. Soon the whole district about Edgeworthstown was disturbed, and in September it was needful for the family to beat a precipitate retreat from home, leaving it in the hands of the rebels. Happily it was spared from pillage, thanks to one of the invaders, to whom Mr. Edgeworth had once shown kindness. The family were only away five days; a battle had speedily settled the rebels and dispersed the French, whom their own allies had deserted at the first volley. But those days, although only five days, seemed a life-time to Miss Edgeworth, from the dangers and anxieties the family underwent in their course.

By November all disturbances had so far subsided around Edgeworthstown as to allow the family to busy themselves with private theatricals, Miss Edgeworth writing the play, the children acting it, the father building the stage. At the end of the year Mr. Edgeworth was returned for the last Irish Parliament, and the family went with him to Dublin. The Union was then the hot theme of debate, the Irish having incontestably shown themselves incapable of home rule. Mr. Edgeworth very characteristically spoke for the Union and voted against it, declaring “that England has not any right to do Ireland good against her will.”

In the spring of 1799 Mr., Mrs., and Miss Edgeworth went to England and renewed their acquaintance with Mr. Watt, Dr. Darwin, and Mr. William Strutt of Derby. They also came into contact with many literary celebrities, Mr. Edgeworth now posing as an author upon the strength of Practical Education, written in partnership with his daughter, who was ever not only willing but anxious that he should bear off all the honour and glory. Among their acquaintance was Mrs. Barbauld, for whom both father and daughter conceived a genuine regard, and whom Mr. Edgeworth liked the more because she was a proof of the soundness of his belief that the cultivation of literary tastes does not necessarily unfit a woman for her domestic duties. In London they also visited their publisher, Mr. Johnson, an intelligent, generous, but most dilatory man, who was then confined in King's Bench Prison on account of some publication held treasonable. Of this English visit there are, unfortunately, only two letters preserved; one announcing the birth of another baby into this already huge family, the other treating of “a young man, Mr. Davy,[2] who has applied himself much to chemistry, has made some discoveries of importance, and enthusiastically expects wonders will be performed by the use of certain gases.”

With the dissolution of the last Irish Parliament, Mr. Edgeworth's public duties came to an end, and the quiet happy life at Edgeworthstown recommenced its even course, marked only by the publication of Miss Edgeworth's works, and by births and deaths in the family circle.

  1. Afterwards changed into Patronage.
  2. Afterwards Sir Humphrey Davy.