Maria Edgeworth (Zimmern 1883)/Chapter 5



Two circumstances must never be lost sight of in speaking of Miss Edgeworth's writings; the one, that she did not write from the inner prompting of genius, hut rather because it had been suggested by her father; the other, that she wrote throughout with a purpose in view, and by no means only for the sake of affording amusement. To blame her, therefore, as has been so often done, for being utilitarian in her aim, is to blame her for having attained her goal. A minor consideration, but one that often proves of no minor weight, was the fact that Miss Edgeworth never needed to follow authorship as a profession; its pecuniary results were of no moment to her, and hence she was spared all the bitterness and incidental anxieties of an author's life, the working when the brain should rest, the imperative need to go on, no matter whether there be aught to say or not. Her path, in this respect, as in all others, traversed the high-roads of life. Fame at once succeeded effort; the heart-sickness of hope deferred was never hers; she was therefore neither soured nor embittered by feeling within herself powers which the world was unwilling or slow to acknowledge.

It was in 1798 that were published two large octavo volumes, called Practical Education, bearing upon the title-page the joint names of Richard Lovell and Maria Edgeworth. This was the first partnership work of father and daughter, that literary partnership “which for so many years,” says Miss Edgeworth, “was the joy and pride of my life.” The book was the outcome of a series of observations and facts relative to children, not originally intended for publication, registered first by Mr. Edgeworth and his wife Honora, and afterwards continued by Mrs. Elizabeth Edgeworth. In consequence of Mr. Edgeworth's exhortations, Miss Edgeworth also began in 1791 to note down anecdotes of the children around her, and to write out some of her father's conversation lessons. The reason for giving all this to the world was that though assertions and theories on education abounded, facts and experiments were wanting. Undaunted by the fear of ridicule, or the imputation of egotism, Mr. Edgeworth bade his daughter work the raw materials into shape, blending with anecdotes and lessons the principles of education that were peculiarly his. For this work, Miss Edgeworth claims for her father the merit of having been the first to recommend, both by practice and precept, what Bacon called the experimental method in education. Mr. Edgeworth, as we know, was a disciple of the crude mechanical school of Rousseau; and though, owing to his failure with his eldest son, he had seen the necessity of some modification, he had never wholly abandoned it, and had imbued his daughter with the same ideas. Happily for her, however, her earliest training had been less rigid than that of her brothers and sisters. She thus obtained elbow-room for that development which her father's formal and overloading system might have crushed. But of this she was unconscious, and she was ready to echo his opinions, believe in them blindly, and propagate them.

The book, though prolix, dull, and prosy in part, containing much repetition, many paltry illustrations, many passages, such as the chapter on servants, that might be omitted with advantage, was, as a whole, of value, and would not even now be quite out of date. But its chief and abiding merit is that it was a step in the right direction; and its worth must, on that account, be emphasised, although this was exaggerated by Miss Edgeworth's filial fondness. There were in those days no text books for the first principles of knowledge for the young; and though education had been a favourite theme with all the philosophers, from Aristotle to Locke, their systems were too remote for practical application. The inevitable but lamentable consequence was, that theories of education were disregarded just by those very persons who had the training of the young in their hands. They were pleased to sneer at them as metaphysics. So much space was given in works of this nature to speculation, so little to practical application of proved and admitted truths, that the mere word metaphysics sounded to the majority of readers as a name denoting something perplexing and profound, but useless as a whole. Yet, as Miss Edgeworth pertinently observed in her preface to Harry and Lucy, after being too much the fashion, metaphysics had been thrown aside too disdainfully, and their use and abuse confounded. Without an attentive examination of the operations of the mind, especially as developed at an early age, every attempt at systematic education is mere working at random. The great merit of Mr. and Miss Edgeworth's work may be stated in her own words:—

Surely it would be doing good service to bring into popular form all that metaphysicians have discovered which can be applied to practice in education. This was early and long my father's object. The art of teaching to invent—I dare not say, but of awakening and assisting the inventive power by daily exercise and excitement, and by the application of philosophic principles to trivial occurrences, he believed might be pursued with infinite advantage to the rising generation.

The authors of Practical Education did not seek to appeal to grave and learned persons like the former writers on these themes, but to the bulk of mankind, in whose hands, after all, lies their application. In this series of somewhat rambling essays, of the most miscellaneous description, there are no abstruse or learned disquisitions, there is nothing like a process of reasoning from beginning to end; it is essentially a treatise for the mass. On every page there are remarks for which previous authorities can be found; original ideas are rare; nevertheless the whole is expressed so lucidly and familiarly, the entire work is so crowded with illustrations of the simplest and most obvious kind, that “the unwary reader can easily be entrapped into the belief that he is perusing nothing more serious than a lively and agreeable essay upon the tempers and capacities of children, written by two good-natured persons who are fond of amusing themselves with young people.” Mr. Edgeworth believed according to the proverb, “that youth and white paper can take all impressions,” that everything could be achieved by education; that, given the individual, it was possible to make of him whatever the instructor pleased. Of course our present more scientific mode of thought, our superior scientific knowledge, shows us the untenability of so dogmatic a persuasion; but it was characteristic of the eighteenth century, forms the key-note to many of their educational experiments, and furnishes the reason of their failures. The times when Mr. Edgeworth wrote and devised his doctrines were “the good old days when George the Third was King,” when education was at a discount, when to have a taste for literature was to be held a pedant or a prig. If Mr. Edgeworth went too far in his earnest advocacy of careful training for the young of both sexes, in his belief in the result, our modern school has perhaps, in the latter respect, erred on the other side. We know now that it is out of the power of education to change nature. Yet our scientific knowledge has inclined us, perhaps unduly, to under-rate the value of training, and to allow too much play to the doctrine of laissez-faire. As ever, the truth lies in the middle; and in any case, because we are at present going through a period of reaction, we should refrain from sneering at those perhaps over-earnest men, of whom Mr. Edgeworth was a type, who, in a frivolous age, rebelled against their unthinking contemporaries. It is too much the fashion to stigmatise these men as prigs; pragmatic no doubt they were, conceited and self-confident, and, like all minorities, over-ardent. Still it cannot be enough borne in mind that the people of that period who thought, thought more and read more thoroughly than those of to-day. They came to original conclusions; they did not imbibe so much at second-hand by means of criticism and ready-made opinions. Of this, Miss Edgeworth and her father were notable examples; to this her letters bear abundant testimony.

In the preface to Practical Education the respective shares of father and daughter in the work are stated. He wrote all relating to the art of teaching in the chapter on tasks, grammar, classical literature, geography, chronology, arithmetic, and mechanics; the rest, considerably more than half, was by her.

“The firm of Edgeworth and Co.,” as Sydney Smith named them, had now attained literary notoriety. Their book, on its appearance, was praised and abused enough to render its authors speedily famous. Mr. Edgeworth, with his enormous family, had, of course, had good opportunities of observation and experiment in the domain of education. It was conceded that there was much that was wise and useful in his pages mixed with much that was absurd and dogmatic. But the real life and animation for his tenets was to come from his daughter, who was to carry them further than they would undoubtedly otherwise have gone, and the fact that quite two generations of English men and women were instilled into Edgeworthian doctrines is due entirely and alone to her. She made it the business of her life to illustrate the pedantic maxims of her father, and it has been ably remarked that between these narrow banks her genius flowed through many and diverse volumes of amusing tales. It was with this aim in view that The Parent's Assistant, Harry and Lucy, Frank and Rosamond, and Early Lessons, those companions of the nursery, were penned. Though not all published at this time—the continuation of Harry and Lucy not, indeed, until many years later—it is convenient to treat of them all together, as they are one in unity of thought and design.

Fully to estimate what Miss Edgeworth did for the children of her time, and that immediately succeeding it, it is needful to point out the wide contrast between those days and ours. To-day the best authors do not think it beneath their dignity to write for children, quite otherwise; while formerly few persons of any literary ability condescended to write children's books. In those days, therefore, nursery libraries were not, as now, richly stocked, and children either did not read at all, or, if they were of a reading disposition, read the works intended for their elders, often, it must be admitted, with the good result, that a solid foundation of knowledge of the English classics was laid. Still it was only exceptional children who attempted these tougher tasks, most either did not read at all or read such poor literature as was at hand. In a series of able articles published some years ago, Miss Yonge has traced the history of children's books. For a long time there were no such things, then came some tales translated from the French and judiciously trimmed, besides a few original stories of more or less merit, to which latter category belonged Goody Two-Shoes. This was followed by the reign of didactic works which began with Mrs. Trimmer, whose original impulse came from Rousseau. It was his Emile that had aroused the school which produced Madame de Genlis in France, Campe in Germany, and in England the Aikins, Hannah More, the Taylors of Norwich, and Mr. Day. It was a famine that had to be met, and much stodgy food was devoured, many long hard words were laboriously spelt out, the pabulum offered was but too often dull and dreary. Realism had invaded the nursery, strong high purpose was the first aim in view, and entertainment was held a secondary consideration. As for the poor dear fairies, they had been placed under a ban by the followers of Jean Jacques. Fairy tales were treated as the novels of childhood, and held by this school to cultivate the heart and imagination unduly, and to arouse disgust with the assigned lot in life, which is rarely romantic, but consists rather of common-place pleasure and pain.

The Edgeworths' ambition was to write the history of realities in an entertaining manner; they held that it was better for purposes of education, and more suited to the tastes of children, than improbable fiction. The first proposition may, perhaps, be conceded, the second scarcely. In any case, however, Mr. Edgeworth, who had a special leaning to the jejune, had a particular dislike to this form of fiction. “Why,” he asked, “should the mind be filled with fantastic visions? Why should so much valuable time be lost? Why should we vitiate their taste and spoil their appetite by suffering them to feed upon sweetmeats?” Even poetical allusions, he thought, should be avoided in books for children. On the other hand, with the happy intuition he often displayed, he recognised that the current children's books of his time erred in introducing too much that was purely didactic, too many general reflections. He urged his daughter to avoid these errors, to bear action in view, and that, whether in morals or in science, the thing to be taught should seem to arise from the circumstances in which the little persons of the drama were placed. He saw that in order to prevent precepts from tiring the eye and mind, it was necessary to make the stories in which they were introduced dramatic, to keep alive hope, fear, and curiosity by some degree of intricacy. Admirably did his daughter carry out the precepts he thus laid down. It was Miss Edgeworth who really inaugurated for England the reign of didactic fiction. Though never losing sight of her aim, she also never lost sight of the amusement of her young readers. She rightly comprehended that only by captivating their senses could she conquer and influence their reason. Her children's tales, written with motion and spirit, were told in the simple language of the young. She went straight to the hearts of her little readers because they could understand her, they needed no grown person to explain to them sesquipedalian words. There is a freshness about her stories that children are quick to respond to, and it arises from the fact that the children she depicts for her readers are real. Miss Edgeworth knew what children were like, she saw them not only from without but from within, she had lived all her life among little people. Their world never became a paradise from which she was shut out. The advantages she thus enjoyed were as rare as they are important for the due comprehension of the needs of childhood, and she utilised them to the utmost. The chief charm of her tales, that which makes them sui generis both now and then, is that she not only wrote in the language of children, but, what is even rarer, from the child's point of view.

There are yet among us those who owe their earliest pleasures to Miss Edgeworth, and if of late she has been somewhat jostled out of the nursery and schoolroom because it is the tendency of the modern child to revolt against all attempts to teach it unawares, we are far from sure that the change is wholly for the better. It was a just perception of this that caused Miss Yonge to say in The Stokesley Secret that her heroes “would read any books that made no pretensions to be instructive, but even a fact about a lion or an elephant made them detect wisdom in disguise and throw it aside.” The modern child finds, it is said, Miss Edgeworth's tales dry; American books of a semi-novelistic character, rattling stories of wild adventure, are preferred.

This may be so, but we cannot help thinking that, just in these days, when the ethical standard held up to children is not too high, a judicious admixture of these works with Miss Edgeworth's high-minded stories, inculcating self-sacrifice, unselfishness, obedience, and other neglected virtues, might be of great advantage. There are sundry of Miss Edgeworth's children's tales that are truly engrossing, veritable masterpieces of style and execution. Who is there, no matter how advanced his age, who cannot read with pleasure the tales of Lazy Lawrence, Tarlton, The Bracelets, Waste not Want not, Forgive and Forgete tutti quanti. Who is there whom it much disturbs that the account of Eton Montem is not accurate, and that perhaps there could have been nothing more unfortunate than to lay the scene of action of The Little Merchants in Naples, the one spot in all the earth where the events therein described could not have happened? Change the name of the locality, the charm of the tale remains, and the absurdity is removed. Nor must it be forgotten that children, less well read than their elders, are less alive to these blemishes, which are, after all, of no real import. Of Simple Susan, so great a person as Sir Walter Scott said that “when the boy brings back the lamb to the little girl, there is nothing for it but to put down the book and cry.” Then as to Rosamond, who does not feel a true affection for that impetuous, impulsive little girl, and who is there (so greatly have our ideas of morality changed) that does not think that in the matter of the famous Purple Jar, an unjustifiable trick was played upon her by her mother? It was a part of the Edgeworth system to make misdirected or mistaken desires stultify themselves; but the child should have been informed of the nature of the jar, and if then she still persisted in her choice, she would have been fairly treated, which now she is not. Frank remains a capital book for little people, and if, occasionally, Miss Edgeworth's juvenile tales reflect too much of the stiff wisdom of her age, these are matters which children, not morally blasé, hardly remark. On the other hand, there is never anything mawkish in her pages, she never fills the mind with yearnings for the impossible, she never works too much upon the susceptibilities, which modern child-literature so often does. Her writings for children are certainly sui generis, not because she has attempted what has never been attempted before, but because she succeeded where others failed. She made even her youngest reader comprehend that virtue is its own reward, while avoiding the error invariably fallen into by writers for the young, of representing virtue as always triumphant, vice as uniformly punished—a fallacy even children are quick to detect. It has been objected to her that she checks enthusiasm, the source of some of the noblest actions of mankind. This is true, she has somewhat erred on the repressive side, but her purpose was right and good. She saw plainly that enthusiasm, generous in its origin, is but too often the source of misfortune, ill-judged effort, and consequent disappointment. Moderation, the duties of contentment and industry, are what she loves to uphold; the lower, humbler, but no less effective virtues of existence.

On the other hand, it is clear, from her letters, that she herself was not devoid of enthusiasm, and here, again, it was probably her father's influence that made her exclude it from her writings. In one of her letters she says:—

Vive l’enthousiasme! Without it characters may be very snug and comfortable in the world, but there is a degree of happiness which they will never taste, and of which they have no more idea than an oyster can have.

Harry and Lucy falls sharply into two parts. The earlier portion was intended to be read before Rosamond, and after Frank, the latter was the last of the juvenile series. The work had been begun by Mr. Edgeworth and his wife Honora, from the need of a book to follow Mrs. Barbauld's lessons, and as a story to be inserted in this work Mr. Day had originally written Sandford and Merton. Harry and Lucy was printed, but not published. It was kept, as originally meant, only for the Edgeworth children; but after more than twenty years, Mr. Edgeworth passed the work on to his daughter, and bade her complete it and prepare it for publication. The first portion thus came out early in the century, while the last part did not appear till 1825.

Harry and Lucy is unquestionably heavy in parts, especially the latter half, yet first principles are well explained and popularised, and instruction and tale so skilfully blended that the young reader cannot skip the one and read the other. The main idea and the chief merit of these volumes, not at once perhaps obvious, is that of enforcing in a popular form the necessity of exercising the faculties of children, so that they should be, in part, their own instructors, and of adding to those more common incentives to study, which consist of rewards and punishments, the far surer, nobler, and more effective stimulus of curiosity kept alive by variety and the pleasure of successful invention. It was the desire of the authors to show with what ease the faculty of thinking may be cultivated in children, a point on which Miss Edgeworth insists in other of her tales. In Harry and Lucy are explained simply and familiarly, sometimes in conversations between the children and their parents and friends, sometimes in dialogue between the children themselves, the rudiments of science, principally of chemistry and physics, and the application of these to the common purposes of life. And herein we again encounter one of the grand merits of the Edgeworths, which we can to-day better appreciate than their contemporaries. They saw clearly what in their day was apprehended only by very few, the importance that the study of science was to acquire in the future. Miss Edgeworth says:—

My father long ago foresaw that the taste for scientific as well as literary knowledge, which has risen so rapidly and spread so widely, would render it necessary to make some provision for the early instruction of youth in science, in addition to the great and successful attention paid to classical literatures

And even apart from the immense importance of science in our daily life, science is, of all studies, that best suited to the growth of a child's mental powers. Novelty and variety are the spells of early life, and to work these well and helpfully is the greatest good that can be done to young people. Miss Edgeworth in Harry and Lucy, as a whole succeeds in rousing her readers' curiosity without making them suspect design, and avoids all idea of a task. Thus the leading principles of science are unfolded in familiar experiments which give young learners the delight they would have in playing some interesting game, exercising their ingenuity without tiring them. Then, having once felt the pleasures of success, a permanent incentive to knowledge is induced, which it remains with the parents or tutors to improve. The books are obviously not such as are meant to be read at a sitting, and therefore can only be put into the hands of young people with judicious care. But in the Edgeworths' time, neither old nor young devoured books after the manner of to-day. The apparently desultory and accidental plan of the book was really designed, purpose and moral being more skilfully disguised than is the case with Miss Edgeworth's tales for her equals. One of its great charms lies in the characters of the principal dramatis personæ, whose temperaments are exquisitely sketched, maintained, and contrasted. Lucy, the lively, playful girl, who often allows her imagination to go rambling far afield from her judgment, a little inclined to be volatile, loving a joke, is cousin german to Rosamond, and, like this little girl, truly lovable. She supplies the lighter element, while the sterner is supplied by Harry, the brother she idolises, who is partly her companion, partly her teacher. He has a sure and steady, rather than a brilliant and rapid intellect, great mental curiosity, and great patience in acquiring information. He is more apt to discern differences than to perceive resemblances, and therefore he does not always understand the wit and fun of Lucy, which at times even provoke him. In the conversations between them there is much judicious sprinkling of childish banter and nonsense, “an alloy necessary to make sense work well,” to use Miss Edgeworth's own expressive words. A pity that the ever delightful “Great Panjandrum” therein introduced is not her own, but only a quotation from a little-known nonsense genius.

This sequel to Harry and Lucy was far from finding universal favour. Sir Walter Scott wrote of it to Joanna Baillie:—

I have not the pen of our friend Miss Edgeworth, who writes all the while she laughs, talks, eats and drinks, and I believe, though I do not pretend to be so far in the secret, all the time she sleeps too. She has good luck in having a pen which walks at once so unweariedly and so well. I do not, however, quite like her last book on education (Harry and Lucy), considered as a general work. She should have limited the title to Education in Natural Philosophy, or some such term, for there is no great use in teaching children in general to roof houses or build bridges, which, after all, a carpenter or a mason does a great deal better at 2s. 6d. a day. Your ordinary Harry should be kept to his grammar, and your Lucy of most common occurrence would be kept employed on her sampler, instead of wasting wood and cutting their fingers, which I am convinced they did, though their historian says nothing of it.

That both she and her father exacted much from their pupils and readers is beyond question, but they regarded this as a wholesome effort, and they were probably right. One thing is certain; that whatever their short-comings, Miss Edgeworth's children's tales exercised a wide, deep, and lasting influence over a long range of time, and nothing of equal or even approximate importance arose coeval with them. It was she who first brought rational morality to the level of the comprehension of childhood, who taught the language of virtue and truth in the alphabet of the young, thus forestalling the teaching of schools by her rare power of combining ethics with entertainment. Miss Edgeworth can still with advantage and pleasure hold her own even upon the present well-stocked nursery book-shelves, and it might be well for the next generation if we saw her there a little oftener. Better Miss Edgeworth any day, with all her arid utilitarianism, her realism, than the sickly sentimental unrealities of a far too popular modern school.