Notable Irishwomen/Maria Edgeworth


VI.

Maria Edgeworth.

1767-1849.


THE County of Longford is, perhaps, one of the least interesting in Ireland. There are no chains of blue mountains, no wooded glens, no rushing waterfalls, and yet it is to this country, with its flat plains and its vista of bogs, that two of the greatest names in literature belong. It was at Pallas, in the County Longford, that Oliver Goldsmith first saw the light, though the adjoining Westmeath parish of Lissoy, of which his father became soon afterwards curate—"passing rich on forty pounds a year"—was the original of

"Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain."

And Maria Edgeworth, of whom Macaulay said, "that she was the second woman of her age," lived and wrote and died at the family place of Edgeworthstown, also in the County of Longford. Though born out of Ireland, she was to all intents and purposes Irish. So she is always considered, and so she considered herself. From the time of Queen Elizabeth, the Edgeworths had this estate in Longford. Another brother gave the name of Edgeware to a district in London, which is still preserved in Edgeware road. And the Abbe Edgeworth, who attended the luckless Louis XVI. to the guillotine, was a connection of the Irish Edgeworths. Energy was a dominating characteristic of the race. Richard Lovell Edgeworth, the father of Maria, was sent, when a very young man, to Oxford. He had an introduction to a family of Elers, who lived at Black Bourton, in Oxfordshire. There were four pretty daughters, and young Edgeworth, then only nineteen, was captivated by one of them. The young couple took matters into their own hands, and eloped to Gretna Green. Young Edgeworth's father, though violently opposed to the match, very sensibly gave in to the inevitable, and had his son married again by licence. The youthful bridegroom wrote—"I soon found the inconveniences of an early and hasty marriage, but though I heartily repented my folly, I determined to bear with firmness and temper the evils which I had brought on myself."

A son, Richard, was born before the young father was twenty, and a daughter, Maria, the future authoress, was born four years afterwards. Her birth took place at her grandfather's house, Black Bourton, on January 1, 1767. Mr. Edgeworth, who was possessed with extraordinary mental activity, took a house at Hare Hatch in Berkshire, and began to invent various mechanical contrivances, and to make schemes for the good of his native country of Ireland. He claimed to be the first inventor of the telegraph. His daughter, Maria, was sent to school at Derby, when she was only eight years old. Her own mother died in 1773, and four months afterwards, her father married a second time, Miss Honora Sneyd, who seems to have been a perfect prodigy of excellence, both in body and mind. Her married life was short, for she died of consumption in 1780, and by her dying advice Mr. Edgeworth married her sister, Elizabeth. At the age of fifteen Maria Edgeworth, who had only been in Ireland on short visits, now returned with the rest of the family, to take up a permanent abode at Edgeworthstown, and, except on brief visits and tours abroad, she never left it for any length of time. Her father was in the habit of making her write short compositions, which he corrected himself. One time he told her to write a tale on the subject of "Generosity." When the tale was sent to him his remark was, "An excellent story, and extremely well-written^ but where is the generosity?" That important part had been overlooked.

Maria was already beginning to plan out sketches for stories. Edgeworthstown was crowded daily by all sorts and conditions of oddities, agents, middlemen, pipers, strollers, and professional beggars. She says—"I remember a number of literary projects, or aperçus (suggestions) of things which I might have written if I had time or capacity to do so." Then followed her father's advice—and very good advice it was—"Maria, either follow out a thing clearly to a conclusion, or do not begin it. Begin nothing without finishing it."

As the third Mrs. Edgeworth added nine children to the six that were already at Edgeworthstown there was now a large family party, and a boy, Henry, was specially given over to Maria's charge. For these children she wrote many of her early tales—the "Purple Jar," "Lazy Lawrence," and "Simple Susan," of which last story Sir Walter Scott said, "That when the boy brings back the lamb to the little girl, there is nothing for it but to sit down and cry."

Slight though these stories are, there is always a shrewd perception of character in them, together with a sense of humour which make them pleasant reading to old as well as young. Miss Edgeworth is nothing if not a moral teacher, but the moral is taught by example, not by prosy homilies. In all her early tales the virtues of industry, economy, punctuality, truthfulness, and thrift are illustrated; while the contrary bad habits of laziness, idleness, falsehood, waste, and dishonesty are shown up in strong relief. How the busy household at Edgeworthstown was employed at this time may be seen from one of Miss Edgeworth's early letters, written on a fair day, "well proclaimed to the neighbourhood by the noise of pigs squeaking, men bawling,women brawling, and children squealing."

"I will tell you what is going on," says Maria Edgeworth to her cousin. Miss Sophy Ruxton, of Black Castle, "that you may see whether you like our daily bill of fare. … There is a balloon hanging up, and another going to be put on the stocks, there is soap making, and to be made, from a receipt in Nicholson's Chemistry, there is excellent ink made, and to be made by the same book, there is a cake of roses just squeezed in a vice, there is a set of accurate weights, just completed by the ingenious Messrs. Lovell and Henry Edgeworth, partners, for Henry is now a junior partner, and grown an inch and a-half upon the strength of it in two months."

All the family was tinctured with a taste for mechanics.

Mr. Edgeworth's plan of education with his numerous children was not so much to teach them, as to show them best how to teach themselves. It worked so well that he said, "I do not think one tear per month is shed in this house, not the voice of reproof heard, nor the hand of restraint felt."

In the summer of 1791, Maria Edgeworth was left in sole charge of this houseful of children, while her father and stepmother were at Clifton. The stories that she then wrote for her brothers and sisters were written on a slate, and read out in the evening, to be questioned on. Their merits were judged by the interest they excited.

She had to personally conduct the large family over to England, the sea-passage from Dublin to Holyhead taking no less than thirty- three hours, and only one passenger besides themselves!

Maria Edgeworth' s first published work was "Letters to Literary Ladies," which has long passed into the region of forgetfulness. It came out in 1795, and the year afterwards the first volume of her Tales appeared, those Tales which were soon to become the delight of every schoolroom and nursery throughout the kingdom. The title given to the volume by Mr. Johnson was the unpromising one of "The Parents' Assistant," but children soon forgot the title in the delights of the "Purple Jar" and "Lazy Lawrence."

Mr. Edgeworth's third wife died in 1797. He said of her that "he had never seen her out of temper, and never received from her an unkind word or a hasty look." Nevertheless, he speedily looked about for a successor, and found one in Miss Beaufort, daughter of the Vicar of Collon. The marriage took place 31st May, 1798, at St. Anne's Church, Dublin, and Maria wrote to her new stepmother, "You will come into a new family, dear Miss Beaufort, but you will not come a stranger: you will not lead a new life, but only continue to lead the life you have been used to in your own happy cultivated family."

Strange to say, these words were verified to the letter, and Mr. Edgeworth's fourth and last wife brought nothing but harmony into this strangely-constituted home circle. "The more I see of my friend and mother," wrote Maria to her aunt, Mrs. Ruxton, "the more I love and esteem her. I never saw my father at any period of his life appear so happy as he does, and you know that he tastes happiness as much as any human being can. … I am going on in the old way writing stories. … My father has made our little rooms so nice for us, they are all fresh painted and papered. O, rebels! O, French! spare them. We have never injured you, and all we ask is to see everybody as happy as we are ourselves."

Disturbance was in the air—wars and rumours of wars—for it was the terrible year of '98. When the French landed at Killala in August a break was made in the peaceful home life at Edgeworthstown. Maria says, "We, who are so near the scene of action, cannot by any means discover what number of the French actually landed. Some say 800, some say 1,800, some 18,000, some 4,000. The troops march and counter march, without knowing where they are going, or for what."

On September 5th the alarm was given; the whole family was forced to fly from Edgeworthstown, and to take refuge in an inn at Longford. The Edgeworths returned again on the 9th, and found, as Maria says—"Everything as we had left it five days before—five days which seemed almost a life-time, from the dangers and anxieties we had gone through."

Two years afterwards, in 1800, "Castle Rackrent," the best of Miss Edgeworth's Irish novels, was published anonymously, and soon went into a second edition. The story is told by Thady Quirck, an old retainer of the Rackrent family. The portraits of Sir Murtagh, Sir Kitt, and Sir Condy are full of racy humour. Sir Murtagh had no less than 16 lawsuits pending at a time. Out of 49, he only lost 17, the rest he gained. Of Sir Condy, the last of his name, Thady remarks "he had but a poor funeral after all."

"Castle Rackrent" bears no trace of a feminine hand; it is strong and pithy throughout. Its successor, "Belinda," is, on the contrary, distinctly a woman's book, mainly dealing with graphic scenes from fashionable life. It says much for Maria Edgeworth's versatility that she could have wrtten in a short time two works of imagination, each excellent in its way, and totally different the one from the other. The "Essay on Irish Bulls" came out in 1803, and was announced as by "R. L. Edgeworth and Maria Edgeworth, author of 'Castle Rackrent.'" A gentleman who was much interested in improving the breed of Irish cattle, sent for this work on Irish Bulls, but threw it away in disgust when he saw what it was, for he had purchased it as Secretary to the Irish Agricultural Society!

"The first design of this book," wrote Miss Edgeworth, "was my father's. He wished to show the English public the eloquence, wit, and talents of the lower classes of people in Ireland. In the chapter on Wit and Eloquence in Irish Bulls there is a speech of a poor freeholder to a candidate who asked for his vote; this speech was made to my father when he was canvassing the County of Longford. It was repeated to me a few hours afterwards, and I wrote it down instantly, without, I believe, the variation of a word."

A bull is defined to be "a confusion of ideas, ending in a contradiction of meaning." Imaginative people are specially prone to these blunders, and some of our greatest poets are not exempt from them. Milton says in Samson Agonistes:—" The deeds themselves, though mute, speak loud the giver."

One of the best chapters is that which records the adventures of Phelim O'Mooney, who goes to England under the name of Sir John Bull. Two of the bulls he makes are worth mentioning:

"How are ye, my fine fellow? Can ye see at all with the eye that's knocked out?" And again, "If the contractors had illuminated in character, it would have been with dark lanterns."

In 1803, when Maria Edgeworth was thirty-six, her name had become a household word, and many of her tales had been translated into French. She and her father and step-mother went on a very interesting visit to France and Belgium, and her letters describing her experiences are capital, bright, graphic, and perfectly free from vanity or egotism.

The fourth Mrs. Edgeworth added six more children to the family group, making twenty-two in all, though many did not live to grow up. These children of all ages were voracious for stories, and Maria had a never-failing supply.

Most of her "Popular Tales," belong to this period of her life. Her "Tales of Fashionable Life" included what is generally considered her masterpiece, "The Absentee." Macaulay pompously declared that one scene in this novel is the best thing written of its kind since the opening of the 22nd Book of the Odyssey. Yet this story, so Mrs. Edgeworth tells us, "was written under the torture of the tooth-ache, and it was only by keeping her mouth full of some strong lotion that Maria could allay the pain, and yet she never wrote with greater spirit and energy." The scene that Macaulay alludes to is that when, unknown to his tenants, the absentee landlord appears among them. The postboy, with his racy remarks, furnishes the comic part of the drama, which reads like a scene from real life, and is as fresh to-day as when it was written. Mr. Edgeworth died in June, 1817, absorbed in his daughter's books to the last. He insisted on her reading "Ormond," the story she was then engaged on, aloud to him. "He could not dine with us," wrote Maria to her aunt, Mrs. Ruxton, "but after dinner he sent for us all to the library. He sat in the arm-chair by the fire—my mother in the opposite arm-chair, Pakenham on the chair behind her, Francis on a stool at her feet, William next, Lucy, Sneyd, on the sofa opposite the fire, Honora, Fanny, Harriet, and Sophy, my aunts (the Miss Sneyds, sisters to the second and third Mrs. Edgeworth), and Lovell between them and the sofa." Would not this picturesque family group make a study for a painter?

Something must be said as to Maria Edgeworth's outward woman. Mrs. S. C. Hall describes her vividly, and this description is worth quoting here. "In person, she was very small, she was lost in a crowd, her face was pale and thin, her features irregular, they may have been considered plain, even in youth, but her expression was so benevolent, her manners so perfectly well-bred—partaking of English dignity and Irish frankness—that one never thought of her with reference either to beauty or plainness. She ever occupied, without claiming, attention, charming continually by her singularly pleasant voice, while the earnestness and truth that beamed from her bright blue, very blue eyes, increased the value of every word she uttered. She knew how to listen as well as to talk, and gathered information in a manner highly complimentary to those from whom she sought it … her sentences were frequently epigrammatic, she more than ever suggested to me the story of the good fairy from whose lips dropped diamonds and pearls whenever they were opened. She was ever neat and particular in her dress—a duty of society that literary women sometimes culpably neglect. Her feet and hands were so delicate and small as to be almost childlike. In a word, Maria was one of those women who do not seem to require beauty." The one love-affair of Maria Edgeworth's life took place during one of her visits to Paris, when she had reached the mature age of thirty-five. Her admirer was a Swede, Monsieur Edelcrantz by name. She herself treated the affair lightly in her letters, but Mrs. Edgeworth said, "She refused M. Edelcrantz, but she felt much more for him than esteem or admiration; she was exceedingly in love with him. Mr. Edgeworth left her to decide for herself, but she saw too plainly what it would be to us to lose her, and what she would feel at parting with us. She decided rightly for her own future happiness and for that of her family, but she suffered much at the time, and for long afterwards. While we were at Paris, I remember that in a shop where Charlotte and I were making purchases, Maria sat apart absorbed in thought, and so deep in reverie that when her father came in and stood opposite to her, she did not see him till he spoke to her, when she started and burst into tears. Even after her return to Edgeworthstown, it was long before she recovered the elasticity of her mind. 'Leonora,' which she began immediately after our return home, was written with the hope of pleasing the Chevalier Edelcrantz. It was written in a style that he liked, and the idea of what he would think of it was, I believe, present to her in every line she wrote. She never heard that he had even read it. He never married. I do not think Maria repented her refusal or regretted her decision. She was well aware that she could not have made him happy, that she would not have suited his position at the court of Stockholm, and that her want of beauty might have diminished his attachment. … The lessons of self command which she inculcates in her works were really acted upon in her own life. The resolution with which she devoted herself to her father and his family, and the industry with which she laboured at the writings which she thought were for the advantage of her fellow-creatures, were from the exertion or the highest principle."

After her father's death, Maria had to accomplish the difficult task of writing his life, and to make the task more arduous, she was suffering acutely from weak eyes. A visit to France with two of her younger sisters restored her to her usual good spirits and activity. She very characteristically observes:—"Certainly no people can have seen more of the world than we have done in the last three months. By seeing the world, I mean seeing varieties of characters and manners, and being behind the scenes in many different societies and families. The constant chorus as we drive home together is, 'How happy we are to be so fond of each other! How happy we are to be so independent of all we see here! How happy that we have our own dear home to return to.'"

Moore, who met Miss Edgeworth at Bowood, the Marquis of Lansdowne's, says "Miss Edgeworth is delightful, not from display, but from repose and unaffectedness, the least pretending person of the company."

Byron thought her a "nice unassuming Jeanie Deans-looking body—as we Scotch say, and if not handsome, certainly not ill-looking. Her conversation was as quiet as herself; one would never have guessed she could write her name."

Between Maria Edgeworth and Sir Walter Scott there was something more than friendship. He acknowledged in the Preface to Waverley that "without being so presumptuous as to hope to emulate the rich humour, the pathetic tenderness and admirable tact which pervade the works of my accomplished friend, I felt that something might be attempted for my own country of the same kind as that which Miss Edgeworth so fortunately achieved for Ireland."

A visit to Abbotsford in 1823 was a memorable event in Maria Edgeworth's life. Sir Walter had to show her Thomas the Rhymer's glen, the magic scenes of Yarrow and fair Melrose. There was a picnic by St. Mary's Loch, and a return to Abbotsford beneath the softest of harvest moons. The visit was returned when Sir Walter visited Ireland in 1824. Mr. Lovell Edgeworth threw open the doors of Edgeworthstown to the Scott party. On going through the village, Lockhart remarks, "We found neither mud hovels nor naked peasantry, but snug cottages and smiling faces all about. … In Maria, Scott hailed a sister spirit. … "

Years passed and found Maria Edgeworth still at work, still surrounded by a happy family party, It was her habit to get up at seven, take a cup of coffee, read her letters, and then walk out for about three quarters of an hour. She generally returned with her hands full of flowers, that she had gathered on her walk, and taking her needlework or knitting, would sit down to the family breakfast. Her writing was all done in the common sitting-room or library, a large and spacious room, well stored with books. Mrs. S. C. Hall, says that "an oblong table is a sort of rallying-point for the family, while Miss Edgeworth sits quietly and abstractedly in her own peculiar corner on the sofa; her desk, upon which lies Sir Walter Scott's pen, given to her by him when in Ireland, is placed before her on a little quaint table. In the same corner, and upon that table, she has written nearly all that has delighted the world. A very large family-party assembles daily in this charming room. Mr. Francis Edgeworth has a family of little ones who seem to enjoy the freedom of the library as much as their elders. To set these little people right if they are wrong: to rise from the table to fetch them a toy, to save a servant a journey, to fetch a volume that escapes all eyes but her own, are hourly employments of this most unspoiled and admirable woman. She will then resume her pen."

Her novel of "Helen," the last she wrote, shows no lessening of power, though perhaps it appeals more to women than to man. It was written with the object of showing that the slightest deviation from truth is sure to lead to endless misfortunes. Of Maria Edgeworth's writings, the following clever epigram appeared:—

We everyday bards may anonymous sign,
That refuge. Miss Edgeworth, can never be thine,
Thy writings, where satire and morals unite,
Must bring forth the name of their author to light,
Good and bad join in telling the source of their birth.
The bad own their Edge, and the good own their Worth!

Her busy useful life came to an end at last; she died at Edgeworthstown on the 21st May, 1849, at the age of 82. Forty-eight books are credited to her, including those she wrote in partnership with her father. She had a great dislike to having her life written, and used to say that "the only remains she wished to leave behind would be in the churchyard at Edgeworthstown." Yet within the last ten years, a biography written, for private circulation, by her step-mother, with many of Maria's letters, was edited by Mr. Augustus Hare, and published by Mr. Edward Arnold. From this interesting book, some extracts have been taken, principally from Miss Edgeworth's own letters.

Many generations have passed since her Tales were the delight of thousands of readers, but certainly some of them are bound to live, and will live.

A very strong testimony to their merits was given by the late Mr. W. H. Lecky, the historian, who said that he found Miss Edgeworth's novels invaluable in giving a truthful picture of the manners and habits of the eighteenth century.

We, of the present day, may well take a lesson from this practical and business-loving woman. The agency business of the Edgeworth estate, that she took up of her own free will, engrossed her. She herself looked after the repairs, the letting of the village houses, the drains, gutters. and pathways. "From the rent-book," her stepmother tells us, "she went to her little desk. She never wrote fiction with more life and spirit than when she had been for some time completely occupied with the hard realities of life."