When Messrs. Macmillan asked me to write a preface to this new edition of Miss Edgeworth's stories I thought I should like to see the place where she had lived so long and where she had written so much, and so it happened that being in Ireland early this year, my daughter and I found ourselves driving up to Broadstone Station one morning in time for the early train to Edgeworthstown. As we got out of our cab we asked the driver what the fare should be. 'Sure the fare is half a crown,' said he, 'and if you wish to give me more, I could keep it for myself!'
The train was starting and we bought our papers to beguile the road. 'Will you have a Home Rule paper or one of them others?' said the newsboy, with such a droll emphasis that we couldn't help laughing. 'Give me one of each,' said I; then he laughed, as no English newsboy would have done. . . . We went along in the car with a sad couple of people out of a hospital, compatriots of our own, who had been settled ten years in Ireland, and were longing to be away. The poor things were past consolation, dull, despairing, ingrained English, sick and suffering and yearning for Brixton, just as other aliens long for their native hills and moors. We travelled along together all that spring morning by the blossoming hedges, and triumphal arches of flowering May; the hills were very far away, but the lovely lights and scents were all about and made our journey charming. Maynooth was a fragrant vision as we flew past, of vast gardens wall-enclosed, of stately buildings. The whole line of railway was sweet with the May flowers, and with the pungent and refreshing scent of the turf-bogs. The air was so clear and so limpid that we could see for miles, and short-sighted eyes needed no glasses to admire with. Here and there a turf cabin, now and then a lake placidly reflecting the sky. The country seemed given over to silence, the light sped unheeded across the delicate browns and greens of the bog-fields; or lay on the sweet wonderful green of the meadows. One dazzling field we saw full of dancing circles of little fairy pigs with curly tails. Everything was homelike but NOT England, there was something of France, something of Italy in the sky; in the fanciful tints upon the land and sea, in the vastness of the picture, in the happy sadness and calm content which is so difficult to describe or to account for. Finally we reached our journey's end. It gave one a real emotion to see EDGEWORTHSTOWN written up on the board before us, and to realise that we were following in the steps of those giants who had passed before us. The master of Edgeworthstown kindly met us and drove us to his home through the outlying village, shaded with its sycamores, underneath which pretty cows were browsing the grass. We passed the Roman Catholic Church, the great iron crucifix standing in the churchyard. Then the horses turned in at the gate of the park, and there rose the old home, so exactly like what one expected it, that I felt as if I had been there before in some other phase of existence.
It is certainly a tradition in the family to welcome travellers! I thought of the various memoirs I had read, of the travellers arriving from the North and the South and the West; of Scott and Lockhart, of Pictet, of the Ticknors, of the many visitants who had come up in turn; whether it is the year 14, or the year 94, the hospitable doors open kindly to admit them. There were the French windows reaching to the ground, through which Maria used to pass on her way to gather her roses; there was the porch where Walter Scott had stood; there grew the quaint old-fashioned bushes with the great pink peonies in flower, by those railings which still divide the park from the meadows beyond; there spread the branches of the century-old trees. Only last winter they told us the storms came and swept away a grove of Beeches that were known in all the country round, but how much of shade, of flower, still remain! The noble Hawthorn of stately growth, the pine-trees (there should be NAMES for trees, as there are for rocks or ancient strongholds). Mr. Edgeworth showed us the oak from Jerusalem, the grove of cypress and sycamore where the beautiful depths of ground ivy are floating upon the DEBRIS, and soften the gnarled roots, while they flood the rising banks with green.
Mr. and Mrs. Edgeworth brought us into the house. The ways go upstairs and downstairs, by winding passages and side gates; a pretty domed staircase starts from the central hall, where stands that old clock-case which Maria wound up when she was over eighty years old. To the right and to the left along the passages were rooms opening from one into another. I could imagine Sir Walter's kind eyes looking upon the scene, and Wordsworth coming down the stairs, and their friendly entertainer making all happy, and all welcome in turn; and their hostess, the widowed Mrs. Edgeworth, responding and sympathising with each. We saw the corner by the fire where Maria wrote; we saw her table with its pretty curves standing in its place in the deep casements. Miss Edgeworth's own room is a tiny little room above looking out on the back garden. This little closet opens from a larger one, and then by a narrow flight of stairs leads to a suite of ground-floor chambers, following one from another, lined with bookcases and looking on the gardens. What a strange fellow-feeling with the past it gave one to stand staring at the old books, with their paper backs and old-fashioned covers, at the gray boards, which were the liveries of literature in those early days; at the first editions, with their inscriptions in the author's handwriting, or in Maria's pretty caligraphy. There was the PIRATE in its original volumes, and Mackintosh's MEMOIRS, and Mrs. Barbauld's ESSAYS, and Descartes's ESSAYS, that Arthur Hallam liked to read; Hallam's CONSTITUTIONAL HISTORY, and Rogers's POEMS, were there all inscribed and dedicated. Not less interesting were the piles of Magazines that had been sent from America. I never knew before how many Magazines existed even those early days; we took some down at hazard and read names, dates, and initials. . . . Storied urn and monumental bust do not bring back the past as do the books which belong to it. Storied urns are in churches and stone niches, far removed from the lives of which they speak; books seem a part of our daily life, and are like the sound of a voice just outside the door. Here they were, as they had been read by her, stored away by her hands, and still safely preserved, bringing back the past with, as it were, a cheerful encouraging greeting to the present. Other relics there are of course, but, as I say, none which touch one so vividly. There is her silver ink-stand, the little table her father left her on which she wrote (it had belonged to his mother before him). There is also a curious trophy—a table which was sent to her from Edinburgh, ornamented by promiscuous views of Italy, curiously inappropriate to her genius; but not so the inscription, which is quoted from Sir Walter Scott's Preface to his Collected Edition, and which may as well be quoted here: 'WITHOUT BEING SO PRESUMPTUOUS AS TO HOPE TO EMULATE THE RICH HUMOUR, THE PATHETIC TENDERNESS, AND ADMIRABLE TRUTH WHICH PERVADE THE WORKS OF MY ACCOMPLISHED FRIEND,' Sir Walter wrote, 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.'
In the MEMOIRS of Miss Edgeworth there is a pretty account of her sudden burst of feeling when this passage so unexpected, and so deeply felt by her, was read out by one of her sisters, at a time when Maria lay weak and recovering from illness in Edgeworthstown.
Our host took us that day, among other pleasant things, for a marvellous and delightful flight on a jaunting car, to see something of the country. We sped through storms and sunshine, by open moors and fields, and then by villages and little churches, by farms where the pigs were standing at the doors to be fed, by pretty trim cottages. The lights came and went; as the mist lifted we could see the exquisite colours, the green, the dazzling sweet lights on the meadows, playing upon the meadow-sweet and elder bushes; at last we came to the lovely glades of Carriglass. It seemed to me that we had reached an enchanted forest amid this green sweet tangle of ivy, of flowering summer trees, of immemorial oaks and sycamores.
A squirrel was darting up the branches of a beautiful spreading beech-tree, a whole army of rabbits were flashing with silver tails into the brushwood; swallows, blackbirds, peacock-butterflies, dragonflies on the wing, a mighty sylvan life was roaming in this lovely orderly wilderness.
The great Irish kitchen garden, belonging to the house, with its seven miles of wall, was also not unlike a part of a fairy tale. Its owner, Mr. Lefroy, told me that Miss Edgeworth had been constantly there. She was a great friend of Judge Lefroy. As a boy he remembered her driving up to the house and running up through the great drawing-room doors to greet the Judge.
Miss Edgeworth certainly lived in a fair surrounding, and, with Sophia Western, must have gone along the way of life heralded by sweetest things, by the song of birds, by the gold radiance of the buttercups, by the varied shadows of those beautiful trees under which the cows gently tread the grass. English does not seem exactly the language in which to write of Ireland, with its sylvan wonders of natural beauty. Madame de Sevigne's descriptions of her woods came to my mind. It is not a place which delights one by its actual sensual beauty, as Italy does; it is not as in England, where a thousand associations link one to every scene and aspect—Ireland seems to me to contain some unique and most impersonal charm, which is quite unwritable.
All that evening we sat talking with our hosts round the fire (for it was cold enough for a fire), and I remembered that in Miss Edgeworth's MEMOIRS it was described how the snow lay upon the ground and upon the land, when the family came home in June to take possession of Edgeworthstown.
As I put out my candle in the spacious guest-chamber I wondered which of its past inhabitants I should wish to see standing in the middle of the room. I must confess that the thought of the beautiful Honora filled me with alarm, and if Miss Seward had walked in in her pearls and satin robe I should have fled for my life. As I lay there experimentalising upon my own emotions I found that after all, natural simple people do not frighten one whether dead or alive. The thought of them is ever welcome; it is the artificial people who are sometimes one thing, sometimes another, and who form themselves on the weaknesses and fancies of those among whom they live, who are really terrifying.
The shadow of the bird's wing flitted across the window of my bedroom, and the sun was shining next morning when I awoke. I could see the cows, foot deep in the grass under the hawthorns. After breakfast we went out into the grounds and through an arched doorway into the kitchen garden. It might have been some corner of Italy or the South of France; the square tower of the granary rose high against the blue, the gray walls were hung with messy fruit trees, pigeons were darting and flapping their wings, gardeners were at work, the very vegetables were growing luxuriant and romantic and edged by thick borders of violet pansy; crossing the courtyard, we came into the village street, also orderly and white-washed. The soft limpid air made all things into pictures, into Turners, into Titians. A Murillo-like boy, with dark eyes, was leaning against a wall, with his shadow, watching us go by; strange old women, with draperies round their heads, were coming out of their houses. We passed the Post-Office, the village shops, with their names, the Monaghans and Gerahtys, such as we find again in Miss Edgeworth's novels. We heard the local politics discussed over the counter with a certain aptness and directness which struck me very much. We passed the boarding-house, which was not without its history—a long low building erected by Mr. and Miss Edgeworth for a school, where the Sandfords and Mertons of those days were to be brought up together: a sort of foreshadowing of the High Schools of the present. Mr. Edgeworth was, as we know, the very spirit of progress, though his experiment did not answer at the time. At the end of the village street, where two roads divide, we noticed a gap in the decent roadway—a pile of ruins in a garden. A tumble-down cottage, and beyond the cottage, a falling shed, on the thatched roof of which a hen was clucking and scraping. These cottages Mr. Edgeworth had, after long difficulty, bought up and condemned as unfit for human habitation. The plans had been considered, the orders given to build new cottages in their place, which were to be let to the old tenants at the old rent, but the last remaining inhabitant absolutely refused to leave; we saw an old woman in a hood slowly crossing the road, and carrying a pail for water; no threats or inducements would move her, not even the sight of a neat little house, white-washed and painted, and all ready for her to step into. Her present rent was 10d. a week, Mr. Edgeworth told me, and she had been letting the tumble-down shed to a large family for 1s. 4d. This sub-let was forcibly put an end to, but the landlady still stops there, and there she will stay until the roof tumbles down upon her head. The old creature passed on through the sunshine, a decrepit, picturesque figure carrying her pail to the stream, defying all the laws of progress and political economy and civilisation in her feebleness and determination.
Most of the women came to their doors to see us go by. They all looked as old as the hills—some dropt curtseys, others threw up their arms in benediction. From a cottage farther up the road issued a strange, shy old creature, looking like a bundle of hay, walking on bare legs. She came up with a pinch of snuff, and a shake of the hand; she was of the family of the man who had once saved Edgeworthstown from being destroyed by the rebels. 'Sure it was not her father,' said old Peggy,' it was her grandfather did it!' So she explained, but it was hard to believe that such an old, old creature had ever had a grandfather in the memory of man.
The glebe lands lie beyond the village. They reach as far as the church on its high plateau, from which you can see the Wicklow Hills on a fine day, and the lovely shifting of the lights of the landscape. The remains of the great pew of the Edgeworth family, with its carved canopy of wood, is still a feature in the bare church from which so much has been swept away. The names of the fathers are written on the chancel walls, and a few medallions of daughters and sisters also. In the churchyard, among green elder bushes and tall upspringing grasses, is the square monument erected to Mr. Edgeworth and his family; and as we stood there the quiet place was crossed and recrossed by swallows with their beating crescent wings.