Castle Rackrent/Introduction/III

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Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth
Introduction/III


Whatever one may think of Mr. Edgeworth's literary manipulations and of his influence upon his daughter's writings, one cannot but respect the sincere and cordial understanding which bound these two people together, and realise the added interest in life, in its machinery and evolutions, which Maria owed to her father's active intelligence. Her own gift, I think, must have been one for perceiving through the minds of others, and for realising the value of what they in turn reflected; one is struck again and again by the odd mixture of intuition, and of absolute matter of fact which one finds in her writings.

It is difficult to realise, when one reads the memoirs of human beings who loved and hated, and laughed and scolded, and wanted things and did without them, very much as we do ourselves, that though they thought as we do and felt as we do (only, as I have said, with greater vehemence), they didn't LOOK like us at all; and Mr. Edgeworth, the father of Maria Edgeworth, the 'gay gallant,' the impetuous, ingenious, energetic gentleman, sat writing with powdered hair and a queue, with tights and buckles, bolt upright in a stiff chair, while his family, also bequeued and becurled and bekerchiefed, were gathered round him in a group, composedly attentive to his explanations, as he points to the roll upon the table, or reads from his many MSS. and notebooks, for their edification.

To have four wives and twenty-two children, to have invented so many machines, engines, and curricles, steeples and telegraph posts, is more than commonly falls to the lot of one ordinary man, but such we know was Mr. Edgeworth's history told by his own lips.

I received by chance an old newspaper the other day, dated the 23rd July 1779. It is called the LONDON PACKET, and its news, told with long s's and pretty curly italics, thrills one even now as one looks over the four short pages. The leading article is entitled 'Striking Instance of the PERFIDY of France.' It is true the grievance goes back to Louis XIV., but the leader is written with plenty of spirit and present indignation. Then comes news from America and the lists of New Councillors elected:

'Artemus Ward, Francis Dana, Oliver Prescott, Samuel Baker, while a very suitable sermon on the occasion is preached by the Rev. Mr. Stillman of Boston.' How familiar the names all sound! Then the thanks of the Members of Congress are given to 'General Lee, Colonel Moultrie, and the officers and soldiers under their command who on the 28th of June last Repulsed with so much Valour the attack that was made that day on the State of South Carolina by the fleet and army of his Britannic Majesty.'

There is an irresistible spirit of old-world pigtail decorum and dash about it all. We read of our 'grand fleet' waiting at Corunna for the Spanish; of 80,000 men on the coast of Brittany supposed to be ready for an invasion of England; of the Prince of Conde playing at cards, with Northumberland House itself for stakes (Northumberland House which he is INTENDING to take). We read the list of Lottery Prizes, of the L1000 and L500 tickets; of the pressing want of seamen for His Majesty's Navy, and how the gentlemen of Ireland are subscribers to a bounty fund. Then comes the narrative of James Caton of Bristol, who writes to complain that while transacting his business on the Bristol Exchange he is violently seized by a pressgang, with oaths and imprecations. Mr. Farr, attempting to speak to him, is told by the Lieutenant that if he does not keep off he will be shot with a pistol. Mr. Caton is violently carried off, locked up in a horrible stinking room, prevented from seeing his friends; after a day or two he is forced on board a tender, where Mr. Tripp, a midshipman, behaves with humanity, but the Captain and Lieutenant outvie each other in brutality; Captain Hamilton behaving as an 'enraged partisan.' Poor Mr. Caton is released at last by the exertions of Mr. Edmund Burke, of Mr. Farr, and another devoted friend, who travel post-haste to London to obtain a Habeas Corpus, so that he is able to write indignantly and safe from his own home to the LONDON PACKET to describe his providential escape. The little sheet gives one a vivid impression of that daily life in 1779, when Miss Edgeworth must have been a little girl of twelve years old, at school at Mrs. Lataffiere's, and learning to write in her beautiful handwriting. It was a time of great events. The world is fighting, armies marching and counter-marching, and countries rapidly changing hands. Miss Seward is inditing her elegant descriptions for the use of her admiring circle. But already the circle is dwindling! Mr. Day has parted from Sabrina. The well-known episodes of Lichfield gaieties and love-makings are over. Poor Major Andre has been exiled from England and rejected by Honora. The beautiful Honora, whose "blending charms of mind and person" are celebrated by one adoring lover after another, has married Mr. Edgeworth. She has known happiness, and the devoted affection of an adoring husband, and the admiring love of her little step-daughter, all this had been hers; and now all this is coming to an end, and the poor lady lying on her death-bed imploring her husband to marry her sister Elizabeth. Accordingly Mr. Edgeworth married Elizabeth Sneyd in 1780, which was also the year of poor Andre's death.

There is a little oval picture at the National Gallery in Dublin, the photograph of a sketch at Edgeworthstown House, which gives one a very good impression of the family as it must have appeared in the reigns of King George and the third Mrs. Edgeworth. The father in his powder and frills sits at the table with intelligent, well-informed finger showing some place upon a map. He is an agreeable-looking youngish man; Mrs. Edgeworth, his third wife, is looking over his shoulder; she has marked features, beautiful eyes, she holds a child upon her knee, and one can see the likeness in her to her step-daughter Honora, who stands just behind her and leans against the chair. A large globe appropriately stands in the background. The grown-up ladies alternate with small children. Miss Edgeworth herself, sitting opposite to her father, is the most prominent figure in the group. She wears a broad leghorn hat, a frizzed coiffure, and folded kerchief; she has a sprightly, somewhat French appearance, with a marked nose of the RETROUSSE order. I had so often heard that she was plain that to see this fashionable and agreeable figure was a pleasant surprise.

Miss Edgeworth seems to be about four-and-twenty in the sketch; she was born in 1767; she must have been eleven in 1778, when Mr. Edgeworth finally came over to Ireland to settle on his own estate, and among his own people. He had been obliged some years before to leave Edgeworthstown on account of Mrs. Honora Edgeworth's health; he now returned in patriarchal fashion with Mrs. Elizabeth Edgeworth, his third wife, with his children by his first, second, and third marriages, and with two sisters-in-law who had made their home in his family. For thirty-five years he continued to live on in the pretty old home which he now adapted to his large family, and which, notwithstanding Miss Edgeworth's objections, would have seemed so well fitted for its various requirements. The daughter's description of his life there, of his work among his tenants, of his paternal and spirited rule, is vivid and interesting. When the present owner of Edgeworthstown talked to us of his grandfather, one felt that, with all his eccentricities, he must have been a man of a far-seeing mind and observation. Mr. Erroles Edgeworth said that he was himself still reaping the benefit of his grandfather's admirable organisation and arrangements on the estate, and that when people all around met with endless difficulties and complications, he had scarcely known any. Would that there had been more Mr. Edgeworths in Ireland!

Whatever business he had to do, his daughter tells us, was done in the midst of his family. Maria copied his letters of business and helped him to receive his rents. 'On most Irish estates,' says Miss Edgeworth, 'there is, or there was, a personage commonly called a driver,—a person who drives and impounds cattle for rent and arrears.' The drivers are, alas! from time to time too necessary in collecting Irish rents. Mr. Edgeworth desired that none of his tenants should pay rent to any one but himself; thus taking away subordinate interference, he became individually acquainted with his tenantry. He also made himself acquainted with the different value of land on his estate. In every case where the tenant had improved the land his claim to preference over every new proposer was admitted. The mere plea, 'I have been on your Honour's estate so many years,' was disregarded. 'Nor was it advantageous that each son,' says Miss Edgeworth, 'of the original tenant should live on his subdivided little potato garden without further exertion of mind or body.' Further on she continues: 'Not being in want of ready money, my father was not obliged to let his land to the highest bidder. He could afford to have good tenants.' In the old leases claims of duty-fowl, of duty-work, of man or beast had been inserted. Mr. Edgeworth was one of the first to abolish them. The only clause he continued in every lease was the alienation fine, which was to protect the landlord and to prevent a set of middlemen from taking land at a reasonable rent, and letting it immediately at the highest possible price. His indulgence as to the time he allowed for the payment of rent was unusually great, but beyond the half year the tenants knew his strictness so well, that they rarely ventured to go into arrears, and never did so with impunity. 'To his character as a good landlord,' she continues, 'was added that he was a real gentleman; this phrase comprises a good deal in the opinion of the lower Irish.' There is one very curious paragraph in which Miss Edgeworth describes how her father knew how to make use of the tenants' prejudices, putting forward his wishes rather than his convictions. 'It would be impossible for me,' says his daughter, 'without ostentation to give any of the proofs I might record of my father's liberality. Long after they were forgotten by himself, they were remembered by the warm-hearted people among whom he lived.'

Mr. Edgeworth was one of those people born to get their own way. Every one seems to have felt the influence of his strong character. It was not only with his family and his friends that he held his own—the tenants and the poor people rallied to his command. To be sure, it sounds like some old Irish legend to be told that Mr. Edgeworth had so loud a voice that it could be heard a mile off, and that his steward, who lived in a lodge at that distance from the house, could hear him calling from the drawing-room window, and would come up for orders.

In 1778, says Miss Edgeworth retrospectively, when England was despatching her armies all over the world, she had no troops to spare for the defence of Ireland then threatened with a French invasion; and the principal nobility and gentry embodied themselves volunteers for the defence of the country. The Duke of Leinster and Lord Charlemont were at the head of the 'corps which in perfect order and good discipline rendered their country respectable.' The friends of Ireland, profiting by England's growing consideration for the sister country, now obtained for her great benefits for which they had long been striving, and Mr. Grattan moved an address to the throne asserting the legislative independence of Ireland. The address passed the House, and, as his daughter tells us, Mr. Edgeworth immediately published a pamphlet. Miss Edgeworth continues as follows, describing his excellent course of action: 'My father honestly and unostentatiously used his utmost endeavours to obliterate all that could tend to perpetuate ill-will in the country. Among the lower classes in his neighbourhood he endeavoured to discourage that spirit of recrimination and retaliation which the lower Irish are too prone to cherish. They are such acute observers that there is no deceiving them as to the state of the real feeling of their superiors. They know the signs of what passes within with more certainty than any physiognomist, and it was soon seen by all those who had any connection with him that my father was sincere in his disdain of vengeance.' Further on, describing his political feelings, she says that on the subject of the Union in parliamentary phrase he had not then been able to make up his mind. She describes with some pride his first speech in the Irish House at two o'clock in the morning, when the wearied members were scarcely awake to hear it, and when some of the outstretched members were aroused by their neighbours to listen to him! 'When people perceived that it was not a set speech,' says Miss Edgeworth, 'they became interested.' He stated his doubts just as they had occurred as he threw them by turn into each scale. After giving many reasons in favour of what appeared to be the advantages of the Union, he unexpectedly gave his vote against it, because he said he had been convinced by what he had heard one night, that the Union was decidedly against the wishes of the majority of men of sense and property in the nation. He added (and surely Mr. Edgeworth's opinion should go for something still) that if he should be convinced that the opinions of the country changed, his vote would be in its favour.

His biographer tells us that Mr. Edgeworth was much complimented on his speech by BOTH sides, by those for whom he voted, and also by those who found that the best arguments on the other side of the question had been undoubtedly made by him. It is a somewhat complicated statement and state of feeling to follow; to the faithful daughter nothing is impossible where her father is concerned. This vote, I believe, cost Mr. Edgeworth his peerage. 'When it was known that he had voted against the Union he became suddenly the idol of those who would previously have stoned him,' says his devoted biographer. It must not, however, be forgotten that Mr. Edgeworth had refused an offer of L3000 for his seat for two or three weeks, during that momentous period when every vote was of importance. Mr. Pitt, they say, spent over L2,000,000 in carrying the measure which he deemed so necessary.