1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Edgeworth, Richard Lovell

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EDGEWORTH, RICHARD LOVELL (1744–1817), British writer, was born at Bath on the 31st of May 1744. The greater part of his life, however, was spent at Edgeworthtown, or Edgeworthstown, in the county of Longford, Ireland, where the Edgeworth family had been settled for upwards of 150 years. He was of gentle blood—his father being the son of Colonel Francis Edgeworth, and his mother, Jane Lovell, being the daughter of Samuel Lovell, a Welsh judge. Richard’s mother taught him to read at a very early age; and from childhood he had a strong love for mechanical science. The Rev. Patrick Hughes initiated him in Lilye’s Latin Grammar—an office he also performed for Goldsmith, who was born on the property of the Edgeworths—and his public education began, in August 1752, in a school at Warwick. He subsequently attended Drogheda school, then reputed the best in Ireland; and, after spending two years at a school in Longford, entered Trinity College, Dublin, in April 1761, but was transferred to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in October of the same year. While still at college, he made a runaway match, marrying at Gretna Green, Anna Maria, one of the daughters of Paul Elers of Black Bourton, Oxfordshire, an old friend of his father. His eldest son was born before Edgeworth reached his twentieth birthday, and his daughter Maria in 1767.

Shortly after the birth of his son, he and his wife went to Edgeworthstown, but in 1765 they took a house at Hare Hatch, near Maidenhead. Edgeworth devoted much time to scientific reading and experiments; and he made an attempt to establish telegraphic communication (Memoirs, 2nd edition, i. 144). He also invented a turnip-cutter, a one-wheeled chaise and other contrivances. In the pursuit of his mechanical inventions he visited Erasmus Darwin at Lichfield, where he met Anna Seward, and her cousin, Honora Sneyd. His home was now at Hare Hatch, in Berkshire, where he endeavoured to educate his son according to the method explained in Rousseau’s Émile. In later life, however, the ill-success of this experiment led him to doubt many of Rousseau’s views (Memoirs, ii. 374). At the same time he kept terms at the Temple, and formed the greatest friendship of his life with Thomas Day, the author of Sandford and Merton, which was written at Edgeworth’s suggestion. In 1769, on the death of his father, he gave up the idea of being a barrister; but, instead of immediately settling on his Irish estate, he spent a considerable time in England and France, mainly in Day’s company. In Lyons, where he resided for about two years, he took an active part in the management of public works intended to turn the course of the Rhone. He was summoned to England by the death of his wife (March 1773), with whom he was far from happy. Edgeworth hurried to Lichfield, to Dr Erasmus Darwin’s, and at once declared his passion for Honora Sneyd, which had been the cause of his flight to France two years before. Miss Sneyd had been the object of attention from Thomas Day, but her views on marriage were not submissive enough to please him. She had other suitors, among them the unfortunate Major André. She married Edgeworth (July 1773), and after residing at Edgeworthstown for three years, they settled at Northchurch, in Hertfordshire. After six years of domestic happiness, Honora Edgeworth died (April 1780), recommending her husband to marry her sister Elizabeth; and they were actually married on Christmas Day, 1780.

In 1782 Edgeworth returned to Ireland, determined to improve his estate, educate his seven children, and ameliorate the condition of the tenants. Up to this point Edgeworth has told his own story in his Memoirs. The rest of his life is written by his daughter, who opens with a lengthy panegyric on her father as a model landlord (Memoirs, ii. 12-36). In 1785 he was associated with others in founding the Royal Irish Academy; and, during the two succeeding years, mechanics and agriculture occupied most of his time. In October 1789 his friend Day was killed by a fall from his horse, and this trial was soon followed by the loss of his daughter Honora, who had just reached her fifteenth year. In 1792 the health of one of Edgeworth’s sons took him to Clifton, where he remained with his family for about two years, returning in 1794 to Edgeworthstown. Ireland was, at that time, harassed by internal disturbances, and threats of a French invasion, and Edgeworth offered to establish telegraphic communication of his own invention throughout the country. This offer was declined. A full account of the matter is given in Edgeworth’s Letter to Lord Charlemont on the Telegraph; and his apparatus is explained in an “Essay on the art of Conveying Swift and Secret Intelligence,” published in the sixth volume of the Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy. In the autumn of 1797 the third Mrs Edgeworth died.

Practical Education (1798) was written in collaboration with his daughter Maria, and embodied the experience of the authors in dealing with children. “So commenced,” says Miss Edgeworth, “that literary partnership which, for so many years, was the pride and joy of my life” (Memoirs, ii. 170). This book, generally regarded as old-fashioned, has a real value in the history of education. Mr Edgeworth’s interest in the subject had been inspired by the study of Rousseau and by his friendship with Thomas Day. But he went beyond Rousseau, who developed his theories from his own ingenious mind and related an imaginary process. The Edgeworths brought a scientific method to their work. The second Mrs Edgeworth (Honora Sneyd) began the collection of actual examples of conversations between the children and their elders. This was continued patiently by the writers of the book; and their reasonings were thus founded on an accurate record of childish methods of thought. They deprecated especially any measures that interrupted the child’s own chain of reasoning. The chapters on special subjects of study, chronology, geometry, &c., were written by Richard Lovell Edgeworth; those on toys, on rewards and punishments, on temper, &c., by his daughter.[1]

In 1798 Edgeworth married Miss Beaufort, and was elected M.P. for the borough of St John’s Town, Longford. The same year, too, saw a hostile landing of the French and a formidable rebellion; and for a short time the Edgeworths took refuge in Longford. The winter of 1802 they spent in Paris. In 1804 the government accepted his telegraphic apparatus, but the installation was left incomplete when the fear of invasion was past. In 1802 appeared the Essay on Irish Bulls by Mr and Miss Edgeworth; and in 1806 Edgeworth was elected a member of the board of commissioners to inquire into Irish education. From 1807 till 1809 much of his time was spent on mechanical experiments and in writing the story of his life. In 1808 appeared Professional Education, and in 1813 his Essay on the Construction of Roads and Carriages. He died on the 13th of June 1817, and was buried in the family vault in Edgeworthstown churchyard.

Many of Edgeworth’s works were suggested by his zeal for the education of his own children. Such were Poetry Explained for Young People (1802), Readings in Poetry (1816), A Rational Primer (unpublished), and the parts of Early Lessons contributed by him. His speeches in the Irish parliament have also been published; and numerous essays, mostly on scientific subjects, have appeared in the Philosophical Transactions, the Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, the Monthly Magazine and Nicholson’s Journal. The story of his early life, told by himself, is fully as entertaining as the continuation by Maria, as it contains less dissertation and more incident. One of his daughters by his first marriage, Anna Maria, married Dr Beddoes and became the mother of T. L. Beddoes, the poet.

See Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Esq., begun by himself and concluded by his daughter, Maria Edgeworth (2 vols., 1820, 3rd and revised ed. 1844). A selection from this, giving an optimistic view of him, Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1896), was edited by Mrs Lionel Tollemache.

  1. For an appreciation of the two Edgeworths from the teacher’s point of view, see Prof. L. C. Miall in the Journal of Education (August 1, 1894).