Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Edgeworth, Maria

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1161920Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 16 — Edgeworth, Maria1888Leslie Stephen

EDGEWORTH, MARIA (1767–1849), novelist, was the daughter of Richard Lovell Edgeworth [q. v.], by his first wife, Anna Maria Elers. She was born at Black Bourton, Oxfordshire, the house of her mother's father, on 1 Jan. 1767, and there spent her infancy. On her father's second marriage (1773) she went with him to Ireland; and on the failure of her stepmother's health in 1775 she was sent to school with a Mrs. Lattaffière at Derby. In 1780, after the death of her stepmother, she was removed to a Mrs. Davis, in Upper Wimpole Street, London. She suffered much from attempts to increase her growth by mechanical devices, including hanging by the neck. In spite of this ingenious contrivance she always remained small. She learnt to dance, though she could never learn music; she had given early proofs of talent at her first school; she was a good French and Italian scholar, and, like Scott, won credit as a story-teller from her schoolfellows. Some of her holidays were spent with Thomas Day, her father's great friend, at Anningsley, Surrey. He dosed her with tar-water for an inflammation of the eyes, which had threatened a loss of sight, but encouraged her studies, gave her good advice, and won her permanent respect. In 1782 she accompanied her father and his third wife to Edgeworthstown, and upon his suggestion began to translate Mme. de Genlis's ‘Adèle et Théodore.’ Though still very shy, she saw some good society; she was noticed by Lady Moira, who often stayed with her daughter, Lady Granard, at Castle Forbes, and was frequently at Pakenham Hall, belonging to Lord Longford, a connection and a close friend of Edgeworth's. Her father employed her in keeping accounts and in dealing with his tenants. The education of her little brother Henry was entrusted to her care. She thus acquired the familiarity with fashionable people and with the Irish peasantry which was to be of use in her novels, as well as a practical knowledge of education. Her father made her a confidential friend, and though timid on horseback she delighted in long rides with him for the opportunity of conversation. He became her adviser, and to some extent her collaborator in the literary work which for some years was her main occupation. She began to write stories on a slate, which she read to her sisters, and copied out if approved by them. She wrote the ‘Freeman Family,’ afterwards developed into ‘Patronage,’ for the amusement of her stepmother, Elizabeth, when recovering from a confinement in 1787. In 1791 her father took his wife to England, and Maria was left in charge of the children, with whom she joined the parents at Clifton in December. They returned to Edgeworthstown at the end of 1793. Here, while taking her share in the family life, she first made her appearance as an author. The ‘Letters to Literary Ladies,’ a defence of female education, came out in 1795. In 1796 appeared the first volume of the ‘Parent's Assistant.’ In 1798 the marriage of her father to his fourth wife, to which she had at first a natural objection, brought her an intimate friend in her new stepmother. For fifty-one years their affectionate relations were never even clouded. The whole family party, which included, besides the children, two sisters of the second Mrs. Edgeworth, Charlotte Sneyd (d. 1822) and Mary Sneyd (d. 1841, aged 90), lived together on the most affectionate terms. In 1798 she published, in conjunction with her father, two volumes upon ‘Practical Education,’ presenting in a number of discursive essays a modification of the theories started by Rousseau's ‘Émile,’ and adopted by Edgeworth and Day. Other books for children exemplified the application of these theories to childish literature. ‘Harry and Lucy’ was begun by Edgeworth and his wife Honora, and Day had originally written ‘Sandford and Merton’ for insertion as one of the stories. In 1800 Miss Edgeworth began her novels for adult readers by ‘Castle Rackrent.’ It was published anonymously, and was written without her father's assistance. Its vigorous descriptions of Irish character caused a rapid success, and the second edition appeared with her name. It was followed by ‘Belinda’ in 1801. In 1802 appeared the ‘Essay on Irish Bulls,’ by herself and her father. Miss Edgeworth had now won fame as an authoress. The ‘Practical Education’ had been translated by M. Pictet of Geneva, who also published translations of the ‘Moral Tales’ in his ‘Bibliothèque Britannique.’ He visited the Edgeworths in Ireland; and she soon afterwards accompanied her father on a visit to France during the peace of Amiens, receiving many civilities from distinguished literary people. At Paris she met a Swedish count, Edelcrantz, who made her an offer. As she could not think of retiring to Stockholm, and he felt bound to continue there, the match failed. Her spirits suffered for a time, and though all communication dropped she remembered him through life, and directly after her return wrote ‘Leonora,’ a novel intended to meet his tastes. The party returned to England in March 1803, and, after a short visit to Edinburgh, to Edgeworthstown, where Maria set to work upon her stories. She wrote in the common sitting-room, amidst all manner of domestic distractions, and submitted everything to her father, who frequently inserted passages of his own. ‘Popular Tales’ and the ‘Modern Griselda’ appeared in 1804, ‘Leonora’ in 1806, the first series of ‘Tales of Fashionable Life’ (containing ‘Eunice,’ ‘The Dun,’ ‘Manœuvring,’ and ‘Almeria’) in 1809, and the second series (the ‘Absentee,’ ‘Vivian,’ and ‘Mme. de Fleury’) in 1812. On a visit to London in the spring of 1803 the Edgeworths attracted much notice. Byron, who laughed at the father, admitted that Miss Edgeworth was simple and charming (Diary, 19 Jan. 1821), Crabb Robinson gives a similar account, and Mackintosh (Life, ii. 262) confirms the opinion, and says that she ‘was courted by all persons of distinction in London with an avidity almost without example.’ On her return she finished ‘Patronage,’ begun (see above) in 1787, which came out in 1814. She set to work upon ‘Harrington’ and ‘Ormond,’ which were published together in 1817. She received a few sheets in time to give them to her father on his birthday, 31 May 1817. He had been specially interested in ‘Ormond,’ to which he had contributed a few scenes. He wrote a short preface to the book, and died 13 June following. After Edgeworth's death his unmarried son Lovell kept up the house. Edgeworth had left his ‘Memoirs’ to his daughter, with an injunction to complete them and publish his part unaltered. She had prepared the book for press in the summer of 1818, though in much depression, due to family troubles, to sickness among the peasantry, and to an alarming weakness of the eyes. She gave up reading, writing, and needlework almost entirely for two years, when her eyes completely recovered. Her sisters meanwhile acted as amanuenses. She visited Bowood in the autumn of 1818, chiefly to take the advice of her friend Dumont upon the ‘Memoirs.’ In 1819 she was again in London, and in 1820 she went with two sisters to Paris, where she was petted by the best society, and afterwards to Geneva, returning to Edgeworthstown in March 1821. The ‘Memoirs’ were published during her absence in 1820, and were bitterly attacked in the ‘Quarterly Review.’ They reached a second edition in 1828, and a third in 1844, when she rewrote her own part.

She again settled to her domestic and literary occupations. During the rest of her life Edgeworthstown continued to be her residence, though she frequently visited London, and made occasional tours. The most remarkable was a visit to Scotland in the spring of 1823. Scott welcomed her in the heartiest way, and, after seeing her at Edinburgh, received her at Abbotsford. She had read the ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel’ on its first appearance during her convalescence from a low fever in 1805. Scott declared (in the last chapter of ‘Waverley,’ and afterwards in the preface to the collected novels) that her descriptions of Irish character had encouraged him to make a similar experiment upon Scottish character in the ‘Waverley’ novels. He sent her a copy of ‘Waverley’ on its first publication, though without acknowledging the authorship, and she replied with enthusiasm. On a personal acquaintance he surpassed her expectations. In 1825 Scott returned the visit at Edgeworthstown, and she made a trip with him to Killarney. He entertained a large party of Edgeworths at Dublin before leaving, and they drank his health upon his birthday (15 Aug.) They never again met, but their correspondence was always most cordial.

During the commercial troubles of 1826 Miss Edgeworth resumed the management of the estate for her brother Lovell, having given up receiving the rents on her father's death. She showed great business talent, and took a keen personal interest in the poor upon the estate. Although greatly occupied by such duties, she again took to writing, beginning her last novel, ‘Helen,’ about 1830. It did not appear till 1834, and soon reached a second edition. It had scarcely the success of her earlier stories. Her style had gone out of fashion. In the spring of 1834 she made a tour in Connemara, described with great vivacity in a long letter printed in her ‘Memoirs.’ Amidst her various occupations Miss Edgeworth's intellectual vivacity remained. She began to learn Spanish at the age of seventy. She kept up a correspondence which in some ways gives even a better idea of her powers than her novels. She paid her last visit to London in 1844. She gave much literary advice to Captain Basil Hall, and she discussed her own novels in reply to friendly critics with remarkable ability. She knew more or less most of the eminent literary persons of her time, including Joanna Baillie, with whom she stayed at Hampstead, Bentham's friend, Sidney Smith, Dumont, and Ricardo, whom she visited at Gatcombe Park, Gloucestershire. Miss Austen sent her ‘Emma’ upon its first appearance. Miss Edgeworth admired her work, though it does not appear that they had any personal relations.

During the famine of 1846 Miss Edgeworth did her best to relieve the sufferings of the people. Some of her admirers in Boston, Mass., sent a hundred and fifty barrels of flour addressed to ‘Miss Edgeworth for her poor.’ The porters who carried it ashore refused to be paid, and she sent to each of them a woollen comforter knitted by herself. The deaths of her brother Francis in 1846 and of her favourite sister Fanny in 1848 tried her severely, and she was already weakened by attacks of illness. She worked to the last, and in April 1849 welcomed the appearance of Macaulay's ‘History,’ in which a complimentary reference is made to her in an enthusiastic letter to an old friend, Dr. Holland. She died in the arms of her stepmother on 22 May 1849.

Miss Edgeworth was of diminutive stature, and apparently not beautiful. No portrait was ever taken. It seems from Scott's descriptions of her that her appearance faithfully represented the combined vivacity and good sense and amiability of her character. No one had stronger family affections, and the lives of very few authors have been as useful and honourable. The didacticism of the stories for children has not prevented their permanent popularity. Her more ambitious efforts are injured by the same tendency. She has not the delicacy of touch of Miss Austen, more than the imaginative power of Scott. But the brightness of her style, her keen observation of character, and her shrewd sense and vigour make her novels still readable, in spite of obvious artistic defects. Though her puppets are apt to be wooden, they act their parts with spirit enough to make us forgive the perpetual moral lectures.

Miss Edgeworth's works are: 1. ‘Letters to Literary Ladies,’ 1795. 2. ‘Parent's Assistant,’ first part, 1796; published in 6 vols. in 1800; ‘Little Plays’ afterwards added as a seventh volume. 3. ‘Practical Education,’ 1798. 4. ‘Castle Rackrent,’ 1800. 5. ‘Early Lessons,’ 1801; sequels to ‘Harry and Lucy,’ ‘Rosamond,’ and ‘Frank,’ from the ‘Early Lessons,’ were published, 1822–5. 6. ‘Belinda,’ 1801. 7. ‘Moral Tales,’ 1801. 8. ‘Irish Bulls,’ 1802. 9. ‘Popular Tales,’ 1804. 10. ‘Modern Griselda,’ 1804. 11. ‘Leonora,’ and ‘Letters,’ 1806. 12. ‘Tales from Fashionable Life’ (first series, ‘Eunice,’ ‘The Dun,’ ‘Manœuvring,’ ‘Almeria’), 1809; (second series, ‘Vivian,’ the ‘Absentee,’ ‘Madame de Fleury,’ ‘Emilie de Coulanges’), 1812. 13. ‘Patronage,’ 1814? 14. ‘Harrington’ and ‘Ormond,’ 1817; ‘Harrington’ was reprinted with the ‘Thoughts on Bores,’ from 15. ‘Comic Dramas,’ 1817. 16. ‘Memoirs of R. L. Edgeworth’ (vol. ii. by Maria), 1820. 17. ‘Helen,’ 1834. 18. ‘Orlandino,’ 1834.

Miss Edgeworth's books for children have been reprinted in innumerable forms, and often translated. The first collective edition of her novels appeared in fourteen volumes, 1825, others 1848, 1856.

[The Cornhill Mag. for 1882 (xlvi. 404, 526) and Miss Helen Zimmern's Maria Edgeworth in the ‘Eminent Women’ series, 1883, give a full account of Miss Edgeworth, based in each case upon unpublished memoirs by her stepmother, a copy of which is in the British Museum. See also Lockhart's Life of Scott and the Memoirs of R. L. Edgeworth.]

L. S.