Maria Edgeworth’s close association with children—in 1791, for example, she was responsible for the education of eight sisters and brothers while her father and stepmother Elizabeth were in England—determined the subject matter of her fiction. To amuse and instruct the children, she wrote short stories on a slate and read them aloud. Based on their critical response, she selected the best for the edition of The Parent’s Assistant. Although she preferred her father’s title The Parent’s Friend, these stories reached the public under the publisher’s inscription and remained popular throughout the nineteenth century.
Edgeworth fashioned the stories about real boys and girls. While Samuel Johnson believed that tales of giants, fairies, castles, and enchantment would stimulate children’s imagination, Richard Lovell Edgeworth taught his daughter that “experience in life would soon convince them that fairies, giants, and enchanters are not to be met with in the world.” She therefore avoided fantastic visions and gave her young readers useful information for successful living. The fictional tales would, Edgeworth and her father believed, teach readers about the latest scientific inventions and vocational skills while developing their characters. In the process, to Edgeworth’s credit, famous child characters were introduced to the growing field of children’s literature.
A popular story from The Parent’s Assistant, “Simple Susan,” illustrates a common technique used throughout the juvenile and adult stories: the use of contrasting characters to reveal the moral lesson. In this tale, Susan Price, the modest, loving, honest, and hardworking twelve-year-old daughter of Farmer Price, differs markedly from Barbara Case, the selfish, vain, devious, and indolent daughter of Attorney Case. As might be expected, the two girls are mirror images of their parents. Set in a rural English village about to celebrate May Day, the tale parallels Case’s sinister attempts to oust Price from his farm with Barbara’s aggressive actions against Susan.
Case, agent for the estate of Sir Arthur Somers on which the Prices live, had lent _9 to Price, taking his lease for collateral. Although the debt was paid, Case demands another _9. Simultaneously, Barbara steals Susan’s guinea hen and beehive. Farmer Price looks to Sir Somers for justice and receives it with the dismissal of Case. Susan simply forgives Barbara. The most poignant scene takes place when Susan unselfishly sacrifices her pet lamb to get money for her father. The trip to the butcher and the return of her lamb by a young boy is very moving and prompted Sir Walter Scott, an early admirer, to say that there is nothing to do after that incident “but just to put down the book, and cry.” R. L. Edgeworth believed that “if the tale would become known, it would be preferred to every story of the sort that has yet been written.” “Simple Susan,” written in 1798, is a new story from the second edition of 1800, along with “The Little Merchants,” “Elton Montem,” “The Basket Woman,” “Waste Not, Want Not,” “Forgive and Forget,” “The White Pigeon,” and “The Orphans.”
“The Purple Jar”
From the 1796 collection, “The Purple Jar,” later appearing in Rosamond is a memorable tale. Rosamond, a literary copy of Maria Edgeworth as a child, is allowed to choose between buying a needed pair of shoes or a jar filled with purple water; she chooses the jar. Rosamond’s pleasure is short-lived, since the colored water runs out, and, without proper shoes, Rosamond cannot join her father on an outing. Pained, Rosamond has learned a valuable lesson. Character development through suffering, a characteristic of these juvenile tales, is the usual experience for the young heroes and heroines.
The success of The Parent’s Assistant led to another collection of similar stories in Early Lessons dramatizing the exploits of Harry, Lucy, Frank, and Rosamond. Maria Edgeworth added to the tales in 1814, 1821, 1822, and 1825. These stories, popular in England, were used by John Ruskin’s mother as a teaching tool; before the great Victorian was eight years old, he was writing his own Harry and Lucy stories revealing Harry’s observational powers and geological knowledge.
Frank, I-IV, written for Edgeworth’s six-year-old brother William, who eventually became an engineer and later suffered a nervous breakdown, introduced him to scientific knowledge supplied by their father. Social justice, agriculture, property rights, and moral precepts were taught by example in the stories. Edgeworth, not a scientist like her father, found the writing difficult, since she had to adapt pages of his scientific data to the intellectual capacity of preteen children. She reasoned that no matter how tiresome the task, “it will do good”; consequently, she happily accepted her duty and “determined to persevere.”
Frank, however, modeled after her father, is a priggish character and a know-it-all; his perfection would, Emily Lawless believed, cause any spirited mother to rise up and slay him; but his mother, always under complete emotional control, loves this paragon of virtue. While other mothers offer wine to their young sons and tell dear Master Frank that “Mamma will allow you a bumper this once,” she holds firm; Frank does not get the wine. Instead, he gets the finest education that doting parents can devise, acquiring a utilitarian taste for life. Frank, learning everything for a moral purpose, studies without being beaten.
Such improbable perfection in Frank’s character was due to Edgeworth’s belief that her father was perfect; although R. L. Edgeworth was unpopular outside his own eccentric circle—Lord Byron found him a bore while he admired Maria—she deified Edgeworth. Emotionally and intellectually, he was necessary for her health and literary productivity; after his death, she groped blindly for meaning and direction in her life. Her father, a world unto himself, never felt such indecision. Edgeworth’s portrait of Frank, therefore, is not beyond reality; it is based upon her honest appraisal of the model provided by her father.
Moral Tales for Young People
Moral Tales for Young People is a collection for a teenage audience. In the preface, R. L. Edgeworth states that the stories will “neither dissipate the attention, nor inflame the imagination,” but will illustrate the opinions delivered in Practical Education (1798). They also illustrate prejudices against Jews, called to Edgeworth’s attention in 1816 by Rachel Mordecai from Richmond, Virginia. Harrington (1817), the last work with a preface by her father, was written to illustrate a “good Jew.”
“The Prussian Vase”
“The Prussian Vase,” which tells the story of a “bad Jew,” is also, according to R. L. Edgeworth, a “lesson against imprudence for gentlemen intended for the bar.” Remembering her father’s experiences as an undergraduate law student at Oxford University, Edgeworth contrasts the English law system with that of Frederick II, King of Prussia. She also contrasts the impulsive, courageous behavior of Count Augustus Laniska, a seventeen-year-old soldier in the Prussian army, with the prudent, judicious behavior of his young lawyer friend, Albert. Accused of a crime against the King, Count Augustus is jailed at Spandau on circumstantial evidence. To demonstrate his generosity to a traveling Englishman, King Frederick allows a trial by jury; but the attorney for the defense must join his client in prison if the jury does not believe Albert’s argument—an ironic twist to English justice. By a series of clever deductions and careful cross-examination following an analysis of the crime—the inscription of “Frederick, the Great tyrant” on a prize-winning vase—Albert finds that Solomon the Jew is the guilty party. Hating Count Laniska because he laughed at his son who was exercising before the King, Solomon added “tyrant” to the inscription of “Frederick, the Great” that Laniska had actually written.
Even with footnotes to identify her source of historical data, Maria Edgeworth’s “The Prussian Vase” is unrealistic. The plot, never her greatest strength, is particularly weak. Sophia Mansfeld, the Dresden artist forcefully transported to Berlin to work in a pottery factory, does not relate to the other characters except in a most contrived fashion. Edgeworth wrote the story in her father’s absence to have something to read to him on his return, “one of my greatest delights and strongest motives for writing.” Sophia’s passivity and patience must have been devised for Edgeworth’s pleasure.
The other stories in Moral Tales, in general, are not fine literary works. Plots are labored with top-heavy moral heavyweights falling flat beside their light-headed contraries. Another Jewish villain, Aaron Carat in “The Good Aunt,” gets blamed for the misdeeds of English gentlemen without being more credible than wicked Solomon from “The Prussian Vase.”
“Angelina: Or, L’Amie Inconnue”
“Angelina: Or, L’Amie Inconnue” is of interest because it satirizes the romantic heroines of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays. Maria Edgeworth, the moral fabulist, diametrically opposed their frivolous romantic fiction, and “Angelina” expressed the opposition. Orphaned at fourteen, Angelina becomes the ward...
(The entire section is 3947 words.)