Edgeworth, Maria (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)
Maria Edgeworth 1768-1849
Anglo-Irish novelist, short story writer, dramatist, and educational essayist.
Edgeworth contributed notably to the development of the English novel of manners. Her vivid fiction advanced a tradition that began with Fanny Burney and reached its finest expression in Jane Austen. Although her reputation has suffered from inevitable comparisons to her younger contemporary Austen, literary historians recognize Edgeworth as an important innovator in this genre. Additionally, she is known as the author of popular children's fiction and a well-regarded volume addressing childrearing and educational theory.
Edgeworth was born to the educator, inventor, and politician Richard Lovell Edgeworth and his first wife. Richard Edgeworth eventually married four times and fathered twenty-two children. As the eldest daughter, Edgeworth left school at the age of fifteen to oversee the care and education of her many siblings; her first children's stories were written to entertain them. She served as her father's secretary as well, and collaborated with him on several nonfiction works, most notably the essays on childrearing collected in Practical Education (1798). This volume was followed by children's stories, novels of manners, and satirical short stories of society life. Edgeworth herself lived quietly, residing quietly on her family's estate until her death at age eighty-one.
Edgeworth's first novel is her acknowledged masterpiece. Castle Rackrent: An Hibernian Tale (1800) is notable for its introduction of several literary innovations. The narrator is not merely an observer, but is integrally involved in the action of the novel. Castle Rackrent is also recognized as the first regional novel, depicting the speech, mannerisms, and activities of a specific Irish region and social class. This technique influenced subsequent novelists, including William Thackeray, James Fenimore Cooper, and Sir Walter Scott, who commended "the rich humor, pathetic tenderness, and admirable tact" of Edgeworth's novel and expressed the hope that his own novels would accomplish for Scotland "something . . . of the same kind with that which Miss Edgeworth so fortunately achieved for Ireland." Castle Rackrent is also one of the first novels to depict the lives of working-class characters, to chronicle the history of a family through several generations, and to offer logical and psychologically sound character development. In subsequent novels, including Belinda (1801) and Leonora (1806), Edgeworth developed the conventions of the novel of manners, realistically depicting and often satirizing the conventions of upper-class Irish society. Her short stories, collected in Popular Tales (1804) and Tales of Fashionable Life (1812), were more markedly satirical. Edgeworth's stories for children feature accounts of dire fates befalling disobedient children and fortune favoring the well-behaved. This didactic tendency is thought to have been instilled by her father, who urged her always to write with an instructive puprose. Nevertheless, in an era known for joyless, prescriptive children's fiction, several of Edgeworth's stories are notable for lively, fresh characterizations of children who are recognizably human beings rather than character traits personified.
An early critic pronounced Edgeworth 's fiction worthy of enthusiasm but rued her cheerless utilitarianism. The didacticism that permeates Edgeworth's fiction and nonfiction alike has been attributed to the influence of her father; commentators note that her least didactic novel, Castle Rackrent, was written while her father was away from home and thus not able to impose his views. Some critics discern an interplay in many of Edgeworth's longer texts between the didacticism attributed to Richard Edgeworth and an underlying Romantic sensibility attributed to his daughter. Mark Hawthorne, for example, maintains that Edgeworth advanced her own viewpoint "through structure and symbolism" and "did not accept her father's basic premise until she incorporated the demands of the passions." Other commentators have suggested that Edgeworth herself was the source of much of the didacticisim present in her fiction, although there is consensus that her father edited and most likely altered much of her literary work. While Castle Rackrent remains her most acclaimed achievement, Edgeworth's entire career has undergone reassessment since the 1980s, with especial focus on her contributions to the development of the novel of manners.
Letters for Literary Ladies (essays) 1795
The Parent's Assistant (short stories) 1796-1800M
Practical Education [with Richard Lovell Edgeworth] (essays) 1798; also published as Essays on Practical Education, 1815
Castle Rackrent: An Hibernian Tale (novel) 1800
Belinda (novel) 1801
Moral Tales for Young People (short stories) 1801
Essay on Irish Bulls [with Richard Lovell Edgeworth] (essay) 1802
Popular Tales (short stories) 1804
Leonora (novel) 1806
Tales of Fashionable Life (short stories) 1809-12
Patronage (novel) 1814
Comic Dramas (dramas) 1817
Harrington, a Tale, and Ormond, a Tale (novels) 1817
Helen (novel) 1834
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SOURCE: "Maria Edgeworth and the English Novel," in Family Chronicles: Maria Edgeworth's "Castle Rackrent, " edited by Cóilín Owens, Wolfhound Press, 1987, pp. 29-35.
[In the following essay, Baker considers Edgeworth as an important transitional novelist whose works link eighteenth-century literary conventions with those of the next century.]
Thanks to a happy chronological accident, a bridge was provided from the eighteenth century to the nineteenth in the work of two novelists, Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen, who belonged to both the old and the new age. Without any shock of surprise or startling change of scenery, we gradually find that the past has been left behind and we are entering upon the present. There are still many features in the scenes brought before the eye which are now obsolete or quaint and old-fashioned. But compare any of their novels with Pamela and Joseph Andrews, the second centenary of which will be celebrated a few years hence—the Victorians hardly noticed the first. There the world depicted is not our world; all is remote and unfamiliar, except the general traits that are of our own race and kindred or simply human and of all ages. It is a world seemingly more than four times as far removed as that of Miss Edgeworth and Miss Austen, whose early novels, nevertheless, including their finest, were written only half a century later. In Castle...
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SOURCE: "Maria Edgeworth," in The Spectator, Vol. 182, No. 6308, May 20, 1949, pp. 672-73.
[In the following overview of Edgeworth's career, West discusses Richard Edgeworth's influence on his daughter's literary work.]
On May 22nd, 1849, Maria Edgeworth died at the age of eighty-two in the arms of her third stepmother, who was a year younger and lived to write her life. Not that Miss Edgeworth's life was especially eventful. It is true that she travelled and met many of her distinguished contemporaries. But the greater part of her life was spent immersed in a family, and filled with work in the house and at her desk. Though she had no children of her own, her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, married four times and had twenty children. Maria, as the eldest, had to act as mother during the brief marital interregnums, and provide continuity and cohesion for the several families. Above all, she had to educate them according to her father's theories.
Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1814) was a remarkable man—an inventor whose mind teemed with telegraphs and one-wheeled chaises, the disciple of Rousseau, the friend of Josiah Wedgwood, Erasmus Darwin and Thomas Day, the benevolent despot of his Irish estate at Edgeworthstown, a tyrannical yet lively paterfamilias. From Rousseau and Day (the author of Sandford and Merton) he imbibed educational doctrines which he...
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SOURCE: "Books in General," in The New Statesman and Nation, Vol. XLV, No. 1163, June 20, 1953, pp. 749-50.
[Pritchett, a modern British novelist, short story writer, and critic, is respected for his mastery of the short story and for what critics describe as his judicious, reliable, and insightful literary criticism. In the following essay, Pritchett praises Edgeworth for her sharp eye for social detail and her gift for dialogue, singling out Castle Rackrent as her single enduring masterpiece.
He was greatly mourned at the Curragh where his cattle were well-known; and all who had taken up his bets were particularly inconsolable for his loss to society.
The quotation does not come from The Irish R.M., but from the mother, or should one say the aunt, of the Anglo-Irish novel—Maria Edgeworth. The eighteenth-century note is unmistakable but so, even without the word Curragh, is the Irishness. One will never quite get to the bottom of that sentence out of Castle Rackrent. On the surface it is felt and goodnatured. "Poor" Sir Kit, after hitting a toothpick out of his adversary's finger in a duel, received a ball in a vital part, and "was brought home in little better than an hour after the affair, speechless on a hand-barrow to my lady." A sad business; but landlords come and go; we know them by their debts; only cattle are...
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SOURCE: "Chapter Two," in Doubt and Dogma in Maria Edgeworth, University of Florida Press, 1967, pp. 23-38.
[In the following essay, Hawthorne distinguishes between the didacticism imposed on Edgeworth's fiction by her father and the plot and character development that reflect her own authorial tendency.
Between 1798 and 1801, Maria Edgeworth earned her reputation as a creative writer. Her father had begun cultivating her talents along this line as early as May, 1780, when he asked her to "send [him] a little tale, about the length of a Spectator, upon the subject of Generosity." As a result of his encouragement, her earliest stories are all didactic or, as she would have said, moral. In Ireland surrounded by her little brothers and sisters, she discovered the dearth of children's stories, there being little written expressly for children except Thomas Day's Sandford and Merton and a handful of tales by Mrs. Barbauld. So she became interested in didactic stories for children. The result was a series of children's books that occupied her from about 1791 till 1827. She usually wrote the first draft of a story on a slate, then read it to her brothers and sisters. If they approved, she copied it; if they didn't, she rewrote it and tried again. Her apprenticeship was truly a family affair.
This flood of children's fiction was enough to give her a lasting place in literature....
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SOURCE: "A Final Estimate," in Maria Edgeworth's Art of Prose Fiction, Mouton, 1971, pp. 227-38.
[In the following essay, Harden assesses Edgeworth's strengths and weaknesses as a creative writer.
Throughout her long literary career, Miss Edgeworth never allowed herself to forget that the great end and aim of her writing was to make her readers substantially happier and better; to correct errors of opinion; and to remove those prejudices which endanger happiness. Sir Walter Scott described her writings as a "sort of essence of common sense", and the description is appropriate. Throughout her works, Miss Edgeworth sought to make wisdom and goodness attractive; she attempted to raise the humbler virtues to their proper importance by illustrating their effectiveness in everyday life, and she hoped to make the loftiest principles and intellectual attainments appealing and agreeable by uniting them with amiable manners and lively temperaments. No writer could propose a nobler or more worthy cause, and yet it is to the unrelaxed intensity of this pursuit that most of Miss Edgeworth's weaknesses may be attributed. It too frequently gave her a limited conception of the novelist's art and a partial insight into human nature which left small space in her system for imagination, passion, or enthusiasm. A review of the comparative strengths and weaknesses of her artistry will help to explain that although she was a...
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SOURCE: "The Narrator of Castle Rackrent" in The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 71, No. 1, Winter, 1972, pp. 124-29.
[In the following essay, Edwards examines the role of the first-person narrator of Castle Rackrent.
Since Castle Rackrent was published in 1800, nearly all the critics have agreed that Thady Quirk, the narrator, is aptly described as "faithful Thady," an unintelligent or naïve servant with a "misplaced sense of family honour." Consistent with this is Ernest A. Baker's reference to Thady's "muddleheadedness and repugnance" and George Watson's assertion that "this absurdly loyal family retainer" has a simplicity which makes him a butt. Many other critics have reinforced this view.
Thus James Newcomer's "The Disingenuous Thady Quirk" comes as a surprise. In his article Mr. Newcomer contends that Thady is "artful rather than artless," that he is always the realist, that he has a calculating mind which "shows itself in relation to his niece Judy and Jason." In effect, Newcomer asserts that Thady exploits rather than aids the Rackrents; that Thady's major concern is not loyalty but profit. Defending this position, he seeks to demonstrate that Thady and his dishonest son Jason are allies pitted against the Rackrents. Newcomer contends that the nature of this alliance is subtly conveyed to the reader when Thady calls Jason "my son" or "my son Jason" at least...
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SOURCE: "Epilogue: A Literary Perspective," in Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1972, pp. 481-88.
[In the following essay, Butler discusses Edgeworth as an innovator in the development of the novel of everyday life for a middle-class readership.]
Whereas Jane Austen was so much the better novelist Maria Edgeworth may be the more important" P. H. Newby, Maria Edgeworth, 1950]. The critics who agree that this must be so have tended to focus their discussion on the merits and demerits of Castle Rackrent, parts of The Absentee, and even Belinda. If only Maria had asserted her independence of her father, she could have written about Lady Delacour without giving her a happy ending, or, better still, have continued in the native Irish idiom of Castle Rackrent. [These] traditional lamentations are, [dubious] and illogical. For if Maria had gone on in her earliest vein, or written according to her natural disposition, she would have been unlikely to have had any real significant influence on the course of literary history.
Posterity's guess that Maria depended too much on other people is fair enough, although the story is more complex than nineteenth-century biographers supposed. It was her family and not merely her father which was the central influence in her work throughout her life. Paris in...
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SOURCE: "The Didacticism of Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent" in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. XVII, No. 4, Autumn, 1977, 593-605.
[In the following essay, Brookes commends the harmony of intent, subject matter, and form of the essentially didactic Castle Rackrent.
Castle Rackrent is often preferred among Maria Edgeworth's works because it seems a creation free of her usual didacticism, a slice of Irish life presented without comment. "In Castle Rackrent," says O. Elizabeth McWhorter Harden, "Miss Edgeworth drew directly from nature; only in Castle Rackrent was she a poet. In her recent major biography, Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography, Marilyn Butler argues that the story "evolved from a fairly elaborate verbal imitation of a real man" and that the details of the story are arranged, in contrast with her usual practice, around "the character sketch of Thady rather than a didactic theme." Yet there is another view of Castle Rackrent, that the book is a powerful condemnation of Irish landlords. Thomas Flanagan, for example, calls the story, "as final and damning a judgment as English fiction has ever passed on the abuse of power and the failure of responsibility."
Flanagan seems closer to the truth here. The story is not a spontaneous imitation of natural events; its subject matter is plainly shaped and...
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SOURCE: "Maria Edgeworth: The Unlikely Precursor," in Heritage Now: Irish Literature in the English Language, St. Martin's Press, 1982, pp. 17-29.
[In the following essay, Cronin singles out the specifically Irish characteristics of Edgeworth's; Castle Rackrent, including a "devouring interest in speech" and the "absence of plot. "
If Irish literature in English begins anywhere, it begins with Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent; and the key dates in Maria's life as far as the composition of the novel is concerned have a melancholy aptness. Born in England, she had been given a brief, tantalising glimpse of Ireland as a child of six; and then whisked back to become, at the age of eight, a boarder at Mrs. Lataffier's academy for the daughters of gentlefolk at Derby; and—at thirteen—a pupil at Mrs. Davis's seminary in Upper Wimpole Street. When she was fifteen her admired father had decided to settle in the land which his ancestors had called home for upwards of two hundred years; and the family had come back to Edgeworthstown, to an inclement Irish summer when snow fell in June and was cupped for a while in the roses. But the year was 1782; and in April Henry Grattan, still pale and weak from a recent illness, had told the House of Commons in College Green: "Having given a Parliament to the people, the Volunteers will, I doubt not, leave the people to Parliament, and thus close...
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SOURCE: '"Said an Elderly Man. . . .' : Maria Edgeworth's Use of Folklore in Castle Rackrent," in Family Chronicles: Maria Edgeworth's "Castle Rackrent, " edited by Cóilín Owens, Wolfhound Press, 1987, pp. 62-70.
[In the following essay, Ó hÓgáin commends Edgeworth's faithful depiction of Irish folkways in Castle Rackrent.]
In approaching Castle Rackrent as a folklorist, one is impressed by the authenticity, accuracy, and originality of Maria Edgeworth's observations of the life of the common people of Ireland at the end of the eighteenth century. In these respects, since the interest in folk customs and beliefs had not yet developed as a discipline, the author of Castle Rackrent is ahead of her time. Moreover, as an accomplished maker of fiction, she invests these cultural circumstances with persuasive character and social elements to render a powerful portrayal of Irish country life before the Union.
Maria Edgeworth made a courageous decision in choosing to tell the history of the Rackrent family through the mouth of the faithful old retainer, Thady Quirk, as a specimen of a social class other than her own. In eighteenth-century Ireland, this meant creating a credible representative of the Gaelic culture of the ordinary Irish man and woman. There can be little doubt that in Thady we find many characteristics of a person in his position in...
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SOURCE: "The Dilemmas of Gender as Double-Voiced Narrative; or, Maria Edgeworth Mothers the Bildungsroman," in The Idea of the Novel in the Eighteenth Century, edited by Robert W. Uphaus, Colleagues Press, 1988, pp. 67-96.
[In the following essay, Myers examines relationships between women in Edgeworth's Rosamond stories.]
"The proper education of a female, whether for use or for happiness, is still to seek, still a problem beyond human solution." Fanny Burney, Camilla; or, A Picture of Youth (1796)
"Oh teach her, while your lessons last, To judge the present by the past! The mind to strengthen and anneal, While on the stithy glows the steel." Rosamond: A Sequel to Early Lessons (1821)
"Open-hearted and open-mouthed as I am, I can keep a secret WONDERFUL well." A Memoir of Maria Edgeworth
Critics can no longer assume that important narratives deal with war or whales and that, as Virginia Woolf critiqued their consensus in 1929, "This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room." The schoolroom remains another matter. If the adult woman's novel has moved uptown, early juvenile fictions of female development still reside in the low rent district, excluded from the canon and relegated to skimpy chapters in histories of...
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SOURCE: "Representation, Conversion, and Literary Form: Harrington and the Novel of Jewish Identity," Critical Inquiry, Vol. 16, No. 1, Autumn, 1989, pp. 113-43.
[In the following essay, Ragussis examines Harrington in the course of an inquiry into the origin and role of Jewish stereotypes in English literature.]
In 1817 Maria Edgeworth published Harrington as an act of personal "atonement" and "reparation." The year before she had received a letter from Rachel Mordecai, an American Jew who wrote to complain of an anti-Semitic portrait in The Absentee (1812). In this local and personal incident between a Christian author and a Jewish reader, the shape of an important tradition of English literature was radically altered. Edgeworth was not the first to give us Jewish portraits in the novel (Daniel Defore and Samuel Richardson had already done that), nor was she the first to give us sympathetic Jewish portraits (Richard Cumberland had already done that for the drama, Tobias Smollett for the novel). Harrington was the first work in English to inquire into the nature of the representation of Jewish identity, the first not only to record how and why the English literary tradition was especially susceptible to Jewish stereotypes, but also the first to invent the forms by which such stereotypes could be inspected and perhaps overturned. With such claims, I...
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SOURCE: "Lady Delacour's Library: Maria Edgeworth's Belinda and Fashionable Reading," in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 48, No. 4, March, 1994, pp. 423-39.
[In the following discussion of Belinda, MacFadyen examines Edgeworth's depiction of the disruptive potential of adherence to fashion to a well-regulated domestic life.]
In recent years literary scholars such as Mary Poovey and Nancy Armstrong have outlined the doctrines of feminine propriety and have highlighted the cultural importance of a domestic definition of femininity. The proper lady and the domestic woman are marked by their ability to regulate their own desires and the desires of other members of their circles. Such women privilege self-control over self-indulgence, the contained over the unbounded, order over chaos. Poovey and Armstrong, however, have also noted that this idealized notion of feminine goodness is persistently confronted with alternate interpretations of feminine identity. While sexual desire is the most common source of uneasiness, women's failure to regulate the economies of their households also troubles the proponents of domestic ideology. The affluence displayed on a woman's body or in her actions could be read both as a sign of her husband's status and as a sign of economic and sexual corruption. Not surprisingly, the proponents of domestic ideology viewed fashionable display with ambivalence, for...
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SOURCE: "Commerce and Character in Maria Edgeworth," in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 49, No. 1, June, 1994, pp. 1-20.
[In the following essay, Michals examines "Edgeworth's idea of the relation between personality and property. "
In her time and in our own, Maria Edgeworth's reputation is oddly double. Read as a publicist for middle-class individualism, she is claimed for a progressive program; identified as a gifted apologist for paternalism, she is claimed for a conservative one. On one side of the question, critics like her biographer Marilyn Butler describe her as "the most thorough-going individualist writing outside the jacobin movement," while to others she is a committed paternalist to whom the very idea of "individual and inalienable rights" is deeply suspect. Contemporary reviewers present the same divided view, describing Edgeworth both as a dangerously secular utilitarian and as a reassuringly didactic moralist. In the discussion that follows I will argue that at the heart of these critical contradictions lies Edgeworth's idea of the relation between personality and property. Edgeworth embraces economic individualism without seeing individuals themselves as autonomous. For her the family has a corporate personality, one underwritten by the market value of its members' good characters rather than by its inheritance of land, the traditional basis of such a corporate personality. That is,...
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Harden, O. Elizabeth WcWhorter. Maria Edgeworth. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984, 149 p.
Concise biography and critical discussion of Edgeworth's major work.
Inglis-Jones, Elisabeth. The Great Maria: A Portrait of Maria Edgeworth. London: Faber and Faber, 1959, 265 p.
Biography based on unpublished papers including family correspondence.
Newby, P. H. Maria Edgeworth. Denver: Alan Swallow, 1950, 98 p.
Concise introduction to Edgeworth's life and work.
Kelly, Gary. "Amelia Opie, Lady Caroline Lamb, and Maria Edgeworth: Official and Unofficial Ideology." In Ariel 12, No. 4 (October 1981): 3-24.
Examination of the ways the women novelists cited explored moral, social, and ideological issues in their fiction.
Ruoff, Gene W. "1800 and the Future of the Novel: William Wordsworth, Maria Edgeworth, and the Vagaries of Literary History." In The Age of William Wordsworth: Critical Essays on the Romantic Tradition, edited by Kenneth R. Johnston and Gene W. Ruoff, pp. 291-314. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987.
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