Edgeworth, Maria (Feminism in Literature)
Although Edgeworth wrote in a variety of genres, she is primarily associated with the early English novel of manners and the Irish regional novel. She also produced a number of didactic children's tales that were popular in her own time, but are largely forgotten today. Her most highly-regarded works are Castle Rackrent: An Hibernian Tale (1800), a novel based on a family memoir written by Edgeworth's grandfather, and Belinda (1801), a three-volume novel of manners.
Born January 1, 1768, at Black Bourton in Oxfordshire, Edgeworth was the eldest daughter of Anna Maria Elers and the educator and inventor Richard Lovell Edgeworth, the most significant figure in her life and in her writing career. In 1773, Edgeworth's mother died and her father remarried almost immediately. He would eventually father a total of twenty-two children by four different wives, and the demands of caring for her many siblings caused Edgeworth to leave school at the age of fifteen. In 1782, her father moved the family to Edgeworthstown, his ancestral estate in Ireland, and became active in Irish politics and economic reform. During this time, in addition to overseeing the education of the younger children, Edgeworth assisted her father as his secretary. She began writing children's stories to amuse her brothers and sisters, and together with her father produced a volume of essays on childrearing, Practical Education (1798). She then turned to novel writing, publishing her first novel in 1800 and her second a year later.
Edgeworth's work was widely read, but she was uncomfortable with public attention, preferring the quiet domestic life she advocated for women. Despite numerous invitations to visit England, she made her first trip—in the company of her father, stepmother, and sister—in 1813. She was introduced to many of the leading intellectuals and literary figures of her time, and while Edgeworth herself was warmly received, her father was not, which disturbed her greatly and contributed to her withdrawal from literary society. She returned to Ireland where she continued writing, administering the education of her younger siblings, the last of whom was born in 1812, and helping to manage the family estate. Her father died in 1817 after a long illness and Edgeworth was charged with completing his autobiography. His Memoirs were finally published in 1820, and again her father's unpopularity led to widespread attacks in the press. Flaws in her writing were invariably attributed to the contaminating influence of her father's social and political ideas. Although she was stung by such criticism of her father, his death enabled her to venture again into the literary societies of both England and Scotland. At the same time, she gained control of the family estate—which had been mismanaged by her brother—and capably handled all facets of its operation until 1839. She continued writing, publishing her last novel, Helen, in 1834, and a children's story, Orlandino, in 1848. She died on May 22, 1849, at the age of eighty-one at the family estate in Edgeworthstown.
In 1795 Edgeworth published Letters for Literary Ladies, a three-part work consisting of an exchange of correspondence between two men on the education of women, followed by an epistolary novella featuring two young female characters, and "An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification." With this work, Edgeworth joined the contemporary literary debate on women's rights, but unlike such revolutionary feminists as Mary Wollstonecraft, she advocated a more conventional role for women—one that restricted their intellectual activities to the domestic sphere, where they might exercise their influence through mediation rather than direct participation in public discourse. Her next work, The Parent's Assistant (1796), was a collection of didactic short stories intended for children. Edgeworth's most critically acclaimed work was her first novel, Castle Rackrent, an account of four generations of the Rackrent family narrated by Thady Quirk, the family's loyal retainer. The work drew on the family history of the Edgeworths and incorporated social criticism of both the Anglo-Irish gentry and the middle class. It is considered one of the first English novels to represent working-class life, and is also regarded as the first Irish regional novel. Edgeworth's next effort, Belinda, employed the conventions of the novel of manners to attack the excesses and moral bankruptcy of the fashionable elite, while at the same time warning against the vulgarity the author associated with the middle class. The work's eponymous heroine was charged with finding a middle ground between female independence and domesticity.
By many accounts, Edgeworth was the most commercially successful as well as the most critically acclaimed female writer of her time. Today, however, her novels and essays are not widely read, although her work has attracted considerable attention from feminist theorists and literary historians. While she is considered an early feminist or proto-feminist by some scholars, largely because of her advocacy of education for women, others believe her writings reinforce the power of the patriarchy by encouraging women to confine themselves to domestic life. Marilyn Butler suggests that Castle Rackrent can be read as a progressive, even radical, work that anticipates the nineteenth-century realist novel. She contends that in the novel "old aristocratic stories of male dominance and legitimacy are being challenged by democratized women-centered plots of family life in which servants, including female servants, wield power, and almost anything is negotiable." Similarly, Edgeworth's 1809 story "Ennui," from Tales of Fashionable Life (1809-12), features three main characters who are powerful women and authority figures according to Butler. Nicholas Mason takes issue with those critics who insist that Edgeworth's work exhibits complicity with the patriarchy because of its emphasis on domesticity. Mason maintains that her version of domesticity extends beyond gender issues and encompasses issues of class as well: "more than a system for proper female behavior, the domesticity Edgeworth advocates is a summons for all members of polite society, whether female or male, to live up to their gender- and class-based responsibilities." Gender issues aside, most critics acknowledge Edgeworth's innovations in literary form, including her contribution to the development of the novel of manners and the regional novel, and her innovations in subject matter, particularly her representations of working-class characters.
Letters for Literary Ladies (essays) 1795
The Parent's Assistant (short stories) 1796-1800
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 (plays) 1817
Harrington, a Tale, and Ormand, a Tale (novels) 1817
* Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Esq.; Begun by Himself and Concluded by His Daughter, Maria Edgeworth. 2 vols. [with Richard Lovell Edgeworth] (biography) 1820
Helen (novel) 1834
Orlandino (juvenilia) 1848
* Edgeworth completed her father's autobiography after his death in 1817.
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SOURCE: Edgeworth, Maria. "Answer to the Letter from a Gentleman to His Friend, Upon the Birth of a Daughter." In Letters for Literary Ladies, Second Edition, Revised, 58-83. London: J. Johnson, 1799.
In the following excerpt, Edgeworth's male letter writer discusses the proper education for women.
No woman can foresee what may be the taste of the man with whom she may be united; much of her happiness, however, will depend upon her being able to conform her taste to his: for this reason I should therefore, in female education, cultivate the general powers of the mind, rather than any particular faculty. I do not desire to make my daughter merely a musician, a painter, or a poet; I do not desire to make her merely a botanist, a mathematician, or a chemist; but I wish to give her early the habit of industry and attention, the love of knowledge, and the power of reasoning: these will enable her to attend to excellence in any pursuit to which she may direct her talents. You will observe, that many things which formerly were thought above the comprehension of women, or unfit for their sex, are now acknowledged to be perfectly within the compass of their abilities, and suited to their situation.—Formerly the fair sex was kept in Turkish ignorance; every means of acquiring knowledge was discountenanced by fashion, and impracticable even...
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SOURCE: Butler, Marilyn. "Edgeworth's Ireland: History, Popular Culture, and Secret Codes." Novel 34, no. 2 (spring 2001): 267-92.
In the following essay, Butler discusses Edgeworth's Irish fiction and its relationship to historical events.
During the 1990s more critical work has appeared on the Anglo-Irish "national novel" than in any decade since 1800-1810 when, by common consent, the sub-genre first appeared. The new edition of Edgeworth in twelve volumes is a contribution to this collective effort, but the edition is appearing after what is effectively a "school" of Anglo-Irish postcolonial criticism. In the course of the 1990s Tom Dunne, Seamus Deane, Terry Eagleton, and most recently Kevin Whelan have between them established an essentialist line, not closely concerned with the text, on what they see more broadly as a body of writing initially by Anglicized and Protestant Irish writers that made the "writing of Ireland" a topic dominated by the colonial relationship with England and addressed to the English.1 Some of the postcolonial group argue that the relationship has from the first been hierarchical: they instance the debate Edmund Spenser borrowed from a dialogue by the Greek, Lucian, that of Civility versus Incivility, which survived into the nineteenth century with the Irish permanently cast in the role of...
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COLIN GRAHAM (ESSAY DATE SPRING 1996)
SOURCE: Graham, Colin. “History, Gender and the Colonial Moment: Castle Rackrent.” Irish Studies Review, no. 14 (spring 1996): 21-24.
In the following essay, Graham examines Edgeworth’s treatment of the concept of union—between male and female and between England and Ireland—in Castle Rackrent.
For Irish literary and cultural criticism, Castle Rackrent (1800) is placed almost irresistibly at the moment of the Act of Union; it sets a narrative which faces back to a pre-Union ‘chaos’ against an authorising ‘Preface’ which looks with anticipation to the new post-Union century. I want to examine how the squeezed historical moment of Union, balanced precariously on the thinnest definition of fins de siècle and the gender issues inherent in the text, can be made vital to uncovering a critique of the legislative merging of Britain and Ireland. Edgeworth’s text, I will suggest, expresses its scepticism about the phenomenon of Union through an analogous train of thought which uses a gendered notion of union. And Union in Castle Rackrent is a concept pressurised by its existence between male and female, Irish and English, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Union thus becomes both a marital and political act in Castle Rackrent, and each union is...
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NICHOLAS MASON (ESSAY DATE 2001)
SOURCE: Mason, Nicholas. "Class, Gender, and Domesticity in Maria Edgeworth's Belinda. "In The Eighteenth-Century Novel, Vol. 1, edited by Susan Spencer, pp. 271-85. New York: AMS Press, 2001.
In the following excerpt, Mason examines Edgeworth's second novel as a work that encourages both males and females of the aristocracy and the middle class to accept the responsibilities associated with their social standing.
In 1847 the publishers Simpkin and Marshall contacted Maria Edgeworth, requesting that she prepare an autobiographical preface for a new edition they were planning of her novels. At the time, Edgeworth was seventy-nine years old and still widely considered one of England's greatest novelists. Comfortable in her status among readers, Edgeworth saw no need for further self-promotion through such a preface and decided to decline the publishers' request. In her Memoirs, she explained, "As a woman, my life, wholly domestic, cannot afford anything interesting to the public.…I have no story to tell."1
For those familiar with Edgeworth's fiction, this equation of domesticity with dullness should be somewhat surprising, since on several occasions her form of choice was the domestic novel. In fact, one of the most commonly...
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Lawless, Emily. Maria Edgeworth, New York: Macmillan. 1904, 220 p.
Offers a biography of Edgeworth from the English Men of Letters series.
Gallagher, Catherine. "The Changeling's Debt: Maria Edgeworth's Productive Fictions." In Nobody's Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670-1820, pp. 257-327. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
Discusses Edgeworth's privileged position within the early nineteenth-century literary marketplace.
Gamer, Michael. "Maria Edgeworth and the Romance of Real Life." Novel 34, no. 2 (spring 2001): 232-66.
Analyzes Edgeworth's unique approach to literary realism.
Greenfield, Susan C. "'Abroad and at Home': Sexual Ambiguity, Miscegenation, and Colonial Boundaries in Edgeworth's Belinda." PMLA 112, no. 2 (March 1997): 214-28.
Examines the oppositions between public and private spheres and between England and the British West Indies in Belinda.
Hoad, Neville. "Maria Edgeworth's Harrington: The Price of Sympathetic Representation." In British Romanticism...
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