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 to those who despised fashion;—our books of science were full of unintelligible jargon, and mystery veiled pompous ignorance from public contempt: but now writers must offer their discoveries to the public in distinct terms, which every body may understand; technical language no longer supplies the place of knowledge, and the art of teaching has been carried to such perfection, that a degree of knowledge may now with ease be acquired in the course of a few years, which formerly it was the business of a life to attain. All this is much in favour of female literature. Ladies have become ambitious to superintend the education of their children, and hence they have been induced to instruct themselves, that they may be able to direct and inform their pupils. The mother, who now aspires to be the esteemed and beloved instructress of her children, must have a considerable portion of knowledge. Science has of late "been enlisted under the banners of imagination ", by the irresistible charms of genius; by the same power, her votaries will be led "from the looser analogies which dress out the imagery of poetry to the stricter ones which form the ratiocination of philosophy.—Botany has become fashionable; in time it may become useful, if it be not so already. Chemistry will follow botany. Chemistry is a science well suited to the talents and situation of women; it is not a science of parade; it affords occupation and infinite variety; it demands no bodily strength; it can be pursued in retirement; it applies immediately to useful and domestic purposes: and whilst the ingenuity of the most inventive mind may in this science be exercised, there is no danger of inflaming the imagination, because the mind is intent upon realities, the knowledge that is acquired is exact, and the pleasure of the pursuit is a sufficient reward for the labour.
A clear and ready knowledge of arithmetic is surely no useless acquirement for those who are to regulate the expenses of a family. Economy is not the mean "penny wise and pound foolish" policy which some suppose it to be; it is the art of calculation joined to the habit of order, and the power of proportioning our wishes to the means of gratifying them. The little pilfering temper of a wife is despicable and odious to every man of sense; but there is a judicious, graceful species of economy, which has no connexion with an avaricious temper, and which, as it depends upon the understanding, can be expected only from cultivated minds. Women who have been well educated, far from despising domestic duties, will hold them in high respect; because they will see that the whole happiness of life is made up of the happiness of each particular day and hour, and that much of the enjoyment of these must depend upon the punctual practice of those virtues which are more valuable than splendid.
It is not, I hope, your opinion, that ignorance is the best security for female virtue. If this connexion between virtue and ignorance could once be clearly proved, we ought to drown our books deeper than ever plummet sounded:—I say we—for the danger extends equally to both sexes, unless you assert that the duties of men rest upon a more certain foundation than the duties of the other sex: if our virtues can be demonstrated to be advantageous, why should theirs suffer for being exposed to the light of reason?—All social virtue conduces to our own happiness or that of our fellow-creatures; can it weaken the sense of duty to illustrate this truth?—Having once pointed out to the understanding of a sensible woman the necessary connexion between her virtues and her happiness, must not those virtues, and the means of preserving them, become in her eyes objects of the most interesting importance? But you fear, that even if their conduct continued to be irreproachable, the manners of women might be rendered less delicate by the increase of their knowledge; you dislike in the female sex that daring spirit which despises the common forms of society, and which breaks through the reserve and delicacy of female manners:—so do I:—and the best method to make my pupil respect these things is to show her how they are indispensably connected with the largest interests of society: surely this perception of the utility of forms apparently trifling, must be a strong security to the prudential reserve of the sex, and far superior to the automatic habits of those who submit to the conventions of the world without consideration or conviction. Habit, confirmed by reason, assumes the rank of virtue. The motives that restrain from vice must be increased by the clear conviction, that vice and wretchedness are inseparably united.
Do not, however, imagine, my dear sir, that I shall attempt to lay moral demonstration before a child, who could not possibly comprehend my meaning; do not imagine that because I intend to cultivate my daughter's understanding, I shall neglect to give her those early habits of reserve and modesty which constitute the female character.—Believing, as I do, that woman, as well as man, may be called a bundle of habits, I shall be peculiarly careful, during my child's early education, to give her as many good habits as possible; by degrees as her understanding, that is to say as her knowledge and power of reasoning shall increase, I can explain the advantages of these habits, and confirm their power by the voice of reason. I lose no time, I expose myself to no danger, by this system. On the contrary, those who depend entirely upon the force of custom and prejudice expose them themselves to infinite danger. If once their pupils begin to reflect upon their own hoodwinked education, they will probably suspect that they have been deceived in all that they have been taught, and they will burst their bonds with indignation.—Credulity is always rash in the moment she detects the impositions that have been practised upon her easy temper. In this inquiring age, few have any chance of passing through life without being excited to examine the motives and principles from which they act: is it not therefore prudent to cultivate the reasoning faculty, by which alone this examination can be made with safety? A false argument, a repartee, the charms of wit or eloquence,...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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