Maria Edgeworth, best known as a novelist, acquired international fame with the publication of Castle Rackrent in 1800. Its unique narrative technique—the tale is told by a passive onlooker, the Rackrent family’s servant—was a fascinating innovation. Contemporary critics, comparing her novels favorably with Don Quixote (1605) and Gil Blas (1715), believed Edgeworth was greater than Henry Fielding. Earning more than £1,000 for each of four novels, Edgeworth, unlike William Carleton, the Banims, and Gerald Griffin, was financially secure. With her father, she coauthored numerous Sessays on education. “Toys,” “Tasks,” “On Truth,” “Wit and Judgment,” and “Prudence and Economy” are representative topics. The comic and juvenile plays added nothing to her fame or fortune, but they taught Edgeworth how to write spirited dialogue. While she did not write an autobiography, more than two thousand surviving letters describe her relationships with family, friends, and literary acquaintances, documenting her understanding of the social, political, and economic forces of her era.
Maria Edgeworth produced a body of work that is distinctive for a number of important reasons. Following at somewhat of a distance the example of the Bluestockings, or women intellectuals, of her father’s generation, she relocated many of their concerns with race, class, and gender in a colonial society, Ireland. Profoundly influenced by her father’s intellectual interests, she evolved a fictional mode that uneasily yet impressively sought to combine the didactic with the comedy of manners.
The literary product of this weighty background was fiction—largely novels—which gave Ireland a hitherto unforeseen visibility on the cultural map. Edgeworth’s short fiction never attained the same degree of originality. It retains to a disabling degree the pedantry and mechanical factitiousness of the French models from which it originated, notably the contes moraux of one of her father’s influences, Jean-François Marmontel. An exception must be made, however, of Castle Rackrent. Generally classified as a novel, it may be more appropriately regarded as a novella, and it is not only Edgeworth’s most accomplished piece of short fiction but also a work that went on to influence the development of European realism. In addition, the pedantic character of much of Edgeworth’s short fiction helped consolidate her reputation as an influential educational theorist.
Like a number of late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century authors, Maria Edgeworth did not intend to become a novelist; rather, she began writing extended prose fiction as an outgrowth of other kinds of literary production. Her first works were children’s tales, usually short and always with a clear and forcefully advanced didactic thesis—a few titles suggest the nature of the themes: “Lazy Laurence,” “Waste Not, Want Not,” “Forgive and Forget.” Many of these stories were assembled under the titles The Parent’s Assistant: Or, Stories for Children (1796, 1800) and Moral Tales for Young People (1801), the first of which encompassed six volumes, while the second filled five volumes.
These tales were written largely at the behest of Edgeworth’s father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, who was a deeply committed moralist and is still considered a notable figure in the history of education in England and Ireland. Both father and daughter collaborated on many of the stories, as they did on most of what Maria Edgeworth wrote. As a sort of commentary on the works of short fiction and certainly as an adjunct to them, the essays on education collected in Essays on Practical Education (1798) were designed to advance the liberal but moralistic theories on child rearing that the elder Edgeworth had imbibed in part from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and had transmitted to his daughter. Richard Edgeworth’s credentials for such a piece of writing were perhaps enhanced by the fact that he fathered no fewer than twenty-two children with four wives.
Apart from further essays (again, chiefly written either in collaboration with her father or under his watchful eye) on education, morals, Ireland, and culture, Edgeworth’s primary emphasis was on fiction, usually of novel length (her “novels” range in length from the quite short Castle Rackrent, merely one hundred pages, to Belinda, which extends to almost five hundred pages). The only other form she attempted—one in which, like many nineteenth century authors, she had no publishing success—was the drama. Her plays were composed essentially for the pleasure of the family, as were the first drafts of the majority of her fiction works, and the volume containing the best of the plays, Comic Dramas in Three Acts (1817), is now almost universally unread.
During her long lifetime, Maria Edgeworth helped to make possible the Victorian novel. Reared with a rich background in the high achievements of Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, and Tobias Smollett, she began to write at a time when female novelists were just beginning to be accepted; a few of them, such as Fanny Burney and Elizabeth Inchbald, managed to attain some popularity. The novel of manners was the prevailing genre produced by these “lady writers.” It had affinities with the lachrymose novel of sensibility (the classic example of which, The Man of Feeling, was penned in 1771 by a man, Henry Mackenzie), and the tight focus and excessively delicate feelings exhibited in this form limited its appeal and artistic possibilities. It lay to Jane Austen to instill clever and penetrating satire, along with a much greater sense of realism in regard to human behavior, and to Maria Edgeworth to extend its bounds of character depiction, to include persons of the lower classes, and to broaden its range: Men are seen at the hunt, in private conference, and in all manner of vigorous activity unknown in Austen’s fiction.
Edgeworth is, of course, bound to be compared with Austen, to the former’s derogation; there can be no doubt that the latter is the greater novelist, from an artistic standpoint. This judgment should not blind the reader to Edgeworth’s accomplishment, however. As P. N. Newby has observed, although “Jane Austen was so much...
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Bilger, Audrey. Laughing Feminism: Subversive Comedy in Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998. Part of the Humor in Life and Letters series, this volume reveals feminist traits of these eighteenth century writers.
Butler, Marilyn. Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1972. The standard biography on Edgeworth. This work is strongest when dealing with the complex and voluminously documented Edgeworth family history. Literary criticism as such is kept to a minimum. Provides a comprehensive sense of immediate family background. The overall social and cultural context of Edgeworth’s work receives less detailed treatment.
Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1975. Despite its title, this work contains an important chapter on Edgeworth. The overall context of the Napoleonic era is taken into consideration. The obvious contrast between Edgeworth and Austen, and its consequences for the development of English fiction, results in a stimulating critique of Edgeworth’s output.
Corbett, Mary Jean. “Another Tale to Tell: Postcolonial Theory and the Case of Castle Rackrent.” Criticism 36 (Summer, 1994): 383-400. Examines Castle Rackrent, Edgeworth’s novella, from a postcolonial perspective. Argues that the story comically exploits Irish and English relationships. Contends the story articulates the shifting relations of power between colonizer and colonized.
Flanagan, Thomas. The Irish Novelists, 1800-1850. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959. Devotes a...
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