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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 848

Maria Edgeworth was an important figure in the development of the novel. She was one of twenty-two children born to Richard Lowell Edgeworth, an Irish educator. Her mother was Anna Maria Elers, the first of Richard Edgeworth’s four wives. Spending her earliest years in Litchfield, England, and ignored by parents whose marriage was not a success, Maria was taken to Ireland in 1773 when her mother died and her father remarried. Between 1775 and 1782 she returned to England to attend school, first in Derby and later in London. In response to Maria’s rather lackluster letters to her family, her father began to request that she write stories for him. He also began making the first of a great many suggestions about writing—suggestions that Maria would follow throughout her long writing career. When an eye infection threatened Maria’s sight, Richard Edgeworth decided that it was time for her to rejoin her family, and by mid-1782 she had returned to Ireland, where—except for extended visits to England, Scotland, and France—she made her home in Edgeworthstown, surrounded by her numerous siblings and nurtured by a protective father.

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During the 1780’s Maria occupied herself by serving as her father’s bookkeeper and assistant in the management of the Edgeworth family estate. Thus began her dependency on her father, who saw in her the means by which he could test his theories about the education and training of children and young people. A great deal of critical controversy has focused on the relationship between Maria Edgeworth and her father. Many commentators have concluded that his influence on her was negative, but a number of scholars suggest that Richard Edgeworth’s character may have been at least partially misread; certainly he should be credited with instilling in his daughter the habit of critical thinking, rare among women of her class and era. He was also responsible for the freedom with which Maria moved about the Edgeworth estate and acquired the experiences that led to her most important novels.

In 1795 Maria Edgeworth published her first book, Letters for Literary Ladies, which was followed the next year by her first volume of children’s stories, The Parent’s Assistant. Her first collaboration with her father was Practical Education, a handbook for training children. Two years later came Castle Rackrent, probably her masterpiece and certainly the book on which her later fame rests. In 1801 she published Belinda.

A family tour through England, Scotland, and France in 1802 and 1803 led to Maria Edgeworth’s only romance. In Paris, Maria met a Swedish nobleman, Abraham Niklas Edelcrantz, the private secretary to the king of Sweden. The pair fell in love, but the romance was doomed by Edelcrantz’s need to return to Sweden and Maria’s reluctance to leave her family to live in a foreign country. The Edgeworths returned to England in 1804, and Maria never saw Edelcrantz again.

Between 1804 and 1848 Maria Edgeworth wrote and published collections of tales, essays, educational treatises, children’s stories, plays, and novels. After her brother’s mismanagement created huge debts for the family following Richard Edgeworth’s death, Maria took over the running of the estate and enabled the family to keep their land and the income it generated. Her last novel, Helen, was published in 1834, and her last work, Orlandino, in 1848, one year before her death.

Maria Edgeworth’s example influenced Sir Walter Scott to write his own stories with Scottish backgrounds and to some degree inspired James Fenimore Cooper and William Makepeace Thackeray as well. Using Ireland as her locale, Edgeworth portrayed the Irish realistically and wrote of what she knew firsthand of her father’s Irish estate and the tenant system. She became one of the first to introduce the lower classes into fiction, but because her general attitude was based on reason rather than on emotion, many of her characterizations were comic rather than realistic. Schooled by her father in empiricism, she admired the philosophy of utilitarianism with its emphasis on common sense and conservatism. Not only primitivism but sensibility generally was against her persuasion.

Most critics consider Castle Rackrent her best novel. The story, told by an old servant, traces the degeneration of a contemporary Irish estate under the mismanagement of several squires and the emotionalism and lack of common sense of the tenants. Without principles, these people blindly follow money until there is none. Though written in the tone of the manners novel, the plot is a tragedy. The Absentee is similar in theme and plot, except that the mismanagement of the Irish estate in this case becomes nonmanagement while the hero is away in London trying to maintain his social status in society.

Ormond offers as its theme, implicit rather than stated, the idea that passion without reason is nothing more than sentimentality. Vivian presents the theme that reason without action is only procrastination, in one respect the reverse of the theme presented in Ormond. Whether or not any human being would ever be capable of all the virtues hinted at in these novels, they pleased a wide public, both professional and general.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 531

Maria Edgeworth’s life, stranger than fiction, is the fountainhead of her literary work. Born at her mother’s home in England to Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Anna Maria Elers, Maria was one of her father’s twenty-two children and her mother’s five children. When, in 1773, her mother died in childbirth after an unhappy marriage (Maria recollected her crying most of the time), Edgeworth four months later married another Englishwoman, Honora Sneyd. Eight months after her death in 1780, he married her sister Elizabeth. Finally, in 1798, six months after Elizabeth’s death, he married Frances Beaufort, an Anglo-Irishwoman a year younger than Maria who had illustrated The Parent’s Assistant. This marriage posed a considerable threat to Maria. By allowing that her father could love a new wife without altering his love for her, Maria forced Frances to wish only “to make one side with Edgeworth and Maria of an equilateral triangle.” Coming to Edgeworthstown during the violent era of the 1798 Revolution, Frances was welcomed by the children of the former three wives and added six of her own to complete Edgeworth’s family in his sixty-fifth year.

Maria, who never married, rejected the proposal of a Swedish gentleman in Paris during her travels to England, France, and Scotland between 1802 and 1803 because she was unable to leave her father and the security of Edgeworthstown. In 1813, Maria, her father, and Frances spent a season in London, where Maria, by then a celebrated author, met George Gordon, Lord Byron. Her father’s death in 1817 marked the beginning of Edgeworth’s forced independence and the end of her literary partnership. With the exception of Helen, a novel published in 1834, she wrote only children’s tales subsequent to the completion of Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth Esq. (1820).

Educated from the age of seven until 1780 in a Derby private school, Edgeworth transferred to another private school in London for two years, learning the social graces, languages, and literature. Away from her family, including Christmas holidays at times, the young girl, feeling rejected and alienated, made supreme efforts to please her stepmothers and father. In 1782, her formal education concluded, she returned to Ireland with Edgeworth, his wife, and the children from three marriages. At fourteen years of age, Maria, helped to educate her sisters and brothers while handling the business affairs of her father.

Honora’s son Lovell, a poor economist, inherited the landed property. Acquiring debts of _26,000, he would have lost the entire estate but for Maria’s literary earnings and her dealings with the tenants and creditors. Maria also paid for the care of William, Elizabeth’s son, in a private mental institution following his breakdown. She visited Sir Walter Scott in 1823 and received him in Ireland in 1825.

This tiny woman—she was only four feet seven inches tall—suffered great personal losses. The deaths of her mother and two stepmothers, her father (the loss of whom caused the greatest pain), and seventeen brothers and sisters—only four died as infants—whom she had loved and educated, were staggering experiences for a sensitive individual. Edgeworth died as she had wished she would in the arms of Frances, her proven friend and stepmother, at Edgeworthstown House.

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