Maria Edgeworth Edgeworth, Maria (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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

Ernest Baker (essay date 1941)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 Rackrent perhaps, but certainly not in Tales of Fashionable Life, Sense and Sensibility, or Pride and Prejudice, do the manners seem strange or antiquated; still less is there in the bearing and workmanship of the novelist that requires the reader to make allowances.

For the differences between the two groups of novels are in the social physiognomy rather than in the mode of portrayal. The fashion of the world had changed much more than the fashion of novel-writing. In these fifty years, there had been an unexampled advance in order and civilization. England had never been so quiet for so long a space, never more prosperous. The middle classes were merging with the upper classes, in spite of the deference and even obsequiousness paid as much as ever to rank and title; they were in possession of wealth, comfort, and leisure, and were now the most stable element in the community, the portion that was coming more and more to represent the intelligence, the morality and refinement of the nation. Incidentally, they formed the reading public, which was now large enough to make the fortune of a successful novelist. Even the minor novels show clearly the amelioration of manners, the new interests shaping life, the steady transformation of society from centre to circumference, and the gradual suppression of the differences between town and country so far as the more cultivated classes were concerned. In both Miss Edgeworth's and Miss Austen's novels, the stage is ottener a manor-house or a vicarage than the fashionable end of the metropolis, and changes of scene from London or Bath to the country are a very small change of environment. The process of rapid evolution with its reactions upon literature which can be followed in the history of fiction better than anywhere else had completed a definite stage. Actually, it was to go on at an accelerated pace throughout the nineteenth century, till now, when a state of transition seems to be the normal state of mankind. But in essentials the society that we meet in the novels of these two ladies is that of our own contemporaries.

It would be misleading, however, not to make large allowances for the point of view and the different radius of vision of the older and the younger novelists. Simply to contrast Fielding's and Richardson's view of the world with that of Miss Edgeworth and Miss Austen would be to exaggerate the real disparity between the two epochs. Novelists latterly had shown a tendency to confine themselves to those educated classes who read their books. These two ladies kept almost exclusively to their own class; they rarely went outside a limited sphere in which manners and morals were more refined than in any other section of society. Fielding, on the other hand, had been catholic in his range, and never afraid to tell the truth however ugly; he drew his characters from low as well as from high life, as he often stops to point out, and rivalled Hogarth in his insistence on the barbarism of the mob. Even Richardson left in his two chief novels a distorted impression of a lawless state of society by choosing transgressions of the established code for his dramatic material. Fanny Burney, whose novels and letters are on the whole good evidence for the progress of manners at a half-way stage, had for the sake of sensation given some slight glimpses of the vice and brutality of the lower classes, though her chief object was to make fun of the absurdities of those who aped their betters or of the crazes and affectations rampant in a more elevated sphere. But she could have known very little at first hand about the lower classes; she was a woman, like her two successors, with a woman's narrow experience. Maria Edgeworth did not by any means overlook the poorer classes in her Irish stories, as will be seen; but she saw them as one of their superiors, at the best as a charitable observer, not as one who could even in imagination make herself one of them. All three, in short, gave the feminine view of life; they were not qualified to do more, and their delicacy would have shrunk from a candid treatment of many things that could not escape their notice. It needed a man, a Walter Scott, with an eye like Fielding's for all sorts and conditions, to restore the balance, as he did in the novels of his own day or of his yesterday which are the nearest approach to the broad survey of his predecessor. And even Scott is to be read as an historian of society only if some correction is applied for the romantic bias even in his semi-contemporary pictures. He was determined to entertain and enthral, no matter if the exact truth of his version of reality suffered. Thus a great many disturbing factors have to be taken into account if a register of the changes of the last fifty years is sought in the novels.

Miss Edgeworth and Miss Austen found their right medium in the domestic novel, that form of the novel of manners the general scheme of which had evolved and come into chief favour during the last half-century. Fielding's vivid rendering of life as it goes quietly or impetuously on was here applied to a narrower expanse, and was blended as occasion served with Richardson's closer scrutiny of the heart and with his systematic moralism. Both were clear-headed enough to avoid the uncertainty of aim and halting craftsmanship which had rendered the majority of recent novels so glaringly inferior to the pattern set by the illustrious four. They recovered the lost ground. For there was no affectation of any kind in either of them. They wrote simply and sincerely, with a definite and consistent attitude of mind that kept them to the point. Both were writers because they had to be, and were not, as too many of the literary tribe, mercenaries, gushing amateurs, propagandists in disguise, or mere...

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Katharine West (essay date 1949)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

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V. S. Pritchett, Jr. (essay date 1953)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mark D. Hawthorne (essay date 1967)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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O. Elizabeth McWhorter Harden (essay date 1971)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Duane Edwards (essay date 1972)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Marilyn Butler (essay date 1972)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Gerry H. Brookes (essay date 1977)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Anthony Cronin (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dáithí Ó hÓgáin (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mitzi Myers (essay date 1988)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Ragussis (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Heather MacFadyen (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Teresa Michals (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


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.


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