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.
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.
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.
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.