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.