Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849) was an Anglo-Irish novelist and educationist who made significant contributions to the evolution of the novel in Europe. She was born on January 1, 1768, in Black Bourton, Oxfordshire, to Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Anna Maria Edgeworth. Maria was the second child of her father, who eventually fathered 19 children by four wives. She spent her early years with her mother’s family in England, living at The Limes (now known as Edgeworth House) in Northchurch, by Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire.
Maria Edgeworth’s education was unconventional for a girl of her time. Her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, was a progressive thinker who believed in educating his children, including his daughters, to the same level as his sons. He was a prolific inventor and writer, and he collaborated with Maria on several books on education and other matters. Maria’s early education was influenced by her father’s ideas, and she was taught a wide range of subjects, including science, mathematics, and philosophy.
She was a prolific Anglo-Irish novelist of adults’ and children’s literature, and one of the first realist writers in children’s literature. She was highly educated and considered a didactic writer.
Maria Edgeworth’s most popular work on childhood education is Practical Education, which she wrote in collaboration with her father. Her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, contributed to many of her other works as well, such as Patronage (1814), and Castle Rackrent (1800) . Maria Edgeworth was introduced to a Swedish courtier named Mr. Edelcrantz in Paris, and he made a marriage proposal to her. However, she turned down the offer, and there is no record of any romantic relationship between them. Edgeworth had many correspondents across Britain and Europe, including Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott, and Rachel Mordecai Lazarus. She held a lasting correspondence with Rachel Mordecai Lazarus, a Jewish-American educator. Maria Edgeworth travelled across Europe with her family while writing, and she spent the rest of her life living in the Edgeworthstown estate in County Longford, Ireland.
Maria Edgeworth was interested in science, gardening, and education. She was critical of those who used chemical experiments as a magic show and argued that if a child were properly educated, he or she would understand the principles behind the experiments. Both Maria and her father were in favour of Catholic Emancipation, agricultural reform, and increased educational opportunities for women. She particularly worked hard to improve the living standards of the poor in Edgeworthstown. Her fictional but realistic characters, and the manner in which she portrayed a dignified peasantry and way of country life, was new in the literature of fiction.
In the period of the ‘Great Famine’ (1845-1851), the civil parish of Mostrim consisted of thirty-four townlands and the town, covering just over 10,943 acres.
The census of 1841 revealed that it had a population of 4,933, of whom 864 (or 21%) lived in Edgeworthstown itself. As the population generally was increasing quite rapidly, we may assume that by 1845, the parish would have had over 5,000 people. It can also be assumed that in common with the rest of Ireland, those in the parish most dependent upon the potato crop were the small farmers, the cottiers and the labourers. Frequently, the distinctions between those three groups were very blurred, but the rapid rise in population from the beginning of the nineteenth century was especially evident among them.
Constable Peter Byrnes reported from Edgeworthstown on 28 May 1846 : he stated that there had been 300 acres sown in 1844 and 280 acres in 1845. However, the partial failure of ‘45 meant that in 1846, there were 208 acres planted, or almost one third less than two years earlier. During the autumn of 1846, the local relief effort expanded in response to the worsening situation. On 4 September, a meeting of the clergy, landowners and farmers of Mostrim was held in the Market House in Edgeworthstown under the chairmanship of Michael Pakenham Edgeworth (another of Maria’s half-brothers). It was decided that subscriptions be collected to purchase Indian meal and other foodstuffs. A committee was appointed with the following members: Francis B. Edgeworth, Rev. Thomas Gray P.P., Rev. J. McNally C.C., Mr. Cowen, Surgeon Dobson, Mr. Tynan, Mr. Rhatigan, Mr. Kenny, Mr. Green, Mr. James Kelly, Mr. Duffy and Mr. McKeon. . The most important factor in determining the course of the Famine in any area was the response of the local landlord.
If a landlord was genuinely interested in the welfare of his/her tenantry, then their actions would quite literally make the difference between life and death. The people of Edgeworthstown were fortunate to have, living in the ‘big house’ at their time of acute need, a lady of action – the novelist Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849). On 30 January 1847, she completed a questionnaire for the Society of Friends Dublin Central Relief Committee which provides us with a reasonably clear impression of conditions at that point. She estimated the population (presumably of the entire parish) at 5,000, of which 3,000 required relief. She worked with her stepmother, Frances Beaufort Edgeworth, to distribute food and clothing to the poor in the area.
Edgeworth did not believe in giving relief indiscriminately – it was important for the poor to work for themselves as far as possible, and that included women and girls. She suggested, in a letter to Dr. Joshua Harvey of the Society of Friends, that a small sum of money could procure materials for women for such activities as needlework and knitting. Harvey’s committee granted £30 towards the distribution of soup and a further £10 for providing female employment.
As a famous author, Edgeworth had friends and acquaintances in many places and she sought the assistance of some of them. One, Miss Ryan in Cincinnati, Ohio, persuaded the relief committee there to spend the balance of its funds – $180 – on cornmeal to be sent to her. She also received contributions from, among others, Professor Ticknor of Harvard University who had visited Edgeworthstown with his wife in the 1830s, and from ‘about thirty young people and children of Boston’ from their pocket money. An American ship’s captain named Robert Bennett Forbes later wrote that $280 and 100 barrels of supplies were sent from Boston to Edgeworthstown. The most lasting action by Edgeworth in her endeavours to alleviate the suffering around her was the writing of the novel Orlandino, a children’s story published in 1848, the proceeds from the sale of which would go to famine relief.
Regarding mortality in the Edgeworthstown area, Maria informed her sister Honora Beaufort, in a letter of 8 May 1847, that it was ‘not so much as a third’ above the normal level. However, the writer did not always remain in the comfort of her house and listen to the tales of others. We have an extraordinary eye-witness account from Biddy Macken of Pound Street, who worked as a servant to the Edgeworth family and, in 1912, recounted some of her poignant memories of the years of the ‘Black Praties’ to Richard Hyland N.T.
Then a teenager, Biddy recalled: “I went around with her (Maria) from house to house in this town and far outside it carrying a big basket filled to the brim with food. No house was passed by Maria without calling. Not only food was given but turf and warm clothing purchased in the town. She was barely able to walk then and had a short “cruben” stick to help her along. The “favor” was in a lot of houses but Maria did not mind. When she visited the poor she was always cheerful and had a way of “making them laugh”. She was short of breath often when we were going up that hill (Pound Street) and often she had to sit down weary and tired in the “parlour” when she got home.
-Taken from an article written by County Archivist Martin Morris and published in the book ‘o theach go teach’ a history of Edgeworthstown published in 2003 by the Edgeworthstown Historical Group.
Maria Edgeworth was friends with Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott, and she was wooed by a Swedish Count. Her love of Ireland, and in particular the family estate in Longford, colored her writing and gave it a unique flavor. For all Jane Austen’s relative obscurity as a novelist in her lifetime, Maria Edgeworth was aware of her novels at least as early as 1814, when she read Mansfield Park shortly after publication, finding it “like real life and very entertaining.” Edgeworth was much less complimentary about Emma.
Maria Edgeworth travelled across Europe with her family while writing. She spent the rest of her life living in the Edgeworthstown estate in County Longford, Ireland.
This first of January,” she wrote in 1849, “was my eighty-second birthday, and I think I have as much enjoyment from books as ever I had in my life.” A notable new one, the first instalment of Macaulay’s History, reached her about this time, and she wrote a long letter on the subject to Dr. Holland, which appears to have been sent on to the historian, for we hear of his expressing pleasure in her enjoyment–”a small return for the forty years of enjoyment,” so he worded it, which he had had from her. Even the old childish love of small adventures–climbing to forbidden places, and the like–seems, incredible as it may appear, to have survived with her to the very end.
In the last stage of all, when she was actually within a couple of weeks of her death, she has to confess to the crime of having scrambled up to the top of a ladder, this time for the purpose of winding the family clock. “I am heartily obliged and delighted by your being such a goose, and Richard such a gander,” she writes in a letter to her sister, Mrs. Butler, of May 1849, “as to be frightened out of your wits by my going up the ladder to take off the top of the clock. I summoned Cassidy, let me tell you, and informed him that I was to wind the clock, but that he was promoted to take off the top of it for me.–And then up I went, and I wound the clock, just as I had done before you were born!”
This letter was written upon the seventh of the month, and exactly one fortnight later, upon the morning of the twenty-second of May 1849, Miss Edgeworth was seized by a sudden sensation of pain about the region of the heart, not apparently very severe. A few hours later she died, as she had always wished to do, in the arms of her faithful stepmother.