Edgeworth, Maria (1767-1849) English novelist and essayist
An Anglo-Irish feminist and political reformer, Maria Edgeworth voiced the unpleasant truths of English domination of Ireland. Born at her grandparents’ home in Black Bourton, Oxfordshire, she was six when her father remarried and took her to Ireland, where she lived with a self-righteous stepmother, Honora Sneyd Edgeworth. At age seven, Edgeworth began mastering composition, French, and Italian while boarding at a Derby academy back in England. In her mid-teens, she replaced her father, writer and inventor Richard Lovell Edgeworth, as overseer of his property at Edgeworthstown (present-day Mostrim, Ireland). Free from gendered restrictions, she developed a writing career with children’s cautionary tales, plays, a translation of a French novel, and letters to literary friends. She was most particular about her domestic novels and social spoofs, which required lengthy rewriting.
As Great Britain negotiated the Act of Union to join the English and Irish parliaments at Westminster, only months after the Irish Rebellion of 1798, Edgeworth risked political fallout by ridiculing British imperialism. Her satiric regional novel, Castle Rackrent, an Hibernian Tale (1800), England’s first historical fiction, won her recognition among critics and readers. The vernacular narrative of “Honest Thady” Quirk, an octogenarian steward of the title estate, reveals the luxuries and vices that bring down a British landlord in 1782. The subtext discloses class conflict that presages the fall of the English landowners, dropping values of Irish estates, and the rise of the Irish Catholic middle class. The author acknowledges the cruelties of unfair taxation and disenfranchisement of tenant farmers who labor under Sir Condy Rackrent, M.E Foreshadowing Sir Condy’s future bankruptcy, the narrative pictures him borne through Dublin’s streets in a sedan chair deluged by rain. As debts accrue, Quirk reports “hearing the doors clap for want of right locks, and the wind through the broken windows, that the glazier never would come to mend, and the rain coming through the roof and best ceilings all over the house for want of the slater” (Edgeworth 2007, 41). The extended image of British neglect of its possessions outside England bears obvious implications of ruin and squalor, both faults typically charged against the Irish rather than against their despoilers.
Edgeworth proposed cures for imperial malfeasance. Her Essay on Irish Bulls (1802), coauthored by her father, excuses the Irish for verbal blunders, newspaper gaffes, and conversational malapropisms by posting dialogues and models from masters of English including James Adams, John Lydgate, Samuel Johnson, Alexander Pope, and the translators of European fiction. In the short story “The Grateful Negro” (1804), she pictures a turnabout on a Jamaican plantation in which a fair-minded investor, Mr. Edwards, encourages slaves to better themselves.
In 1809, Edgeworth pursued the causes of economic decline among the wealthy in Tales of Fashionable Life, which predicts the collapse of the
76 Egyptian Book of the Dead
Empire from sensual indulgences—gambling, gluttony, and arranged marriages based on monetary gain rather than the establishment of a family. She delights in overturning expectations by revealing that the aristocratic earl of Glenthorn was switched at birth for Christy O’Donoghoe, a robust blacksmith. With the voice of the prophet, she warns, “Epicurism was scarcely more prevalent during the decline of the Roman empire than it is at this day amongst some of the wealthy and noble youths of Britain” (Edgeworth 1832, 6). Her keen-edged satire of imperial greed glitters in a conversation in her last novel Helen (1834), in which she quotes Lord Chesterfield’s quip that the lord of Ireland would want the Isle of Man for a cabbage bed.
Edgeworth, Maria. Castle Rackrent. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2007.
----- . Tales of Fashionable Life. London: Baldwin & Cradock, 1832.
Edgeworth, Richard Lovell, and Maria Edgeworth. Essay on Irish Bulls. New York: J. Swaine, 1803.
Kenny, Kevin. Ireland and the British Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Nash, Julie. New Essays on Maria Edgeworth. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2006.