Edgeworth, Maria

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Edgeworth, Maria (1767-1849): English, Novelist

Novelist Maria Edgeworth was born to Richard Lovell Edgeworth and his first wife, Anna Maria Edgeworth (née Elers). Richard married four times, and Maria was the third of her father’s twenty-two children. In June of 1782, Richard Edgeworth moved his family to his estate in Edgeworthstown, Ireland, where Maria lived for the remainder of her adult life, aside from periodic trips to England and Scotland. Because of the success of her writings, she became friends with other famous authors such as William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Sir Walter Scott.

Practical Education (1798), written by Richard and Maria Edgeworth, is their tract on progressive methodologies of education. The Edgeworths disapproved of current ways of teaching and offered unique alternatives. Practical Education has often been considered the most influential and significant treatise on education reform in England of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Edgeworth is an important literary figure in that she was arguably the first novelist to write realistically about life in Ireland. On this subject, previous English writers had employed prejudices and stereotypes in their pieces. Edgeworth, contrariwise, wrote about what she witnessed on a daily basis in Ireland and penned four novels--Castle Rackrent (1800), Ennui (1809), The Absentee (1812), and Ormond (1817)--to demonstrate to English readers, who relied on prejudicial and negative caricatures of the Irish. She did not glorify life in Ireland, but rather portrayed it in a realistic manner.

Edgeworth is a significant writer of the Enlightenment because of her use of regionalism in some of her works set in Ireland. Castle Rackrent (1800) may have been the first regional novel published in Britain. Brian Hollingworth, furthermore, believes that this novel is the first to use the Irish vernacular as the narrative voice. Thady Quirk, an Irish caretaker modeled after Edgeworth’s servant John Langan, relates the story of the tribulations of the Rackrent family. The subtitle of the book--. . . . taken from the facts, and from the manners of the Irish squires. . . --indicates that Edgeworth, in her effort to edify the English about Ireland, wishes for the novel to be realistic, for the events to be taken as fact. Hollingworth observes the political nature of the book, noting that it was published in January 1800--when there existed a serious debate about the Union between Ireland and England--an agreement that the Edgeworths opposed. The novel delineates Irish character, perhaps something that would be lost in the Union.

Harrington (1817) differs from the aforementioned four novels because in this book, Edgeworth was not relying on what she knew for the source material. This novel concerns anti-Semitism, a topic that caught her attention after one of her readers wrote her to complain about the anti-Semitism in her previous works. Understanding that her works did contain anti-Semitic prejudices, Edgeworth penned the novel Harrington in which she discusses the causes of this prejudice, relating the story of the titular character, who possesses strong anti-Semitic sentiments but who overcomes his prejudices. This novel is significant in that it is clearly one of the first English narratives to expose the causes of anti-Semitism and to condemn the prejudice. Edgeworth’s novel is unquestionably one of the first English texts to treat Jews sympathetically and realistically--a marked change from other novels by her contemporaries--and from her previous writings.

Further Reading:

Elizabeth Harden, Maria Edgeworth, 1984.

Brian Hollingworth, Maria Edgeworth’s Irish Writing: Language, History, Politics 1997.

Eric Sterling

Auburn Montgomery University