Maria Edgeworth was one of the most popular and widely read authors of her time, as the numerous editions of her works reveal. She is recognized as an early innovator of the regional novel and an important writer of instructional tales for children. Current critical interest in Edgeworth focuses mainly on these novels and tales, which established her reputation as a writer. The critical attention given to her best-known works—Castle Rackrent (1800), Belinda (1801), and The Absentee (1812.)—dominates Edgeworth scholarship, so that her essays, which launched her literary career, have been ignored by most critics. This dismissal is unwarranted, for, in addition to being valuable in themselves, the essays explain the moral instruction that is the basis for her novels and stories. As her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth states in the preface to Moral Tales for Young People (1801), the tales were intended to serve as illustrations of the opinions delivered in Practical Education (1798). Maria Edgeworth followed this creative process throughout her literary career: she repeatedly used her essays as foundations for her longer works, either expanding an essay into a tale or writing didactic stories to exemplify the concepts presented in the essays.
Although Edgeworth dabbled in several genres, such as translation, drama, tale, and novel, her first published work, Letters for Literary Ladies (1795), is a collection of three pieces: two written in epistolary form and the third in essay form. “An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification” humorously explores the feminine argumentative method. As Marilyn Butler points out in Maria Edgeworth (1972), Edgeworth later expanded this essay into The Modern Griselda: A Tale (1805), a didactic novel that contrasts two wives: Griselda, the silly wife, and Emma Granby, the sensible wife. The tale comically exemplifies the arguments set forth in the essay, as Griselda insists on having the last word in every argument with her husband.
Edgeworth and her father worked collaboratively on Practical Education; however, she wrote the majority of the essays. Practical Education explains the theories underlying the educational techniques utilized in the Edgeworth family. These theories also served as guidance for Edgeworth in her literary endeavors. In the chapter entitled “Books,” she warns that fiction can give false ideas to children and recommends that writing fiction “should be attended to with care in all books for young people; nor should we sacrifice the understanding to the enthusiasm of eloquence, or the affectation of sensibility.” Edgeworth practiced this cautious approach in writing The Parent’s Assistant (1800) and Moral Tales: the stories in these collections popularized the themes expounded in Practical Education.
Another essay that profoundly affected Edgeworth’s literary career is Essays on Professional Education (1809). In 1807 Edgeworth decided, at her father’s suggestion, to write an essay examining male education, and thus was forced to investigate an unfamiliar, masculine topic. In order to write Professional Education she spent two years researching, reading, and writing about the selection of vocations and the proper education for sons. This rigorous scholarship greatly influenced the topics in her fiction.
According to Butler, the later tales in Tales of Fashionable Life (1809–12) illustrate the principles set out in the essay, while Ormond (1817) qualifies them.
In addition to the essays that served as sources for her tales and novels, Edgeworth published Essay on Irish Bulls (1802.), a work closely connected to her best-known novel, Castle Rackrent. In the essay she humorously relates numerous verbal blunders, called “bulls,” many of which were personally observed by either herself or her father.
The essay demonstrates that blunders are made by people of all nationalities, not just the Irish. While Butler calls Essay on Irish Bulls an apology for Castle Rackrent, in Family Chronicles (1987) Coilin Owens insists on a closer connection between the essay and the novel: “that the Irish Bull—a general term for a variety of rhetorical tropes in which sense is cunningly encased in apparent nonsense—is a paradigm for the entire novel.”
The humor found in Essay on Irish Bulls also exists in Edgeworth’s “Thoughts on Bores” (1826), published anonymously in the almanac Janus. This essay gives a comical overview of the different types of bores, ranging from the parliamentary bore, who is “Fond of high places; but not always found in them,” to bluestocking bores. These humorous essays exhibit Edgeworth’s ability simultaneously to entertain and to instruct the reader.
Because of their important connections to her popular novels and tales, Edgeworth’s essays deserve more critical attention. Although she is remembered as an author of children’s fiction and as an Irish regional novelist, the foundations of her works of fiction exist in her essays. “Essayist” is an appropriate label for Edgeworth, and one she probably would have approved of: she despised being called a “novelist” because of the emphasis on fiction the term implied. Throughout her life, Edgeworth insisted on the truthfulness of the representations in her fictional works, which were intended to illustrate the principles explained in her many essays. Thus, the essays are a major part of the Edgeworth canon, and require further examination.
Born 1 January 1768 in Black Bourton, Oxfordshire; daughter of the educationist Richard Lovell Edgeworth (died, 1817). Studied at Mrs. Lattuffiere’s school, Derby, 1775–80; Mrs. Devis’ school, London, 1781–81. Moved with her family to Ireland, living in Edgeworthstown, Longford, from 1782, and helped run the family estates. Lived in England, 1791–93; collaborated with her father on educational works, 1798–1802. First novel published anonymously, 1800. Traveled in England, France, and Scotland, 1802– 03, and in France and Switzerland, 1820–21; frequently visited London and made occasional tours of Britain. Died in Edgeworthstown, 21 May 1849.
Essays and Related Prose
Letters for Literary Ladies, 1795; Everyman Edition, 1993
Practical Education, with Richard Lovell Edgeworth, 1798; revised edition, 3 vols., 1801; as Essays on Practical Education, 2 vols., 1811
Essay on Irish Bulls, 1802
Essays on Professional Education, 1809
Other writings: moral tales, regional novels (including Castle Rackrent, 1800), plays, and correspondence.
Collected works edition: Tales and Novels (Longford Edition), 10 vols., 1893, reprinted 1969.
Finneran, Richard J., editor, Anglo-Irish Literature: A Review of Research, New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1976
Slade, Bertha Coolidge, Maria Edgeworth, 1767–1849: A Bibliographical Tribute, London: Constable, 1937
Butler, Marilyn, Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972
Harden, Elizabeth, Maria Edgeworth, Boston: Twayne, 1984
Kelly, Gary, “Amelia Opie, Lady Caroline Lamb, and Maria Edgeworth: Official and Unofficial Ideology,” ARIEL 12, no. 4 (1981): 3–24
Kestner, Joseph, “Defamiliarization in the Romantic Regional Novel: Maria Edgeworth, Walter Scott, John Gibson Lockhart, Susan Ferrier, and John Galt,” Wordsworth Circle 10, no. 4 (1979): 326–30
Kowaleski-Wallace, Elizabeth, Their Fathers’ Daughters: Hannah More, Maria Edgeworth, and Patriarchal Complicity, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991
Myers, Mitzi, “De-Romanticizing the Subject: Maria Edgeworth’s The Bracelets,’ Mythologies of Origin, and the Daughter’s Coming to Writing,” in Romantic Women Writers: Voices and Countervoices, edited by Paula R. Feldman and Theresa M. Kelley, Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1995:88–110
Myers, Mitzi, “The Dilemmas of Gender as Double-Voiced Narrative; or, Maria Edgeworth Mothers the Bildungsroman,” in The Idea of the Novel in the Eighteenth Century, edited by Robert W.Uphaus, East Lansing, Michigan: Colleagues Press, 1988:67–96
Owens, Coilin, editor, Family Chronicles: Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, Dublin: Wolfhound Press, and Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes and Noble, 1987
Tracy, Robert, “Maria Edgeworth and Lady Morgan: Legality Versus Legitimacy,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 48, no. 1 (1985): 1–22
Wilson, Carol Shiner, “Lost Needles, Tangled Threads: Stitchery, Domesticity, and the Artistic Enterprise in Barbauld, Edgeworth, Taylor, and Lamb,” in Re-Visioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 1776–183 7, edited by Carol Shiner Wilson and Joel Haefner, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994: 167–90
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