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Midlands Enlightenment

Fergus O’Ferrall

Maria Edgeworth’s Letters From Ireland, by Maria Edgeworth, edited by Valerie Pakenham, Lilliput Press, 420 pp, €25, ISBN: 978-1843517191

If you visit Edgeworthstown House in Co Longford today you may notice on the pillars at the entrance that there are, unusually, three plaques: one is for Maria Edgeworth, 1768-1849, “author and educationalist”; the second is for Richard Lovell Edgeworth, 1744-1817, “road-builder, inventor, politician, educationalist and writer”; and the third is for Francis Ysidro Edgeworth, 1845-1926, “economist and statistician”. This may suggest that you are at a locale of some importance for enlightened learning and practice. Interest piqued, you might consult the Dictionary of Irish Biography, published in 2009, and find that there are no fewer than six Edgeworths liste there: in addition to the three noted on the plaques there are accounts of Abbé Henry Essex Edgeworth, 1745-1807, who famously attended Louis XVI on the scaffold during the French Revolution; Kenneth Essex Edgeworth, 1880-1972, soldier, engineer, economist and astronomer; and Michael Pakenham Edgeworth, 1812-1881, botanist and administrator in India. You have stumbled upon the remarkable Edgeworth phenomenon that begs further exploration.

The publication of Maria Edgeworth’s Letters From Ireland is a wonderful place to begin this exploration: it is also most timely in marking the two-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Maria Edgeworth on January 1st, 1768. In this anniversary year there are exhibitions and conferences in Ireland – including a very successful weekend in Edgeworthstown organised by the local Edgeworth Literary Society – and abroad, exploring aspects of Edgeworth’s life and highly significant career as educationalist, novelist and correspondent. For example, the Royal Irish Academy includes Maria Edgeworth in its 2018 Exhibition Prodigies of learning: Academy women in the nineteenth century: she was one of only three women elected as honorary members of the academy in the nineteenth century and she advocated for women to be admitted to the body, of which her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, had been a founding member. As we explore the Edgeworth phenomenon we discover from Maria Edgeworth’s correspondence an unexpected but very particular locale of the Irish Enlightenment – Co Longford and the Irish midlands.

Valerie Pakenham’s selection of letters and her editorial guidance as one reads letters from 1776 to 1849 is a brilliant entrée to Edgeworth studies for those unfamiliar with her life, work and contexts. For those who are more familiar with the novels and related academic studies, which have flourished since the 1960s after a long period of neglect, it will be a joy and a key resource. The book is beautifully produced by Lilliput Press and very well-illustrated throughout with sketches and pictures, often drawn by members of Maria’s talented family. It now joins Maria Edgeworth’s Letters From England 1813-1844, edited by Christina Colvin (1971), Maria Edgeworth In France and Switzerland: Selections From the Edgeworth Family Letters, edited by Christina Colvin (1979) and The Education of the Heart: The Correspondence of Rachel Mordecai and Maria Edgeworth, edited by Edgar McDonald in 1977, as modern selections from the vast surviving Edgeworth correspondence. Maria’s long letter from her tour in western Ireland was published in 1950, edited by HE Butler, as Tour in Connemara and the Martins of Ballinahinch. Prior to these, aside from chosen letters published in the 1930s, one had largely to rely on The Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth, edited by Augustus JC Hare in two volumes in 1894, which in turn used the privately printed Memoir of Maria Edgeworth with a Selection of her Letters, published in 1867 by her family.

Why is Maria Edgeworth and her family and milieu of such continuing importance to literary, scientific, educational, historical and gender studies? It has proved difficult for scholars to agree on many aspects of the Edgeworth phenomenon as it is so multi-dimensional – and Maria’s place in terms of debates about Irish identities and her contribution to literature is indeed multi-faceted and complex, and quite different in character to, say, that of her contemporary Jane Austen, whose reputation relies on her novels alone. Edgeworth is now taught in many parts of the world in university courses on the Enlightenment and Romantic movements, on the British novel, on Anglo-Irish literature, on women and gender studies, the regional novel, the political novel, children’s literature and of course on the history of education, which illustrates how difficult it is to classify her achievement.

Maria Edgeworth not only is the true begetter of modern Anglo-Irish literature, creating its first masterpiece, Castle Rackrent (1800), but she is, with her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, an important educational theorist through the publication of The Parent’s Assistant (1796) and Practical Education (1798); her Letters for Literary Ladies (1795) is an important text for gender studies. An Essay on Irish Bulls (1802), which went through five editions before 1823 and lately reprinted in a scholarly edition in 2006 in the “Classics of Irish History” series by University College Dublin Press, is highly significant for the study of identities and the relationships between Irish people and their English rulers. Maria’s partnership with her father in this essay, as it emerges in her correspondence, was crucial and far more positive than has been often understood – his influence on her writing has tended to be taken as negative; however we learn from her correspondence that she often acted in her writing without consulting him and in fact her wider family, distinguished correspondents and guests and, importantly, her network of “big house” salons in the midlands were her first readers, whom she consulted as she drafted her novels and other works. We find an example of this in a letter she wrote in April 1799:

I have just finished a little story called “Forgive and Forget” … I am much obliged to Bessy and Charlotte for copying the Errata of “Practical Education” for me and should be extremely obliged to the whole Committee of Education and Criticism at Edgeworthstown if they would send corrections to me from their own brains.

Maria wrote The Modern Griselda, a satire on a discontented wife, in 1804, unknown to her father, and she made him guess who the author was, showing that she had some independence from his influence. He did not have an active influence on Castle Rackrent nor, of course, on Helen, her last novel (1834).

In recent decades Richard Lovell Edgeworth has come to be better understood as a major Enlightenment figure in the famed Lunar Society network from the 1760s in the English midlands. It was composed of men like Matthew Boulton and his partner James Watt of steam-engine fame; the potter Josiah Wedgwood; Erasmus Darwin, physician, poet, inventor; and later Josiah Priestley, radical and discoverer of oxygen. Edgeworth was a principal member of this group, which may be said to have kick-started the Industrial Revolution, and his role has been well-described in Jenny Uglow’s brilliant study The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World, published in 2002.

Desmond Clarke, in introducing the 1968 Irish University Press reprint of the two-volume Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth begun by Himself and concluded by his daughter Maria Edgeworth (first published in 1820) described him as “a great genius who was also a great Irishman”. Clarke’s The Ingenious Mr Edgeworth (1965) was the first modern study to place this remarkable man in his scientific and intellectual context. Both the Memoirs and the famous The Black Book of Edgeworthstown and Other Edgeworth Memories 1585-1817, edited by HJ Butler and HE Butler, (1927) are key sources for understanding the background to the Edgeworth phenomenon and the history of the family which was so influential in Maria’s life and work; indeed, she wrote an unpublished “Appendix or humble companion to my grandfather’s Black Book” covering the period from 1770 to 1848, now in the National Archives (NAI, Ms.2320). Richard’s contribution to education is the subject of a comprehensive study by Tony Lyons, The Education Work of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Irish Educator and Inventor, 1744-1817 (2003). His enlightenment approach to education shaped Maria’s life and work.

Maria was, like her father, keenly interested in scientific study throughout her life, as emerges in her correspondence with leading figures such as John Herschel, the brilliant mathematician, astronomer and chemist who visited her in Edgeworthstown in 1827; Dr Romney Robinson, the head of the observatory in Armagh whom Maria visited for four days in 1831; Humphrey Davy, the scientist who was a protégé of the Beddoes’s family (Dr Thomas Beddoes’s wife was Maria’s sister Anna). Davy came several times to stay at Edgeworthstown. The mathematician William Hamilton Rowan was another close friend and correspondent. Both Maria, her father and her brother William, cartographer and engineer, as well as her scientific visitors and correspondents, were anxious to apply scientific knowledge to advance progress in Ireland and to bring the benefits of better agricultural practice and industry to Irish people in general. Richard Lovell Edgeworth’s pioneering work, for example in the reclamation of local bogland together with his son William, who later produced the first modern map of Co Longford, has been well described by the geographer Arnold Horner in Longford History and Society Interdisciplinary Essays on the history of an Irish County (2010). William Edgeworth (1794-1829), surveyor and mapmaker who worked under the famous Scots engineer Alexander Nimmo, and who died aged thirty-five of pneumonia, deserves his own plaque on the Edgeworthstown gates and his map of Co Longford has been recently republished by the County Longford Historical Society.

I have only one significant correction to the editorial comment by Valerie Pakenham as she guides us so effectively through her selected and edited correspondence: she describes Edgeworthstown House as “an oasis of cultured enlightenment” in her introduction and later she refers to “the intellectual desert of Co Longford”. These assessments of Maria’s locale need to be heavily qualified by the recent work of Amy Prendergast, who has explored the “republic of letters”, literary sociability and intellectual pursuits in the Irish midlands from 1780 to 1820 (Eighteenth-Century Ireland volume 31, 2016). Prendergast, the author of Literary Salons Across Britain and Ireland in the Long Eighteenth Century (2015), draws our attention to the vigorous transfer of literary objects and ideas between Castle Forbes, Edgeworthstown House, and other “big houses” such as Charleville Forest in Co Offaly. She notes that Longford “seems to have been especially rich in literary life at this time”, particularly from the perspective of Selina Forbes, née Rawdon. The Forbes and Edgeworth literary network extended, as indeed Maria’s correspondence reveals, to Birr Castle, where the Parsons family famously had their telescope; to Meath where Maria so often stayed with her aunt Margaret Ruxton and very close friend Sophy Ruxton; to Westmeath, especially to two houses which were close to Edgeworthstown, Pakenham Hall (Lord Longford) at Castlepollard and Sonna, where Mrs Tuite, the sister of Richard Chenevix, who was well -known for his chemical experiments with metals and a fellow of the Royal Society, lived. Chenevix visited Edgeworthstown House first in 1800 and Maria maintained contact with him when she visited Paris in 1820 where Chenevix had married a rich French countess.

In these letters the social visits to their relatives and friends, such as the Foxes at nearby Foxhall – “dining and making merry” as she describes such a visit in 1801 – and those to the Pakenham, Tuite, and Forbes families are recurring events. Maria picked up anecdotes and ideas for her novels as she listened carefully: “Lord Longford who has been here … has told me a great many anecdotes of gaming, eating & extravagant men which will all tell in Ennui”, she writes at Christmas 1804.

The Edgeworthstown Library in Edgeworthstown House was indeed a remarkable centre of “cultured enlightenment” and Maria read voraciously all her life: she was probably the best-read Irish woman of her era; as a salon Edgeworthstown became a focal point for visitation by all the “great and the good” of the first half of the nineteenth century, including Sir Walter Scott, William Wordsworth and many more. Maria was familiar with great houses as a guest in, for example, Lord Lansdowne’s Bowood, and a highlight of her travels was a visit to Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford in 1823 (Scott’s visit to Edgeworthstown reciprocated this in 1825). It was to Edgworthstown that she was devoted and her circle locally that informed her work. Maria Edgeworth, Lady Charleville and Lady Granard were each very well-read and educated women as their letters and papers reveal: though living in the Irish midlands they were cosmopolitan in outlook and corresponded with a variety of foreign figures, especially in France, and spent time outside Ireland furthering such contacts and their knowledge. Prendergast illustrates that literary gatherings were particularly numerous among the landed elite in Co Longford, encompassing private theatricals, book clubs and salons. It is in this context that Maria honed her work: her unpublished and published work would be read and elicited praise, advice, suggestions for improvement or amendment. Those present at such gatherings included often the Ruxtons, the Pakenham family and other guests from the Forbes circle like Lady Moira. Maria corresponded with many members of the Rawdon family, writing to the two sisters, Selina and Charlotte, as well as to their mother, Lady Moira, who presided over her hugely successful salon in Dublin and added lustre to such occasions in Castle Forbes. Prendergast observes that the fascinating correspondence between Maria Edgeworth and Lady Granard, now in the National Records of Scotland, emphasises that poetry, novels and letters were constantly exchanged between their two homes. Pakenham has not utilised this key source. This reminds us that a great amount of Edgeworth correspondence remains unpublished and further research on the whole surviving Edgeworth corpus will shed more light on this midlands aspect of the Irish Enlightenment even as a new age of more romantic sensibilities was emerging during Maria’s long life. This is the case also with the Edgeworth and Lady Charleville letters now in the Marley Papers in Nottingham, not used by Pakenham.

The proper context, it seems to me, to place Maria Edgeworth is in what has been called “the republic of letters”. The writers and intellectuals who correspond with each other, transcending national boundaries as they did so much, was a feature of the Enlightenment. Salons also played a prominent role and with both the correspondence and the salons egalitarian principles of reciprocity and exchange were generally honoured. This world, as it involved women especially, has been explored in two valuable studies: Dena Goodman’s The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (1994) and Susan Dalton’s Engendering the Republic of Letters: Reconnecting Public and Private Spheres (2003). Maria Edgeworth’s remarkable and extensive correspondence with such a range of notable figures represents Ireland in this international Enlightenment context.

We may be confident that Maria Edgeworth enjoyed in Co Longford, to which she was devoted and where she lived for most of her life, a rich associational life as the seedbed of her work and achievements. It remains true that that the Edgeworth family were sharply differentiated from the great majority of their fellow Longford Protestant landowners with relatively small estates who dominated county society: these tended to be ultra-Protestant in politics; in Maria’s opinion they were totally unsuited to be magistrates or to control yeomanry, being men without education, experience or hereditary respectability. As Tom Dunne has written, everything about Richard Lovell Edgeworth “was an affront to this dominant group – his paternalistic estate, his scrupulous fairness on the bench, and above all his seemingly radical politics”.

Maria Edgeworth’s Letters From Ireland sheds a great deal of light on her life and career, as many of these edited letters have never appeared in print. We come to know Maria for her affectionate humour, witty observation, lively curiosity and insatiable appetite for new information and knowledge. The full extent of her correspondence is quite enormous – she could not resist writing letters. Maria had a unique vantage point as a female writer as she was effectively a partner with her father in running their relatively small estate: she got to know very well and to appreciate their tenants and the local people and she sought to serve them as best she could. One of the heart-warming aspects of her character and, indeed of the Edgeworth outlook in general, is the affection and respect shown to those who served the family at Edgeworthstown House. Catherine Billamore, illustrated in the volume, who was their faithful housekeeper for forty years – and who was instrumental in saving the house in 1798 due to her kindness to a rebel – was buried with the family when she died in January 1820. Famously she drew on John Langan, their land steward, for Thady Quirk in Castle Rackrent, and he appears in direct quotation in some of her letters: in January 1809 when the Foxes of Foxhall, relatives and friends of the Edgeworths and near neighbours, passed the gate of Edgeworthstown House without calling, Maria wrote to Sophy Ruxton:

Old John Langan came in and told us this fact with high indignation – “Mrs F nodded her head to me from her carriage as she passed – Sorrow take her and her nod too! A pretty lady isn’t she and a fine wife! I hate her for she has spoiled as good as man as ever breathed – Sorrow! Take her!” added he growing very red & going right shoulder forward out of the kitchen “I wouldn’t be sorry if her neck was broken going to Dublin.”

In 1805 Maria recounts to her Aunt Ruxton how retainers like the Langans helped celebrate her father’s birthday with her family:

Old John has three sons – they have three wives and children innumerable – his eldest son’s two daughters very genteel … all in white net-silk stockings too! & coiffée with only a well placed natural flower on their heads, were the belles of the evening – Sneyd and Henry danced with them & John Langan, the delighted father and grandfather sat upon the pier of the diningroom steps with little Harriet on one knee & Sophy on the other & Fanny beside him. Then cakes & syllabub served in abundance by good Kitty [Catherine Billamore] – William who is at present in the heights of electrical enthusiasm proposed to the dancers a few electrical sparks to complete the joys of the day.

There is a delightful sketch of John Langan with little Harriet and Sophy Edgeworth nestling in to him at a sheep-shearing drawn by Charlotte Edgeworth included as we read this letter. This vignette reminds us how closely the Edgeworths related to their staff and how they valued their tenants – when visitors came to Edgeworthstown they were frequently taken to visit some of their exemplary tenants as the Edgeworths were resident and improving landlords who believed in the just and proper exercise of their responsibilities to their tenants. For example, in August 1816 Edward Strutt, a rich industrialist from Derby, was taken to see some of Richard Lovell Edgeworth’s “bettermost tenants – Hugh Kelly … and James Allen and Miles – with all of which, especially the footing on which my father is with his tenants, he seemed delighted”. Again in September 1819 James Carr, solicitor to the treasury was taken to meet some of the tenants as described by Maria:

Hugh Kelly’s is as nice a house and parlour, gates, garden, and all that should accompany a farm house as any that England could afford. James Allen – though grown very old & in a forlorn black shag wig – looked like a respectable yeoman – the country’s pride – and at my instance brought out a fine group of grandchildren as ever graced a cottage lawn – indeed some of them were too nice for cottages as they were in white gowns & black lace pelerines [capes] it being Sunday – In driving home at the crossroads … we had the good fortune to come into the middle of an Irish dance – the audience on each of the opposite banks – picturesque youth, beauty, sunshine & variety of attitudes & expressions of enjoyment – the fiddler sitting & the dancers in all the vivacity & graces of an Irish jig delighted our English friends.

There is much to be learned about local history in Co Longford from the Edgeworth correspondence and of course from her novels – a topic which requires separate treatment. What is important from a national viewpoint is that the Edgeworth Enlightenment project for progress in Ireland was indeed a singular one: in her Irish novels Castle Rackrent (1800), Ennui (1809), The Absentee (1812) and Ormond (1817), Maria sought to show the rational and ethical necessity of England and Ireland forming a cosmopolitan union in accordance with the Enlightenment values of tolerance and rational self-interest. Thomas Flanagan in his work on The Irish Novelists 1800-1850 (1959) observed that Castle Rackrent “is that rare event, an almost perfect work of fiction” and that the story it tells is “as final and damning a judgment as English fiction has ever passed on the abuse of power and the failure of responsibility”.

As the bestselling Irish author in the early nineteenth century, Maria Edgeworth influenced liberal opinion in Britain and Ireland but sadly it was “the abuse of power” and “failure of responsibility” that determined the course of events in Ireland. She believed, as she wrote in 1831, that “A gentleman’s estate should be a moral school.” This she and her family endeavoured to provide in their own estate. In her fiction she sought to address issues and problems delineated by religious, national, racial, class-based, sexual and gendered indentities. Castle Rackrent is the first significant English novel to speak in the voice of the colonised. Coming from the background of her family and culture she could not but believe in the superiority of enlightened British and European liberal culture. What she sought to show was that the Irish people were in essence the same as other nations such as the English and therefore worthy of equality.

Some recent critics who have discussed her in modish terms often shaped by fashionable literary theory classify her as colonist, Angliciser, Protestant, ascendancy landlord and so forth. Their critical stance seems to be based on the proposition that the Irish people were unique and different – and therefore worthy of separate nationhood. This it seems to me is to miss the essential nature of the Edgeworth phenomenon – Enlightenment universalism and rational advance based upon values of tolerance and respect of all humankind. Maria’s distinctive feature was in fact her detailed, focused attention to the language, manners and daily lives of the Irish people and upon how they might flourish in a more enlightened world through education and fair treatment. The folklorist Dáithí Ó hÓgáin was “impressed by the authenticity, accuracy, and originality of Maria Edgeworth’s observations of the life of the common people at the end of the eighteenth century”.

Later in her life Maria Edgeworth recalled in a letter to Pakenham Edgeworth on February 14th, 1834 how “Sir Walter Scott once said to me ‘Do explain to the public why Pat, who gets forward so well in other countries, is so miserable in his own’. A very difficult question: I fear above my power. But I shall think of it continually, and listen, look and read.” This supplies an important key to her life and work even as the Edgeworth Enlightenment project was succumbing to the new ideological forces shaped by a Romantic and more democratic era.

Edgeworthian moral landlordism failed. It was always an exceptional experiment in an Ireland dominated by the corrupting nature of a largely absentee ascendancy landlordism. Religious exclusion and abuse of power was exposed by the rise of O’Connellite democracy and landlordism was ended by the later dominance of Catholic middle class tenant farmers in their struggle to own their tenancies. The Edgeworth experiment remains important as an exception to the mounting crisis in rural Ireland in the first half of the nineteenth century and helps greatly in our diagnoses of this crisis.

Richard Lovell Edgeworth, and to a lesser extent Maria, had radical instincts: it might be noted that their publisher, Joseph Johnson, was a well-known English radical who was convicted of “seditious libel”. He also published William Godwin, who was read by the Edgeworths. Marilyn Butler has reminded us that Richard and Maria both admired the United Irishman William Drennan, with whom Richard corresponded. Richard had been aide-de-camp to Lord Charlemont in the Irish Volunteers in the 1780s and there is an account in these letters of Richard and Maria visiting in March 1799 the ill Charlemont in Dublin. Richard had personal contact with acquaintances in the United Irishmen through common membership of the Royal Irish Academy and he was very critical of the repressive policies of Pitt and the Irish administration. We note in An Essay on Irish Bulls the reference to General Lake’s pursuit of rebels as hunting “the human biped as fair game”.

Richard and Maria were in favour of religious equality and reform but above all they wished to apply a rational and empirical approach to Irish problems, which they believed required investment in popular education. Famously, Lovell Edgeworth’s pioneering model interdenominational school at Edgeworthstown from 1815 to the early 1830s represented what they hoped a national system of education would provide, an educated people: their school did produce, among others, James Bronterre O’Brien, the well-known Chartist leader. The Edgeworths supported Catholic Emancipation and socialised with Catholic families (such as the Deases of Turbotstown House, Castlepollard) and Maria was in favour of the Great Reform Act of 1832. In 1824 she refers to entertaining the local Roman Catholic bishop James Maguaran (not “Mc Gover” as given in Pakenham) at Edgeworthstown House on a haunch of venison during a typical busy round of visitors.

However, given the experience of the terror of the French Revolution and the danger of mob rule if democracy arrived without an educated citizenry, she opposed what she was calling by 1835 “the ragamuffin democracy”. She feared that “those who have no property & no education” would overwhelm by their numbers “those who have some property & some education”. The Edgeworth tenants, faithful to the family until the O’Connellite democratic revolution hit Longford in a series of hotly contested elections in the 1830s, obeyed the popular party. much to Maria’s distress.

There is an emotional account given in Maria’s letter to Sneyd Edgeworth of the bringing of the Edgeworth tenants to book by Barry Fox, who was responsible for one part of the estate, after they voted for the O’Connellite candidates in 1835. This took the form of insisting that rent be paid immediately, abolishing the traditional “hanging gale”; the aged tenant Dermot, with his son in tears, brought in their rent:

The thoughts of the number of years I had received rent from that old good tenant in my father’s time all worked upon me. I am ashamed to tell you my finale – that tears began to flow and though I twinkled and rubbed them out and off they did come – and Honora came in and Mr Hinds (land agent) was by and it was all shameful. But I never said an overt word to Dermot, approving or disapproving what had been done. But I told him I should let his landlord know all about it and I gave him a receipt in full to November 1834. But I entered his rent only in pencil in the book till I should receive your ultimatum. This I never said to Dermot, but to Barry. I gave him a glass of beer, which he drank to “Captain Fox’s good health” anyway – and his landlords.

(This is territory previously explored in Michael Hurst’s Maria Edgeworth and the Public Scene: Intellect, Fine Feeling and Landlordism in the Age of Reform (1969), which treats of the 1830s electoral contests in Co Longford and which I have also explored in a number of articles in Teathbha, Journal of the County Longford Historical Society.)

The renaissance in Edgeworth studies was very significantly advanced by Marilyn Butler’s major biography, Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography (1972). Modern scholarly editions of Maria’s novels and writings are now easily available published in Penguin Classics and in The World’s Classics paperback series from Oxford University Press. A major scholarly enterprise, The Novels and Selected Works of Maria Edgeworth, has been published in twelve volumes by Pickering & Chatto (1999-2003). In the United States there is growing interest in Maria Edgeworth among literary scholars, exemplified by the recent scholarly edition of Ennui, edited by Robin Runia and published by Valancourt Books in 2016: the bibliography in this book indicates the range of scholars who have written on aspects of the work of Maria Edgeworth. Susan Manly, who is working on a political biography of Edgeworth, has produced a scholarly edition of her tales for children: Selected Tales for Children and Young People: Maria Edgeworth (2013). For her classics in children’s literature alone, which she continued to write until the 1820s, Edgeworth would have a secure place in literary history. For monographs on a wide range of aspects of the life and works, three important monographs are significant: Brian Hollingsworth’s Maria Edgeworth’s Irish Writing: Language, History, Politics (1997) examines her use of vernacular language; Sharon Murphy’s Maria Edgeworth and Romance (2004) and Clíona Ó Gallchoir’s Maria Edgeworth: Women, Enlightenment and Nation (2005) discuss in detail her work in terms of her power of imagination in the Romantic mode and her commitment to the values of the Enlightenment. New Essays on Maria Edgeworth, edited by Julie Nash (2006), contains ten essays exploring aspects of her work by scholars based in the United States of America. It is in this developing critical literature that new understandings of the Edgeworth phenomenon are emerging, which provide a very rich context in which to read Maria Edgeworth’s Letters from Ireland.

There is so much to enjoy in Valerie Pakenham’s selection for the general reader as well, from the narrow escape the family and house had during the 1798 Rebellion, to her encounters with so many leading figures of the period, and to the vivid descriptions of social life that emerge from her pen. For example, in July 1831, finding that she needed accommodation, she “enquired for the nearest cheapest hotel – Shelbourne’s on Stephen’s Green” which she found full, “crammed all but one dirty sitting room and bedchamber smelling insufferably of stable – 9 shillings per day – Waiter and chambermaid scarcely awake and barely dressed – but while we were parlaying a red eyed thin faced man put his head between their shoulders – “My name’s Burke, Ma’am, and I’ve just learned your name’s Edgeworth and you’re as welcome as life to the best room in my house for anything at all! Only not a room have I vacant till after 12 – then the tenant will be gone & you shall have a proper drawing room – & your young gentleman – if you would take what you see till after breakfast.
“So I did – and a very bad breakfast we had – and a worse dinner– everything truly Irish in the old worst sense – too much show – too much dirt – and not a word without flattery – or lying – One of Burke’s unanswerable speeches finished with ‘Ma’am, I admired you before you were born.’

Maria Edgeworth in her old age did what she could to aid the local people in the Great Famine. As well as personally providing what aid she could, she wrote appeals for money, clothing and food. She wrote her last published book, Orlandino, to raise funds for famine relief.

There is an account given by her former servant “Biddy” Madden of Edgeworth’s effort to help the starving people, old and feeble though she was:

her heart went out to the poor and afflicted in the locality – all of whom were tenants on the Edgeworth estate. “Many a day”, said Biddy, “I went around with her 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 badly able to walk then and had a short “crubeen stick” to help her along.
The “faver” (fever) 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. (National Folklore Collection, S 770:205-7)

She died on May 22nd, 1849. Two weeks before she died she wrote these patriotic lines:

Ireland, with all thy faults, thy follies too,
I love thee still: still with a candid eye must view
Thy wit too quick, still blundering into sense
Thy reckless humour, sad improvidence,
And even what sober judges follies call –
I, looking at the Heart, forget them all!


Dr Fergus O’Ferrall is a historian and author; he has contributed a number of essays to the Dublin Review of Books and to other journals. He is author of Catholic Emancipation: Daniel O’Connell and the Birth of Irish Democracy 1820-1830 (Dublin, 1985) and has co-edited and contributed to Longford History and Society: Interdisciplinary Essays on the History of an Irish County (Dublin, 2010.)



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