Maria Edgeworth

Maria Edgeworth Statue located outside Edgeworthstown on the N4

Life & Times of Maria Edgeworth
Maria Edgeworth remains one of the most influential and famous novelists of the English language, her most famous and cherished work being the novel Castle Rackrent. Born near Oxford on 1st January 1767, she spent most of her life in Ireland and she was deeply loved in the locality of Edgeworthstown in Co.Longford. Her charitable efforts during the tragic famine years earned her much praise and affection. Although in her lifetime she would have witnessed the American revolution, the French revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon and the suppressed revolts of 1798 and 1848, it is her memories of the famine years, and the abuse of the Irish peasants under cruel Landlords that had most effect on her and these issues that surface most in her work.

Her first literary output came in 1795 with the publishing of Letters to Literary Ladies, which was a feminist essay pleading for the reform of women’s education. Much of her earlier work was in collaboration with and heavily edited by her father, but in 1800 her masterpiece, Castle Rackrent, was annoymously submitted without his knowledge and published by the London bookseller and publisher Johnson. Although her works are marred somewhat by didacticism this is oft times argued to have been due to her fathers editing and influence, as they are otherwise notable for their realism, humor, and freshness of style. Castle Rackrent was the first novel she wrote alone and it was not until it was in it’s third edition that she had the courage to put her name as author to the book. The novel portrays the Irish people and the social conditions which they endured at the time, in a very realistic and at the same time unhostile manner. It also reveals Marias gift for social observation and authentic dialogue. Her writing was influenced by enlightenment philosophy and this is evident throughout the novel.

The Irish author Padraic Colum (1881-1972), also from Co.Longford noted on her novel Castle Rackrent that , “One can read it in an hour. Then one knows why the whole force of England could not break the Irish people.” Maria Edgeworth was the first author to depict Irish peasants as human beings. 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. Where she led many were later to follow. It is mainly on this point that the literary reputation of Maria Edgeworth rests. In her lifetime Maria wrote prodigiously and published many critically acclaimed works such as Helen, Rosanna, and The Absentee, a strong indictment of the majority of the Landlord class. This particular novel was initially meant to be performed as a play but there was fear by Richard Sheridan, the producer, that it would be banned by the censors. The Russian Ivan Turgenev declared he got a revelation from Maria Edgeworth’s stories, and the word “absenteeism” occurs on the first page of his Smoke. Sir Walter Scott said that he hoped “in some distant degree to emulate the admirable Irish portraits of Miss Edgeworth” and that she had shown him his path; in fact, Waverley has been called a Scots Castle Rackrent. Jeanie Deans, in Scott’s Heart of Midlothian, may have been modeled on Maria Edgeworth.

After her fathers death on 13th June 1817 Maria travelled to London, Paris and Geneva before returning again to Edgeworthstown in 1821. By this time her Europen reputation as a writer was secure, she was warmly recieved in literary and social circles and had many great admirers of her work including Jane Austen with whom she had a somewhat unusual friendship. She was visited regularly at Edgeworthstown House by many famous literary acquaintances including Sir Walter Scott and William Wordsworth, both of whom held her in high esteem.

Maria remained unmarried throughout her life even turning down a marraige proposal from Chevalier Edelcrantz, private secretary to the King of Sweeden, in order to remain in Edgeworthstown. She was deeply involved in her fathers affairs, acting as secretary and chief assistant of his estates, thereby gaining a unique insight and intimate knowledge of Irish peasant life. After his death in 1817 she completed his memoirs. Although apparently of shy nature she was a frequent visitor to the Granards at Castle Forbes and the Longfords at Pakenham hall. These families were both close friends of the Edgeworths and good examples of the more progressive landlord.

Maria was eighty when in 1846 she witnessed the worst of the famine in Ireland. She was untiring in her attempts to help the distressed tenants she saw all around her and even influenced admirers in Boston to send food for the poor and starving Irish tenants. This gained her much respect and love within her locality. Unfortunately, she was not destined to see Ireland restored to the relative tranquillity of the post-famine era. The deaths of both her brother Francis in 1846, and sister Fanny in 1848, along with bouts of illness tried her severely. She died in 1849 and was buried alongside her father in the family vault in the Churchyard of St. Johns in Edgeworthstown, where Isola Wilde, sister of Oscar Wilde, is also buried. The family home, Edgeworthstown House, which was originally built in 1672 by Richard Edgeworth and then modernised in 1770 by Richard Lovell Edgeworth the inventor, and father of Maria, is now run as a private nursing home.

Information on the Literary Heritage of County Longford can be found on the ‘Explore Longford’ App available to download for both Android and Apple iOS Devices:
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