Rebellious Writers: Maria Edgeworth
Born into the heart of the Anglo-Irish landowning establishment, one would hardly have expected Maria Edgeworth to be a rebel. And yet, people will surprise you!
Born in 1767 to a wealthy family with an estate in Ireland, Maria quickly eschewed the stereotype of a decorative young lady who liked to embroider and play the piano. By the age of 15 she was already helping her father manage his estate and gaining knowledge of rural economy and the lives of ordinary Irish people which would later feature in many of her novels.
Maria received a thorough education: her father tutored her in law, economics, politics, science and literature. Maria was keenly aware, however, that not all girls had her advantages, and she resented the lack of educational opportunities for young women. In her early practical texts on the education of children, she advocated for boys and girls to be taught together in the same subjects. In 1795 she issued Letters for Literary Ladies, a retort to Thomas Day who strongly objected to women being published. Towards the end of her life, when asked for her advice on the advancement of polite literature in Ireland, Edgeworth replied, rather shockingly, that women should be admitted to the Royal Irish Academy. She became an honorary member herself a few years later, following in the footsteps of a kinswoman, Louisa Beaufort.
Encouraged by her father, Edgeworth began publishing children’s stories in the late 18th century
Encouraged by her father, Edgeworth began publishing children’s stories in the late 18th century. She moved on to novels with the publication of Castle Rackrent in 1800.
Rackrent, which satirises the very Irish landlords Maria and her family lived among, established the genre of the ‘regional novel’ and was an enormous influence on Walter Scott when he began writing Waverley. (She was also a clear influence on Jane Austen: at least one famous scene in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice comes right out of Edgeworth’s 1801 novel, Belinda.)
Her distain for indifferent landlords was not confined to Rackrent: one of Edgeworth’s finest novels, The Absentee, tackled the widespread problem of absentee landlords who viewed their Irish estates and the people on them as little more than money-making machines. Spotlighting this injustice, and presenting ordinary Irish people in a sympathetic and respectful light, was highly unusual for the time.
The public loved it: Edgeworth was widely read and admired by all classes, becoming the most commercially successful novelist of her time. A literary celebrity, she counted such notable names as Jeremy Bentham, Wordsworth, Madame de Stael, Byron, Sir Humphrey Davey, and Sir Walter Scott among her admirers.
Although at first glance many of Edgeworth's novels seem light, a closer read reveals she was tackling some of the most serious issues of the time. Some, such as Rackrent and The Absentee, celebrate the Irish while taking to task the frivolous gentry which neglects its land and tenants in pursuit of its own pleasure. Belinda and Helen focus on domestic issues such as troubled parent-child relationships, breast cancer (and the horrifying surgery it necessitated), and crumbling, unhappy marriages, something that was rarely talked about. Many of these books also made the case for a young woman to marry for compatibility rather than economic interest, and were later embraced by 19th century feminists.
Edgeworth was very open-minded, especially for her time
Edgeworth was very open-minded, especially for her time, and she didn’t shy away from making that fact apparent in her novels. When an American Jewish woman named Rachel Mordecai pointed out that The Absentee contained an anti-Semitic remark, Edgeworth’s apology took the form of an entire novel. Harrington, which appeared in 1817, is a fictitious autobiography about an anti-Semite who discovers the errors of his ways after coming into contact with various Jewish characters. It’s thought to include one of the earliest sympathetic Jewish characters in an English novel.
Although Maria seems to have had fairly progressive views, her publishers, apparently, did not: scenes featuring the happy marriage of an interracial couple were cut or altered for subsequent publications, though they have since been restored in certain editions.
Maria Edgeworth lived into her 80’s and continued writing right up to the end. Although she’s been somewhat eclipsed by Jane Austen, her life and work are just as worthy of scrutiny and admiration. Edgeworth dared to call for greater opportunities for women, greater respect for the people of Ireland, and more responsibility by the landlord class. She advocated for equal education, shone a light on the issues women faced in their homes and relationships, and didn’t shy away from admitting (quite publicly in one case), that she had been wrong. No mere Angel of the Hearth here: Maria Edgeworth is a lady worthy of the Literary Rebel title.
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