As the Great Famine ripped through the County Longford village of Edgeworthstown in 1847, a tiny octogenarian was to be seen making her way from door-to-door, offering food and nourishment. Many of the beleaguered occupants would have recognised her as Maria Edgeworth, the gifted story-teller whose books had been entertaining adults and children alike for nearly half a century. In her prime, she was one of the most successful novelists in the world.
Maria Edgeworth was born on New Year’s Day 1768, and spent most of her life on the family estate at Edgeworthstown. With the death of her mother when she was just five years old, she turned to her father for parental guidance.
Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817) was a remarkable man with a passion for science and literature. He was also an inventor of no mean skill, creating the prototype of the caterpillar track system used by present-day bulldozers, tanks and tractors. He also produced an early form of telegraph, a velocipede cycle, a “perambulator” to measure land, a turnip cutter and various sailing carriages. Buoyed by his success, Richard urged all his children to undertake basic chemical experiments from an early age.
Richard had been a wild man in his younger years with a dangerous lust for gambling but he was cured of such vices when he was shown into the Pakenham’s library at Tullynally Castle, County Westmeath, and encouraged to read.
He in turn urged Maria to read anything she could get her hands on, be it English novels, French encyclopaedias or works by the great philosophers such as Voltaire. She was surely among the few women who read Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations.’
Every evening, the family gathered in the library at Edgeworthstown to read aloud and discuss the latest books that had arrived from Dublin or London. This was the environment in which Maria learned how to craft stories with wit and style, charm and irony.
She certainly had a sizeable audience to converse with at home. After her mother’s death, her father married thrice more and he ultimately sired twenty-two children, many of whom were close to Maria.
It was Richard who suggested that Maria channel her energies into “useful” writing. By that he meant novels and ‘moral stories’ for children that might actually bring in some money. He had put her to work at the age of 14 when she helped him translate a French book about education.
In the winter of 1793, she started work on ‘Castle Rackrent’, her critically acclaimed, innovative, comic masterpiece. The novel was written to amuse her favourite aunt, Margaret Ruxton, who lived in Navan, County Meath. [i]
There were a few distractions before its publication.
Firstly, having lost two more wives to tuberculosis, Richard was married a fourth time in May 1798. His bride Frances Beaufort was an intelligent, well-read woman. She was two years younger than Maria and a strong bond developed between the two; Maria would go on to help educate and raise Richard and Frances’s six children.
Richard toyed with selling up there and then but his father-in-law persuaded him that things would calm down after Dublin’s ultra-right-wing government was kicked out of office by the proposed Act of Union between Ireland and England.
That said, Richard ultimately voted against the act that brought an end to the Irish parliament in Dublin.And then came the United Irishmen’s rebellion which broke out just as Richard and Frances were tying the knot. Richard had raised a local militia several years earlier to keep such lawlessness at bay but, in September 1798, he and his family were forced to flee to Longford, a Protestant stronghold, when the countryside around Edgeworthstown fell into rebel hands.
More alarmingly, when a French army marched into the county and camped just outside Longford, suspicious Protestants nearly lynched Richard on the groundless basis that he had tried to send a signal to the French with his telegraph.
Meanwhile, Maria finished ‘Castle Rackrent’ and sent the manuscript to Joseph Johnson, the leading literary publisher in London. Published anonymously in January 1800, the novel has been succinctly described by the literary critic Marilyn Bultler as ‘a remarkably intuitive, perceptive and far-reaching portrait of an unequal society.’
Although sales were initially small, Maria took heart in the news that both George III and William Pitt, the Prime Minister, had enjoyed it. Soon the book was beginning to shift large volumes and, by 1801, Maria felt sufficiently courageous to include her own name on the title page of the third edition. After that, she was never again published anonymously.
From 1800 all the way through to 1814, she was the most celebrated and successful living novelist working in the English language, ranking Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott among her foremost admirers. Scott cited her as the inspiration for his first novel, ‘Waverley’. Valerie Pakenham observes that had Jane Austen’s short fling with Tom Lefroy been converted into marriage, Jane might have become Maria’s neighbour when Lefroy subsequently bought the Carrigglas estate near Edgeworthstown.
A complete edition of Maria’s novels runs to 18 volumes. As well as ‘Castle Rackrent’, a satire on Anglo-Irish landlords, there were three more set in Ireland, namely ‘Ennui’ (1809), ‘The Absentee’ (1812) and ‘Ormonde’ (1817). She also published ‘An Essay on Irish Bulls’ in 1802, as a response to Protestant Ascendancy propaganda in the wake of the 1798 Rising.
Although often seen as a ‘Big House’ writer by Irish critics, others consider her a pioneer of the 19th century social novel, on a par with Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot. She was also one of the first successful writers of stories for children and apparently secured the second largest book advance of her generation after Scott. She was elected as one of the first female Honorary Members of the Royal Irish Academy in 1842.
She was a compulsive letter writer, as revealed in ‘Maria Edgeworth’s Letters from Ireland’, a tome edited by Valerie Pakenham and published by Lilliput Press in 2017. After her father’s death in 1817, notes Pakenham, Maria was ‘released’ from the discipline of being his literary partner and began writing twice as many letters. She drolly complained when her stepmother and sisters tried to reduce the time she spent writing these often witty and razor-sharp letters to four hours a day.
Maria also inherited her father’s love for science. Humphrey Davy, inventor of the miner’s safety lamp, frequently stayed at Edgeworthstown, which was seen as an oasis of cultured enlightenment in the Irish midlands at this time. William Rowan Hamilton, John Herschel and Michael Faraday were also in Maria’s circle, while another close friend was the Dublin surgeon, Dr Philip Crampton.
In 1842, her half-sister Lucy married the astronomer, Thomas Romney Robertson, head of the Observatory at Armagh.
I have a personal interest in the Edgeworth story as Maria’s sister Harriet married my grandfather’s great-uncle Richard Butler, Vicar of Trim and Dean of Clonmacnoise, Described as ‘a handsome man with expressive eyes’, he was born at Granard, County Longford, in 1794. He was the second of six sons born to the Rev Richard Butler (d. 1841), Vicar of Burnchurch, and Martha Rothwell, daughter of Richard Rothwell, of Burford, County Meath.
Maria never married. Her only known suitor was the Chevalier Abraham Edelcrantz, a Swedish poet and diplomat, whom she met in Paris in 1802. Although she turned him down, she remained obsessed with him for long years afterwards, creating an idealized version of him in her novel, ‘Patronage’.
In politics, Maria was an ‘enlightened Conservative’. She hailed Catholic Emancipation as the dawn of a new golden age but castigated Daniel O’Connell as a rabble-rouser.
During the Great Famine, in which her brother Francis died, she did what she could to alleviate suffering in Longford. [ii] In 1847 she tried unsuccessfully to send some of their tenants to start a new life in America on USS Jamestown. Oral history relates how this tiny old lady went from house to house to feed and nurture the starving.
Fortunately she had always been a healthy woman, thanks in part to her brisk early morning walks and also, as she put it herself, thanks to her three favourite consultants whom she, like Jonathan Swift and others before them, named as ‘Dr Quiet, Dr Diet and Dr Merryman.’
As well as science and literature, she was an enthusiastic gardener and builder. She did much to improve the condition of cottages in Edgeworthstown and delighted in laying new pavements and gutters, or lowering the river bed, as well as constructing a new school in the village.
Following the financial collapse of her addled half-brother Lovell Edgeworth, she worked closely in tandem with her stepmother Frances for 20 years to keep the family estate afloat. It helped that she had adhered to her father’s advice to never spend the capital she earned on her books, or from her inheritance.
She died suddenly of a heart attack on 22 May 1849, aged 81. The family home survived for another three generations, when many neighbouring ‘big houses’ were burned out or abandoned and left to fall into ruin. The house is now a nursing home, while a bronze statue of Maria herself adorns the town’s main street.
[i] Trivia boffins may like to know that Margaret Ruxton was a (great?) great-aunt of Beatrice Hill-Lowe (nee Ruxton) from Ardee, Co Louth, Ireland’s first female Olympian, who took a bronze medal for archery at the 1908 London Olympics.
[ii] One wonders if her friendship with Butlers extended to the family of the sharpshooting Francis ‘Frank’ Butler, future husband of Annie Oakley, who was born in Longford in 1847.
With thanks to Valerie Pakenham, Julia Crampton, Phyllida White, Ros Dee, Hollie Bethany, Richard Crampton and John Kirwan.