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Maria Edgeworth: Jane Austen’s Gothic Inspiration

Maria Edgeworth

A Summary of Maria Edgeworth:

It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.
Northanger Abbey

Maria Edgeworth (January 1, 1767-May 22, 1849) was an Irish novelist who’s early “Gothic” works had untold influence on Jane Austen’s life and writing. Austen admired her so much, that she sent her a complimentary copy of Emma when it was published in 1815. Edgeworth, the author of Belinda, and Castle Rackrent was known for the moral theme in her stories and was apparently not impressed with the novel. She never acknowledged Jane’s gift, and later wrote, “There is no story in it, except that Miss Emma found that the man whom she designed for Harriet’s lover was an admirer of her own–& he was affronted at being refused by Emma & Harriet wore the willow*–and smooth, thin water-gruel is according to Emma’s father’s opinion a very good thing & it is very difficult to make a cook understand what you mean by smooth, thin water-gruel.”

Maria Edgeworth was born in Oxfordshire, at the home of her grandparents, but spent most of her life in Ireland, on her father’s estate. She grew up in the landed gentry of Ireland, with the families of Kitty Pakenham (later the wife of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington), Lady Moira, and her aunt Margaret Ruston at Black Castle for company. She acted as manager of her father’s estate, later drawing on this experience for her novels about the Irish. However, her early efforts at fiction were melodramatic rather than realistic. One of her schoolgirl novels features a villain who wore a mask made from the skin of a dead man’s face.

In 1802 the Edgeworth family went abroad, first to Brussels and then to France (during the Peace of Amiens, that brief lull in the Napoleonic Wars). They met all the notables, and Maria received a marriage proposal from a Swedish count. They returned to Ireland and Maria returned to writing.

Mr. Edgeworth, a well-known author and inventor, encouraged his daughter’s career, and has been criticized for his insistence on approving and editing her work. The tales in The Parent’s Assistant were approved by her father before he would allow them to be read to her younger siblings (he had four wives and 22 children). Castle Rackrent was written and submitted for anonymous publication without his knowledge.

After her father’s death in 1817 she edited his memoirs, and extended them with her biographical comments. Maria was also a close friend of Sir Walter Scott who visited her in Edgeworthstown and toured the countryside with her. Maria returned Scott’s visit in 1823 and stayed at his home, Abbotsford, in Scotland. There is a stone at Tyhmer’s Waterfall inscribed Edgeworth Stone in honour of Maria who is said to have rested there. Scott’s move from poetry to novels was in part influenced by Edgeworth’s work. In the preface to Waverley, he wrote: the extended and well-merited fame of Miss Edgeworth, whose Irish characters have gone so far to make the English familiar with the character of their gay and kind-hearted neighbours of Ireland, that she may be truly said to have done more toward completing the Union than perhaps all the legislative enactments by which it has been followed up, and felt he could do for Scotland what Edgeworth had done for Ireland.

Maria Edgeworth was explicit about the fact that all her stories had a moral purpose behind them, usually pointing out the duty of members of the upper class toward their tenants. However, her style did not pass muster with one of the religious leaders of the day: the preacher Robert Hall said, “I should class her books as among the most irreligious I have ever read … she does not attack religion, nor inveigh against it, but makes it appear unnecessary by exhibiting perfect virtue without it … No works ever produced so bad an effect on my mind as hers.” Other period authors continued the criticism. After meeting the Edgeworths, Lord Byron commented, “One would never have guessed she could write her name; whereas her father talked, not as if he could write nothing else, but as if nothing else was worth writing.”

Maria was an active writer to the last, and worked strenuously for the relief of the famine-stricken Irish peasants during 1845. She died in 1849. Her broad education, the extent of her social contacts and knowledge of English and Irish society gave her writings a depth of understanding of manners, class, gender and race.

*Wore the Willow= grieved for the loss of a loved one.

Biographical information provided by Wikipedia and other sources. To read Emily Lawless’ 1905 biography, visit The Digital Library. Edgeworth’s Collected works can be found at Project Gutenburg while much more information about the entire Edgeworth family can be found at The Edgeworth Website.

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