Those of us who grew up in the shadow of the Edgeworth big house in County Longford in the 1950s and were privileged on this 2018 weekend to attend the Maria Edgeworth 250th Anniversary Conference at Trinity College, came away with the impression that we had missed the significance of this great writer in our youth, and that Ireland has changed radically in the meantime. There had been three other Maria Edgeworth conferences this year already: Rome, Philadelphia USA, and York UK, indicating that far from being a minor writer, a spinster who led a dull and dutiful life in the shadow of her father, part of that Anglo-Irish class more noted for their absence from Ireland than their presence, she was a kind of quiet revolutionary. When Ireland remembered her at all in the last hundred years, it was as the author of ‘Castle Rackrent’, a book portrayed as a kind of mea culpa for that hyphened class that was blamed for most of Ireland’s woes. But paper after paper read at this conference showed that all this was wide of the mark. She addressed much wider and deeper questions; gender, identity, education, child rearing, science, revolution, secularism and modernity that were all part of that Eighteenth Century age of reason, and those questions have now resurfaced again in Ireland in today’s global age.
The tone was set by a celebratory opening fanfare on Thursday night at the Royal Irish Academy. It included the presence of some of the most widely known contemporary Irish women writers, celebrating the woman who first put Ireland on the European literary map two centuries ago. They also welcomed a generation of young Edgeworth scholars from all over the world who were here to tell us about the aspects of that woman’s life that we had missed, and that her pioneering works were still being continued elsewhere.
But the question inevitably rises, how did a young woman from a landed estate in the middle of the plain of Ireland, more noted for it abundance of peat than the fruits of intellect, first encounter these ideas herself? And the answer is that her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, in his youth, had stumbled into the company of an isolated group of thinkers elsewhere, after having been exiled out of Ireland, and she was born during her father’s exile. Being a wayward youth at Trinity College, by times indolent and impulsive, his father removed him from the college where, with some irony this Conference was being held and sent him to live with an English lawyer acquaintance, Paul Elders, near Oxford. But when he arrived there, he continued on his own wayward trajectory, eloping with one of Elder’s daughters to Gretna Green where they married illicitly, but still legally, so there was no escape from the results of their action. The union did not prove particularly happy after the novelty of the courtship waned, and as a consolation, Richard retreated into the study to read, though by all the evidence he preformed his husbandly duties with some diligence, for by the time he was twenty, he had fathered two sons and a daughter, Maria, and there was never an empty cradle under any roof under which he dwelled during his subsequent life. But in his defence, it should be said that he was no philanderer like so many of his class; he faced up to the task of providing for all his offspring. He made his children the subjects of his interest in child development, a subject first set out in his hero, Rousseau’s, philosophical novel, Emile; but when he saw that some of those ideas didn’t work, he modified the book Maria and himself were writing, Practical Education. His first son’s upbringing, despite the application of Rousseau’s ideas, was not a success and that boy was eventually exiled to America, in the same manner that he had been sent to Oxfordshire.
Richard also joined a philosophically minded group in Birmingham who used to meet monthly at full moon, hence their name ‘The Lunar Men’. This group included Dr Erasmus Darwin, the speculative evolutionist, Joshua Wedgwood the manufacturer of elegant tableware, Mathew Boulton the iron master, James Watt of steam engine fame, Joseph Priestly, the rational theologian and chemist, and Thomas Day, a devotee of Rousseau and a love torn romantic, who sent two young girls to France - an heir and a spare - to be educated in his hero’s theories in the hope that one of them might provide him with a suitable wife when they reached maturity. This mixture of speculative thinkers, entrepreneurs and secularist philosophers set RLF on the path towards modernity; if there had been an academy for creating an industrial revolution, it would be hard to find a better collection of masters to teach such a subject, nor a better student than this young Irishman trapped in a dull marriage he regretted. In what time he took from his books and his family duties, he spent it in workshops developing inventions to impress his new friends.
When his father died in co Longford, Richard inherited the modest family estate in Edgeworthstown, and in 1780, he returned there with his family and set about rescuing it from debt and neglect of the past, and reaping the moral rewards promised by that philosophical age. Maria, who was brought up in that intellectual atmosphere, was encouraged to become the chronicler of his reforming zeal: she accompanied him everywhere, on rent collection days with the tenants, with contractors repairing and constructing the schools and coaching building and walls that grew up around the estate, on harvesting days paying the labourers, on intellectual trips to the Royal Irish Academy, of which her father was a founder member, and in family discussions in the library. Her life was in many ways more in keeping with an eldest son and heir of an estate, than that of a young woman, and her university was of the practical rather than the theoretical sort, always reflecting on what worked in an improving dialectic, which meant the keeping of records.The library area her father set aside as the heart of the house, became Maria’s principle workroom, and over the years, the number of volumes increased to make it one of the finest collections in the midlands - alas, that great library was scattered to the four winds in the 1940s when the house was sold. Her father spent much of his time in workshops in the outhouses, continuing with his inventions and innovations: together, father and daughter, formed a partnership of reflection and practicality, similar to the process that propelled the neighbouring isle into becoming in the nineteenth century the workshop of the world. Many of his inventions were to tame Ireland’s beautiful, but recalcitrant geography and cultivate neglected estates that had been let run wild. Communication was the secret of improving Ireland in Edgeworth’s opinion, and his new, more efficient carriages and caterpillar tracks, pioneer telegraph system, new types of bridges, new roads and the draining of bogs, all contributed to that end, to bring people closer together, the promote efficiency, the trading of goods, the exchange of knowledge and the pursuit of happiness.
Several papers at the conference focused on those themes. Ian Campbell Ross’s paper on ‘Everywhere within the reach of their control;” Maria Edgeworth and the Culture of Improvement”’; Joanna Wharton’s instanced the role Maria played in publicising one of her father’s key inventions: ‘Connected at once with Industry and Science: Marie Edgeworth and the Optical Telegraph’; Brandon Yen’s paper on ‘Science and Poetry: Wordsworth, Hamilton and Edgeworth. c1829’, explored the widening circle of literary and scientific acquaintances that Maria’s growing correspondence enlisted.
The age of Enlightenment was not just a time of the discovery of new scientific laws that increased human mastery over nature, it was also an age of shifting feelings in literature, often promoted by the escape of women from the nursery and bedroom, into the new 19th century (with)drawing room, with its writing table in the corner. Financially independent women of independent character were coming to the fore: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Mary Shelley, Mary Woolstonecroft; and in Ireland, Lady Morgan, Charlotte Brooke’s and Countess of Blessington were all part of that new literary wave. There was a new focus on feeling, rather than action in literature and the Romantic and the Gothic genres often had feminine creators. Raffaello Leproni’s paper, ‘(Re?)gendering discourse in Maria Edgeworth’s works: male voices, female authorship, language issues and social identity,’ set out some of these perspectives, and the US literary scholar, James Chandler, argued for a significant shift in the way we should see Maria Edgeworth, that she was not a romantic but a realist, and as such she was a step ahead of her literary sisters.
All the time, the number of Maria’s siblings increased, over a succession of four wives: her father produced 22 children in all, but in that pre-antibiotic age women and their infants were extremely vulnerable during childbirth and infancy to death and illness. Maria lost her own English mother, Anna Marie nee Elders, in whose home she spent the first years of her life. After her death, Richard, was more circumspect and less impulsive choice he made with Maria’s mother. He chose intelligent women who shared his interests in life. Gillian Russell’s mastery of the vast correspondence and ephemera into which Maria was swept up, and contributed to, has given us new insights into the complexity of her intellectual world, and in her contribution entitled: ‘“(B)undles of papers of the most Heterogenous Sorts”: Ephemeral textuality in Maria Edgeworth’s Absentee’ she gave us a flavour of that complexity. And as the Edgeworth children came of age they picked partners of similar intellectual background to their own family. One of Maria’s sisters married Dr. Thomas Beddeos, the political radical and renowned physician from Bristol, and her half-sister married Francis Beaufort, the naval officer and renowned hydrographer, who invented the wind measurement scale named after him. One of Maria’s stepmothers was Francis Ann Beaufort, the botanical artist; another of her half sisters married Thomas Romney Robinson, the Irish astronomer; and Maria also became the aunt of the noted economist, Francis Ysidro Edgeworth, and also the aunt to Michael Pakenham Edgeworth, the traveller and plant collector. She was at the hub of the early nineteenth century scientific world. And this widening network of intimacies, letters and visits, besides broadening her intellectual horizons, also widened her geographical horizon through constant visits to them and their in-laws.
Julie Donovan’s paper on ‘Maria Edgeworth and Wales’ illustrated this point. And her visits to Edinburgh, ‘the Athens of the north’, brought her into contact with the influential literary critic, Douglas Stewart, and with Adam Smith’s, whose ‘Wealth of Nations’, became the new bible of commercial society, and guide for what Napoleon disparagingly called ‘a nation of shopkeepers. While there, she formed a strong friendship with the historical novelist Walter Scott, in a literary relationship of equal benefit to both writers. Maria demonstrated to him - and to the Russian writer, Turgenev - how the ordinary Irish peasantry could be incorporated into the aristocratic novel, even if the view was only from the great windows of the big house. Susan Egennolfi’s ‘Edgeworth’s Harry and Lucy tour of the Industrial Midlands’, and Seohyon Jung’s ‘Unacknowledged Legislators of National boundaries: Motherhood and the Foreign in Belinda’ provides reflections on the those excursions abroad in Maria’s imaginative fiction.
In such a large family, education and thoughts about child development were never far from family discussion, even if her father had never fallen under the sway of Rousseau, who had much to say on the subject. Sara Maurer’s paper on ‘Maria Edgeworth’s fiction and the form of educational advice’. And Debora Weiss’s paper looking at Maria’s tactic of writing children’s stories with pedagogic purpose in her‘“Harry and Lucy” and the Science Education of Girls’ both explored those concerns. And Heather Zuber’s explored ‘“On the choice of a Profession”: Edgeworthian Career Counselling’. Teaching through narratives, one of Maria’s pioneering inventions, examined by Yurin Yoshino in ‘Maria Edgeworth’s Readerly Strategeries and Social Vision: Popular Tales and Patronage’. Kyriana Lynch’s: ‘Mothers and Mentors and Authors: Defining Maternal Authority in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda and Helen,’ further examined this strategy.
As Edgeworth’s children came of age they left that little Longford estate and found partners in other parts of Ireland, Britain, and beyond. They married like-minded, educated parters who shared the values in which they themselves had grown up. Rationality attracts rationality is a truth that is replicated before our eyes in Ireland today.
But that same reason undermined the old feudal order across Europe, nowhere more than in France, which broke into violent revolution, the shock waves from which affected even distant Ireland. Reason polarised society, the traditional against the modern, the religious and aristocratic land-owning class, against the democratic rentier class, and the men and women who lived off their pens, and it often divided families into factions.
The Edgeworths themselves were affected by such a division. Henry Essex Edgeworth, a branch of the family, converted from the established Church of Ireland to Catholicism, the bastion of feudalism, and migrated to France, where he was made a priest by the Church, and granted an aristocratic title by the king. When the revolution broke out he attended Louse XVI on the scaffold in 1789, and in the revolutionary wars in France and Ireland hundreds of thousands were killed.
Richard Lovell, by contrast, believed in gradual improvement and reform, and was the local representative in the old Protestant parliament in Dublin, and to that end he supported Catholic emancipation, and tended to be distrusted by both extremes. Two papers, Aileen Douglas’s ‘Edgeworth and Revolutionary Times’ and Garry Kelly’s ‘Edgeworth Works in the Revolutionary Aftermath’, explored the family’s response to these troubled times.
The Act of Union of 1800 ended politics in Ireland, which Edgeworth voted against, was passed and the parliament in which he sat abolished, he turned his attention to composing his Memoirs, with Maria acting as his amanuensis. It is often said that our children only know us in our declining years when the fire has left us, but Maria knew her father before he ever had a public reputation, had an estate, and knew his mistakes as well as his genius. Discussing his early years would in all likelihood have covered the family’s origin and history, which gave her that material for her fictional account of an Irish family, Castle Rackrent (1800), a work which she never discussed with her father until it appeared in bookshops. She may have been a dutiful daughter, but she was never her father’s ventriloquist doll. Rieko Suzuki’s paper on ‘Castle Rackrent: Maria Edgeworth’s Sense of History’ explores what that novel tells us about her conception of the family
Maria published the second volume of the memoirs after her father’s death in 1817, and she devoted herself to the publication of ‘improving’ novels in the decades that followed, but it was clear that such moral discussions had less effect on a deeply divided Ireland. O’Connellite democracy, the ‘devotional revolution’ promoted the power of the Catholic Church throughout the1830s; ‘physical-force politics of those nostalgic for the immediacy of the 1798 men, tore the country apart in a culture of irreconcilability, and those who saw no hope in neither side of that choice departed for new lands. Increasingly Ireland was doing its thinking in heaven, while of necessity having to do its living on this earth, and found their only political hope in the use of the gun. Maria, a woman treated with contempt by both sides, found herself being marginalised and admitted that there was no place for her or her writing, and put down her great analytical pen. The public and the private world of this writer was deliberately forgotten for the next one hundred and fifty years on the island of Ireland, but not in the wider world as this conference brilliantly demonstrates.
Anyone familiar with the Edgeworth writings of Susan Manly, particularly her deft handling of contentious questions in her essay, “Maria Edgeworth and ‘the light of nature’’; artifice, autonomy, and anti-sectarianism in Practical Education,’ looked forward to her conference paper: ‘Maria Edgeworth in Private and Public’, given at the National Library of Ireland, for it promises a new understanding of the writer in the biography she is currently working on.
So many papers were submitted to this two day event that there had to be readings in parallel venues to fit them all in. A volume of the complete papers would be a fitting tribute to this important conference. There were tribute papers to her work that I for one missed, for instance, Anna Pilz’s paper “I wish that I could say her”: Maria Edgeworth, Thomas Henry Lister and and the Case of Helen’. Amy Prendergast’s ‘The Diurnal self at Edgeworthstown: the Diaries of of Elizabeth and “Maria” Edgeworth. Yon Ji Sol’s: “Enlisting the Conquered: Woman Artists, the English Traveller, and the Lesson of the ’The Prussian Vase”’; And Alyssa Garrison’s: ‘Maria Edgeworth’s Geological Plots’.
The conference was rounded off by a sensitive exploration of Maria’s personal life, and her views on love and questions of the heart, by Clara Tuite entitled; ‘Satellite of Love: Leonora and the Literary World’. For a writer who remained a somewhat lonely figure in the midst of a bustling extended family, this was an intriguing paper that elicited much interest .
This conference was generously hosted by Trinity College, and impressively organised by Jarlaith Killeen, and a team of industrious volunteers, which made it a pleasure to attend. And we were also made aware of all the practical work that is being done elsewhere in co Longford by the County Council, through its chief executive, Paddy Mahon, and the county librarian, Mary Carleton Reynolds, in finding the funds to restore and build on the existing Edgeworth fabric of the town. From the worldwide response that this last weekend demonstrated, it will be an investment worth making. There were also many members of the town’s Maria Edgeworth Society at the Conference, very conscious that when these young visiting scholars gain their professorships and Maria becomes part of the curriculum of the countries from where they came, Edgeworthstown will again become the place of pilgrimage it once had been in the nineteenth century. Maria gave voice to the new topics of identity, education, identity and secular ethics that first came to the fore in that age of Enlightenment, and that are now on the agenda again, so that she is the new voice for a new Ireland in the 21st century.