"I have made up my mind to like no novels really, but Miss Edgeworth's, yours and my own."
Jane Austen, letter to her niece, Anna Lefroy, 1814;
She was born on the first day of the year 1768, at the house of her mother's father, Mr. Elers, at Black Bourton, some fourteen miles from Oxford, her father and mother having been married while the former was still an undergraduate, and under nineteen years of age. How far the failure of that marriage is to be ascribed to this circumstance is an open question. What is quite certain is that, for a man who afterwards rather distinguished himself as a husband, Mr. Edgeworth's first début in that character cannot be called brilliant. Upon whichever pair of shoulders the blame ought to lie, by general consent the marriage was far from a success. Five children were born of it, a son Richard, in 1766, Maria herself, as stated, in 1767, two daughters, Anna and Emmeline, and an infant which died young. Shortly after the birth of her last child Mrs. Edgeworth herself died, at the house of her aunts, the Miss Blakes, in Great Russell Street. It has been noted [Page 4] with some surprise how casual, almost indifferent, the references to her own mother were apt to be, on the part of one, not only so affectionate, but so invariably dutiful as Maria Edgeworth. At the time of that mother's death she was, it must be remembered, barely six years old, and she recalled little of the event beyond the fact of having been taken into the bedroom to receive the poor woman's dying kiss. It followed that her first definite impressions as to the meaning of the word "mother" came to be associated, not with the rather depressed and sickly woman whom she had first called by that name, but with the young and remarkably pretty stepmother, whose advent upon the scene was only delayed about four months.
Castle Rackrent, a short novel by Maria Edgeworth published in 1800, is often regarded as the first true historical novel and the first true regional novel in English. It is also widely regarded as the first family saga, and the first novel to use the device of a narrator who is both unreliable and an observer of, rather than a player in, the actions he chronicles. The story of the Rackrent family is narrated by their steward, Thady Quirk. The characters, the country life and the language used in the novel are unmistakably Irish. Shortly before its publication, an introduction, glossary and footnotes, written in the voice of an English narrator, were added to the original text to blunt the negative impact the Edgeworths feared the book might have on English enthusiasm for the Act of Union 1800.
In 1802 while in Paris, Edelcrantz did meet another inventor of a competing telegraph design--a meeting thatwould have important consequences for him. That person was Sir Richard LovellEdgeworth, the Irish inventor of the so-called Tellograph.Both Edelcrantz and Edgeworth became honorary members of the Societéd'Encouragementde l'Industrie Nationale, in both cases in recognition for their work on optical telegraphs.The acquaintance led to a number of social calls on Edgeworth and his family, who hadaccompanied him to Paris. Among the people Edelcrantz met there was Edgeworth'sdaughter, Maria.On 3 December 1802 Maria Edgeworth was in the middle of writing a long letter to heraunt, and confidante, Mrs. Ruxton. This is, in part, what she wrote:Here I am at the brink of the last page, and I have said nothing of the Apollo, theInvalides, or Les Sourds et Muets. What shall I do? I cannot speak of everything atonce, and when I speak to you so many things crowd upon my mind.--Here, my dear aunt, I was interrupted in a manner that will surprise you as much asit surprised me, by the coming in of Monsieur Edelcrantz, a Swedish gentleman,whom we have mentioned to you, of superior understanding and mild manners: hecame to offer me his hand and heart!!Edelcrantz had fallen in love. It could, by all means, be the beginning of something good.But, the letter continued:My heart, you may suppose, cannot return his attachment, for I have seen but verylittle of him, and have not had time to have formed any judgement, except that I thinknothing could tempt me to leave my own dear friends and my own country to live inSweden.My dearest aunt, I write to you the first moment, as next to my father and motherno person in the world feels so much interest in all that concerns me. I need not tellyou that my father -- "Such in this moment as in all the past," -- is kindness itself;kindness far superior to what I deserve, but I am grateful for it.But, Maria could not be persuaded by Edelcrantz's charm. On 8 December she wrote aboutthe proposal once more, this time in a letter to her cousin, Miss Sophy Ruxton.I take it for granted, my dear friend, that you have by this time seen a letter I wrote afew days ago to my aunt. To you, as to her, every thought of my mind is open. Ipersist in refusing to leave my country and my friends to live at the Court ofStockholm, and he tells me (of course) that there is nothing he would not sacrificefor me except his duty; he has been all his life in the service of the king of Sweden,has places under him, and is actually employed in collecting information for a largepolitical establishment. He thinks himself bound in honor to finish what he hasbegun. He says he should not fear the ridicule or blame that would be thrown uponhim by his countrymen for quitting his country at his age, but that he should despisehimself if he abandoned his duty for any passion. This is all very reasonable, butreasonable for him only, not for me; and I have never felt anything for him butesteem and gratitude.
In the period of the ‘Great Famine’ (1845-1851), the civil parish of Mostrim consisted of thirty-four townlands and the town, covering just over 10,943 acres.i The census of 1841 revealed that it had a population of 4,933, of whom 864 (or 21%) lived in Edgeworthstown itself. ii As the population generally was increasing quite rapidly, we may assume that by 1845, the parish would have had over 5,000 people. It can also be assumed that in common with the rest of Ireland, those in the parish most dependent upon the potato crop were the small farmers, the cottiers and the labourers. Frequently, the distinctions between those three groups were very blurred, but the rapid rise in population from the beginning of the nineteenth century was especially evident among them. Small farmers tended to sub-divide their holdings among their sons in order to satisfy their craving for land, while the larger farmers generally, and wisely, avoided that practice. The result, therefore, was that a growing number of people were subsisting on the same acreage of land, which consisted of units that were decreasing in size. In evidence given to the Devon Commission (which was examining land holding in Ireland) in Longford on 18 July 1844, Fr. Edward McGaver, parish priest of Carrickedmond, estimated that the smallest viable holding was four to five acres. iii Undoubtedly, very many were smaller than that.A cottier normally lived in a cabin with a potato patch that was supplied by a large farmer whom he repaid with work. Lowest of all on the social scale were the labourers who worked for gentry, clergy and farmers, and who rented conacre where they grew their potatoes. The survival of the poorest groups in society was possible only because of the potato – it was easily grown, grew in abundance even on small plots of land and was highly nutritious. Naturally, the destruction of the crop would spell disaster for very many. Constable Peter Byrnes reported from Edgeworthstown on 28 May 1846 : he stated that there had been 300 acres sown in 1844 and 280 acres in 1845. However, the partial failure of ‘45 meant that in 1846, there were 208 acres planted, or almost one third less than two years earlier.During the autumn of 1846, the local relief effort expanded in response to the worsening situation. On 4 September, a meeting of the clergy, landowners and farmers of Mostrim was held in the Market House in Edgeworthstown under the chairmanship of Michael Pakenham Edgeworth (another of Maria’s half-brothers). i It was decided that subscriptions be collected to purchase Indian meal and other foodstuffs. A committee was appointed with the following members: Francis B. Edgeworth, Rev. Thomas Gray P.P., Rev. J. McNally C.C., Mr. Cowen, Surgeon Dobson, Mr. Tynan, Mr. Rhatigan, Mr. Kenny, Mr. Green, Mr. James Kelly, Mr. Duffy and Mr. McKeon. The secretary was Rev. John Powell, the Church of Ireland minister, and William Morgan acted as treasurer. £106 was raised in subscriptions.The most important factor in determining the course of the Famine in any area was the response of the local landlord. If a landlord was genuinely interested in the welfare of his/her tenantry, then their actions would quite literally make the difference between life and death. The people of Edgeworthstown were fortunate to have, living in the ‘big house’ at their time of acute need, a lady of action – the novelist Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849). On 30 January 1847, she completed a questionnaire for the Society of Friends Dublin Central Relief Committee which provides us with a reasonably clear impression of conditions at that point. She estimated the population (presumably of the entire parish) at 5,000, of which 3,000 required relief. i There were about 400 labourers on relief works (which had been extended by the new Liberal government in the previous June); 100 labourers employed in the normal manner, earning eight to ten pence per day; and over 500 widows, children and old people who were incapable of supporting themselves. On 13 February, she applied to the Society of Friends sub-committee for clothing, stating that about 750 people needed clothes in the locality, 500 of whom, were ‘desperately shiveringly cold’ (her own emphasis). Edgeworth did not believe in giving relief indiscriminately – it was important for the poor to work for themselves as far as possible, and that included women and girls. She suggested, in a letter to Dr. Joshua Harvey of the Society of Friends, that a small sum of money could procure materials for women for such activities as needlework and knitting. Harvey’s committee granted £30 towards the distribution of soup and a further £10 for providing female employment.Edgeworth did not believe in giving relief indiscriminately – it was important for the poor to work for themselves as far as possible, and that included women and girls. She suggested, in a letter to Dr. Joshua Harvey of the Society of Friends, that a small sum of money could procure materials for women for such activities as needlework and knitting. Harvey’s committee granted £30 towards the distribution of soup and a further £10 for providing female employment.As a famous author, Edgeworth had friends and acquaintances in many places and she sought the assistance of some of them. One, Miss Ryan in Cincinnati, Ohio, persuaded the relief committee there to spend the balance of its funds - $180 - on cornmeal to be sent to her. She also received contributions from, among others, Professor Ticknor of Harvard University who had visited Edgeworthstown with his wife in the 1830s, and from ‘about thirty young people and children of Boston’ from their pocket money. An American ship’s captain named Robert Bennett Forbes later wrote that $280 and 100 barrels of supplies were sent from Boston to Edgeworthstown.The most lasting action by Edgeworth in her endeavours to alleviate the suffering around her was the writing of the novel Orlandino, a children’s story published in 1848, the proceeds from the sale of which would go to famine relief. Regarding mortality in the Edgeworthstown area, Maria informed her sister Honora Beaufort, in a letter of 8 May 1847, that it was ‘not so much as a third’ above the normal level. In the same letter, she reported that ‘Mr. Tuite’ (Hugh Tuite M.P. of Sonna House, Co. Westmeath, an landowner in the parish) saw a woman on the road near Edgeworthstown ‘tottering along who did not beg from him and who seemed too much stupefied by hunger or despair or disease to notice him at all’. She carried on her back, ‘the head bobbing around from side to side without her minding or seeming to feel it a dead child!’ However, the writer did not always remain in the comfort of her house and listen to the tales of others. We have an extraordinary eye-witness account from Biddy Macken of Pound Street, who worked as a servant to the Edgeworth family and, in 1912, recounted some of her poignant memories of the years of the ‘Black Praties’ to Richard Hyland N.T. i Then a teenager, Biddy recalled: I went around with her (Maria) from house to house in this town and far outside it carrying a big basket filled to the brim with food. No house was passed by Maria without calling. Not only food was given but turf and warm clothing purchased in the town. She was barely able to walk then and had a short “cruben” stick to help her along. The “favor” was in a lot of houses but Maria did not mind. When she visited the poor she was always cheerful and had a way of “making them laugh”. She was short of breath often when we were going up that hill (Pound Street) and often she had to sit down weary and tired in the “parlour” when she got home. Naturally, the number of crimes or ‘outrages’ increased during the Famine years – many, such as robberies of foodstuffs and even farm animals, directly related to the desperate situation. On 20 November 1847, The Longford Journal reported the stealing of a double barrel gun from the home of James Vincent, near Edgeworthstown, two weeks earlier. Its editor, Edward Dwyer, never missing an opportunity to moralise, made a revealing comment on the issue of law and order: he stated that an efficient magistracy and an effective police force were needed and ‘we would advise an active magistrate to be immediately appointed for this neighbourhood’. The nearest magistrate was Edward Eustace Hill in Longford.With the beginning of a new decade, the situation did improve: the potato crop recovered, but sadly, many of those who had depended on it were gone – either dead or emigrated. We must return to the census figures to gauge the impact of the calamity in the Edgeworthstown area. By 1851, the population of the parish was 2,351, which meant a drop of 42% on ten years earlier (the overall decline for the county was 29%, one of the highest in the country). The population of the town was 817, only a small decline on 1841, no doubt due to the fact that people had moved in from the surrounding area because of what they perceived as better prospects there.
This first of January," she wrote in 1849, "was my eighty-second birthday, and I think I have as much enjoyment from books as ever I had in my life." A notable new one, the first instalment of Macaulay's History, reached her about this time, and she wrote a long letter on the subject to Dr. Holland, which appears to have been sent on to the historian, for we hear of his expressing pleasure in her enjoyment–"a small return for the forty years of enjoyment," so he worded it, which he had had from her. Even the old childish love of small adventures–climbing to forbidden places, and the like–seems, incredible as it may appear, to have survived with her to the very end. In the last stage of all, when she was actually within a couple of weeks of her death, she has to confess to the crime of having scrambled up to the top of a ladder, this time for the purpose of winding the family clock. "I am heartily obliged and delighted by your being such a goose, and Richard such a gander," she writes in a letter to her sister, Mrs. Butler, of May 1849, "as to be frightened out of your wits by my going up the ladder to take off the top of the clock. I summoned Cassidy, let me tell you, and informed him that I was to wind the clock, but that he was promoted to take off the top of it for me.–And then up I went, and I wound the clock, just as I had done before you were born !"This letter was written upon the seventh of the month, and exactly one fortnight later, upon the morning of the twenty-second of May 1849, Miss Edgeworth was seized by a sudden sensation of pain about the region of the heart, not apparently very severe. A few hours later she died, as she had always wished to do, in the arms of her faithful stepmother.