Maria Edgeworth, by Helen Zimmern

Chapter ii.

Early Years.

MARIA EDGEWORTH was born January 1st, 1767, in the house of her grandfather, Mr. Elers. Thus this distinguished authoress was an Englishwoman by birth, though Irish and German by race. At Black Bourton her earliest years were spent. Her father, who had taken in hand his little son to train according to the principles enunciated in Emile, took little notice of her, leaving her to the care of a fond, soft-hearted mother and doting aunts. The result was that the vivacity of her early wit was encouraged and the sallies of her quick temper unrepressed. Of her mother she retained little remembrance beyond her death, and how she was taken into the room to receive her last kiss. Mrs. Edgeworth had died in London at the house of some aunts in Great Russell street, and there Maria remained until her father’s second marriage. Of her new mother Maria at first felt great awe, which soon gave place to sincere regard and admiration. Her father had been to her from babyhood the embodiment of perfection, and the mere fact that he required love from her for his new wife was sufficient to insure it. But she also learnt to love her for her own sake, and, indeed, if the statement of so partial a witness as Mr. Edgeworth can be accepted, she must have been a woman of uncommon power and charm.

Of her first visit to Ireland Maria recollected little except that she was a mischievous child. One day, when no one heeded her, she amused herself with cutting out the squares in a checked sofa-cover. Another day she trampled through a number of hot-bed frames that had just been glazed and laid on the grass. She could recall her delight at the crashing of the glass; but most immorally, and in direct opposition to her later doctrines, did not remember either cutting her feet or being punished for this freak. It was probably her exuberant spirits, added to the fact that Mrs. Honora Edgeworth’s health began to fail after her removal to the damp climate of Ireland, that caused Maria to be sent to school. In 1775 she was placed at Derby with a Mrs. Latffiere, of whom she always spoke with gratitude and affection. Though eight years old, she would seem to have known very little, for she was wont to record that on the first day of her entrance into the school she felt more admiration at a child younger than herself repeating the nine parts of speech, than she ever felt afterwards for any effort of human genius. The first letter extant from her pen is dated thence, and though of no intrinsic merit, but rather the ordinary formal letter of a child under such circumstances, it deserves quotation because it is the first.

DERBY, March 30, 1776.

DEAR MAMMA:

It is with the greatest pleasure I write to you, as I flatter myself it will make you happy to hear from me. I hope you and my dear papa are well. School now seems agreeable to me. I have begun French and dancing, and intend to make [“great” was written, but a line was drawn through it] improvement in everything I learn. I know that it will give you great satisfaction to hear that I am a good girl. My cousin Clay sends her love to you; mine to father and sisters, who I hope are well. Pray give my duty to papa, and accept the same from, dear mamma,

YOUR DUTIFUL DAUGHTER.

It was at Derby that Maria learnt to write the clear, neat hand that never altered to the end of her life; and here too she acquired her proficiency in embroidery, an art she also practiced with success. As her parents shortly after came to reside in England for the benefit of Mrs. Edgeworth’s health, Maria spent her holidays with them. Her stepmother appears to have taken great pains with her, conversing with her as an equal in every respect but age.

Her father had already commenced with her his system of educating the powers of the young mind by analytical reflection. He soon saw that hers was of no ordinary capacity. In 1780 he writes to her:—

It would be very agreeable to me, my dear Maria, to have letters from you FAMILIARLY: I wish to know what you like and what you dislike; I wish to communicate to you what little knowledge I have acquired, that you may have a tincture of every species of literature, and form your taste by choice and not by chance. Adieu! enjoy the pleasure of increasing the love and esteem of your excellent mother and of your

AFFECTIONATE FATHER.

Your poor mother continues extremely ill.

Less than a month afterwards Mr. Edgeworth had to announce the death of his wife. The letter in which he does so throws light on the relationship of father, daughter and stepmother:—

MY DEAR DAUGHTER:

At six o’clock on Thursday morning your excellent mother expired in my arms. She now lies dead beside me, and I know I am doing what would give her pleasure if she were capable of feeling anything, by writing to you at this time to fix her excellent image in your mind.

As you grow older and become acquainted with more of my friends, you will hear from every mouth the most exalted character of your incomparable mother. You will be convinced, by your own reflections upon her conduct, that she fulfilled the part of a mother towards you and towards your sisters, without partiality for her own or servile indulgence towards mine. Her heart, conscious of rectitude, was above the fear of raising suspicions to her disadvantage in the mind of your father or in the minds of other relatives. And though her timely restraint of you, and that steadiness of behavior, yielding fondness towards you only by the exact measure of your conduct, at first alarmed those who did not know her, yet now, my dearest daughter, every person who has the least connection with my family is anxious to give sincere testimony to their admiration of those very circumstances which they had too hastily, and from a common and well-grounded opinion, associated with the idea of a second wife.

Continue, my dear daughter, the desire which you feel of becoming amiable, prudent and of USE. The ornamental parts of a character with such an understanding as yours necessarily ensue; but true judgment and sagacity in the choice of friends, and the regulation of your behavior, can be had only from reflection and from being thoroughly convinced of what experience teaches, in general too late, that to be happy we must be good.

God bless you and make you ambitious of that valuable praise which the amiable character of your dear mother forces from the virtuous and the wise. My writing to you in my present situation will, my dearest daughter, be remembered by you as the strongest proof of the love of

YOUR APPROVING AND AFFECTIONATE FATHER.

This letter, written at such a time, conveyed the impression intended, and thenceforward, even more than previously, the will to act up to the high opinion her father had formed of her character constituted the key-note of Maria Edgeworth’s life, the exciting and controlling power.

At school as well as at home Maria distinguished herself as an entertaining story-teller. She soon learnt, with all the tact of an improvisatrice, to know which tale was most successful. Many of these were taken from books, but most were original. While entertaining her companions Maria studied their characters. It was at school she developed her keen penetration into the motives that sway actions. Here also she saw numbers, though on a small scale, and could estimate the effect of the voice on the multitude and the ease with which a mass can be governed. Very early indeed her father encouraged her to put her imaginings on paper; a remarkable proof of his enlightenment, for those were the days when female authorship was held in slight esteem, when for a woman to use her pen was regarded as a dangerous stepping beyond her boundary, which exposed her to suspicion and aversion. Soon after Mrs. Honora Edgeworth’s death Mr. Edgeworth wrote:—

I also beg that you will send me a tale, about the length of a Spectator, upon the subject of GENEROSITY. It must be taken from history or romance, and must be sent the day se’nnight after you receive this, and I beg you will take some pains about it.

The same subject was given to a lad at Oxford, and Mr. Sneyd was chosen as umpire. He pronounced Maria’s far the best. “An excellent story,” he said, “and extremely well written, but where is the generosity?”— a saying which became a household proverb. This first story is not preserved, but Miss Edgeworth used to say that there was in it a sentence of inextricable confusion between a saddle, a man and his horse.

The same year Maria was removed from her unpretentious school to a fashionable establishment in London. Here she was to learn deportment and the showy accomplishments that in those days constituted the chief branches of a young lady’s education. She was duly tortured on blackboards, pinioned in iron collars, made to use dumb-bells, and some rather stringent measures were taken to draw out her muscles and increase her stature. In vain; by nature she was a small woman, and small she remained. She also learnt to dance with grace in the days when dancing was something more dignified than a tearing romp, but music she failed in utterly. She had no taste for this art, and her music master, with a wisdom unhappily too rare, advised her to abandon the attempt to learn. She had been so well grounded in French and Italian, that when she came to do the exercises set her, she found them so easy that she wrote out at once those intended for the whole quarter, keeping them strung together in her desk, and unstringing them as required. The spare time thus secured was employed in reading for her own pleasure. Her favorite seat during play-time was under a cabinet which stood in the school-room, and here she often remained so absorbed in her book as to be deaf to all uproar. This early habit of concentrated attention was to stand her in good stead through life.

While his daughter was thus acquiring culture, Mr. Edgeworth was once more engaged in courtship. Mrs. Honora Edgeworth, recognizing her husband’s nature, had recommended him on her death-bed to marry her sister Elizabeth, whose proposed marriage to Mr. Day had long ago fallen through. Though neither Elizabeth nor Mr. Edgeworth thought themselves suited to one another, Honora’s advice prevailed, and within eight months after his last wife’s death Mr. Edgeworth was once more married. It does not appear what Maria, now old enough to judge, thought of this new marriage, contracted so precipitately after the loss of one to whom Mr. Edgeworth was so devoted; but she doubtless held it right, as she held all done by her father, and she became to her new mother a warm and helpful friend.

Soon after this marriage Maria’s eyes grew inflamed, and a leading physician pronounced in her hearing that she would infallibly lose her sight. The physical and mental sufferings hereby induced were keen, but they were borne with fortitude and patience. The summer holidays were spent as she had spent some previous ones — at Mr. Day’s. This eccentric person had at last found a wife to his mind, and was settled in Surrey. The contrast between the mental atmosphere of her school, where externals were chiefly considered, and that at Mr. Day’s, where these were scorned, did not fail to exercise an influence. She was deeply attached to her host, whose lofty mind and romantic character she honored. His metaphysical inquiries carried her into another world. Forbidden to use her eyes too much, she learnt in conversation with him. The icy strength of his system came at the right moment for annealing her principles, his severe reasoning and uncompromising love of truth awakened her powers, and the questions he put to her, the necessity of perfect accuracy in her answers, suited the bent of her mind. Though such strictness was not always agreeable, she even then perceived its advantages, and in after-life was deeply grateful to Mr. Day. The direction he gave her studies influenced her, as his friendship had in earlier days influenced her father. Mr. Day further plied her with tar-water, then deemed a sovereign remedy for all complaints. Either owing to this or the change of air, her eyes certainly grew better and her general health improved, although she remained delicate, subject to headaches, and unequal to much bodily exertion.

The following year (1782) her father resolved to return to Ireland to reside. He had seen on his brief visits the mischievous results of absenteeism, and felt that if it were in the power of any man to serve the country which gave him bread, he ought to sacrifice every inferior consideration and reside where he could be most useful. As, however, Mrs. Honora Edgeworth’s health could not be pronounced an “inferior consideration,” Mr. Edgeworth had been forced to live in England. Now, though his new wife had even before marriage shown consumptive symptoms, her constitution had so much strengthened that it seemed possible to inhabit the family house. Mr. Edgeworth therefore returned to Ireland with a firm determination to dedicate the remainder of his life to the education of his children, the improvement of his estate, and the endeavor to contribute to the amelioration of its inhabitants. He took Maria with him, and there now began for her the tranquil current of existence that was diversified by no remarkable events outside the domain of friendship and kindred. The home she now entered, the social and domestic duties she now undertook, continued the same for life. Her return to Ireland marks an epoch in her history.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37