Maria Edgeworth, by Helen Zimmern

Chapter vi.

Irish and Moral Tales.

In 1800 was published anonymously a small book called Castle Rackrent. It professed to be a Hibernian tale, taken from facts and from the manners of the Irish squires before the year 1782. It proved to be a most entertaining, witty history of the fortunes of an Irish estate, told professedly by an illiterate, partial old steward, who recounted the story of the Rackrent family in his vernacular with the full confidence that the affairs of Sir Patrick, Sir Murtagh, Sir Kit and Sir Condy were as interesting to all the world as they were to himself. Honest Thaby, as this curious but characteristic specimen of Irish good humor, fidelity and wrong-headedness was pleased to call himself, having no conception of the true application of this epithet, had certainly shown literary perception, or rather his creator for him. For this was no other than Maria Edgeworth, who stood confessed upon the title-page of the second edition that was clamorously demanded within a few months of issue. The confession was wrung from her because some one had not only asserted that he was the author, but had actually taken the trouble to copy out several pages with corrections and erasures, as if it were his original manuscript. It was in this work that Miss Edgeworth first struck her own peculiar vein, and had she never written anything but Castle Rackrent her fame could not have died. It is a page torn from the national history of Ireland, inimitable, perennially delightful, equally humorous and pathetic, holding up with shrewd wit and keen perception, mingled with sympathetic indulgence, the follies and vices that have caused, and in a modified degree still cause, no small proportion of the social miseries that have afflicted and still afflict that unhappy land.

Here are portrayed a series of Irish landlords with their odd discrepancies and striking individualities, alternately drunken, litigious, pugilistic, slovenly and densely ignorant; or else easy, extravagant and good-natured to the point of vice; all, however, of one mind in being profoundly indifferent to their own or their tenants’ welfare. The sharp contrasts of the magnificent and paltry that characterized their state of living, with the mixed confidence in a special Providence and their own good luck that distinguished their muddle-headed mode of thought, is forcibly held up to view. No conclusions are drawn; the narrative, which never flags or drags, is rattled off with spirit, the abundant anecdotes are poured forth with true Irish exuberance, while the humor of the story arises in great measure from the sublime unconsciousness of the story-teller to the wit, naïvete or absurdity of his remarks. We are held spell-bound, we laugh and weep in a breath, we are almost over-persuaded by loyal old Thady to pardon the errors of the family, “one of the most ancient in the kingdom, related to the kings of Ireland, but that was before my time.”

If there was an ulterior end in view in this story beyond that of recording national characteristics which she had had peculiarly good opportunities for observing, and which she here reproduced from the life with broad, full strokes, Miss Edgeworth has masked it so happily that it does not obtrude itself. The society and manners of the Irish are painted as equally provoking and endearing. The book is an epitome of the Irish character, “fighting like devils for conciliation, and hating one another for the love of God.” Never did laughter and tears, sympathy and repugnance, lie more closely together than in this tale. It is curious to read the author’s prefatory apology when there are still alive, in every exasperated form, the very conditions she thinks belong to a state of things rapidly passing away, “owing to the probable loss of Irish identity after the union with England.” The supposed “obsolete prejudices and animosities of race” are unhappily still extant. Perhaps it is partly this fact that makes Miss Edgeworth’s Irish tales so fresh to this day. But only in part; on their own account alone they are delightful, and Castle Rackrent even more than the rest.

We have Mrs. Barbauld’s testimony that Miss Edgeworth wrote Castle Rackrent unassisted by her father, and judging how infinitely superior in spontaneity, flexibility, and nervousness of style, force, pith and boldness, it is to those of her writings with which he meddled, it is forcibly impressed upon us that Mr. Edgeworth’s literary tinkering of his daughter’s works was far from being to their advantage. Her next published book was her first attempt to deal with the novel proper. In Belinda she strove to delineate the follies and hollowness of fashionable life. The heroine is rather a lifeless puppet; but the more truly prominent figure, Lady Delacour, is drawn with power and keen intuition. A woman of gay and frivolous antecedents, striving to rise into a higher atmosphere under the ennobling influences of a pure friendship, and finding the task a difficult one, was no easy character to draw or to sustain. Had Lady Delacour died heroically, as Miss Edgeworth had planned, and as the whole course of the story leads the reader to expect, the book would have been a success. But to allow her to recover, to cause her to evolve a reformed character after a type psychologically impossible to one of her temperament, weakened the force of the foregoing pages and rendered them untrue. Again, it is on Miss Edgeworth’s spoken testimony to Mrs. Barbauld that we learn that she meant to make Lady Delacour die, but that it was her father who suggested the alteration; and since it was a part of the Edgeworthian creed to believe in such simple and sudden reformations, she accepted his counsel, to the artistic injury of her tale. It was Mr. Edgeworth, too, who wrote and interpolated the worthless and high-flown Virginia episode, in which Clarence Harvey takes to the freak of wife-training after the pattern of Mr. Day. This incident is quite out of keeping with the character of Clarence, who is depicted a wooden dandy, but not a romantic fool. These changes, willingly submitted to by Miss Edgeworth, who had the most unbounded belief in her father’s superior wisdom on all points whatsoever, also mark his idiosyncracy, for Mr. Edgeworth was a most rare and curious compound of utilitarianism and wild romance.

It is almost possible, in Miss Edgeworth’s works, to venture to point out the passages that have been tampered with and those where she has been allowed free play. Thus there are portions of Belinda in which she is as much at her best as in Castle Rackrent, or other of her masterpieces. Who but she could have penned the lively description given by Sir Philip Baddeley of the fêtes at Frogmore? How exquisitely is this ill-natured fool made to paint himself, how truthful is the picture, free from any taint of exaggeration! Sir Philip’s endeavor to disgust Belinda with Clarence Harvey, his manner of attempting it, and his final proposal, is a very masterpiece of caustic humor.

Belinda was no favorite with Miss Edgeworth. Writing to Mrs. Barbauld some years later, she says:—

Belinda is but an uninteresting personage after all. . . . I was not either in Belinda or Leonora sufficiently aware that the goodness of a heroine interests only in proportion to the perils and trials to which it is exposed.

And again, after revising it for republication, she says:—

I really was so provoked with the cold tameness of that stick or stone, Belinda, that I could have torn the pages to pieces; really I have not the heart or the patience to correct her. As the hackney coachman said, “Mend you! Better make a new one.”

Miss Edgeworth was therefore capable of self-criticism. Indeed, at no time did she set even a due value on her own work, still less an exaggerated one. To the day of her death she sincerely believed that all the honor and glory she had reaped belonged of right to her father alone. But there was yet another reason why Miss Edgeworth never liked Belinda. She was staying at Black Castle when the first printed copy reached her. Before her aunt saw it she contrived to tear out the title-pages of the three volumes, and Mrs. Ruxton thus read it without the least suspicion as to its authorship. She was much delighted, and insisted on reading out to her niece passage after passage. Miss Edgeworth pretended to be deeply interested in some book she was herself reading, and when Mrs. Ruxton exclaimed, “Is not that admirably written?” replied, “Admirably read, I think.” “It may not be so very good,” added Mrs. Ruxton, “but it shows just the sort of knowledge of high life which people have who live in the world.” But in vain she appealed to Miss Edgeworth for sympathy, until, provoked by her faint acquiescence, Mrs. Ruxton at last accused her of being envious. “I am sorry to see my little Maria unable to bear the praises of a rival author.” This remark made Miss Edgeworth burst into tears and show her aunt the title-pages of the book. But Mrs. Ruxton was not pleased; she never wholly liked Belinda afterwards, and Miss Edgeworth had always a painful recollection that her aunt had suspected her of the meanness of envy.

In 1802 was published the Essay on Irish Bulls, bearing on its title-page the names of father and daughter. Its title appears to have misled even the Irish: at least it is related that an Irish gentleman, secretary to an agricultural society, who was much interested in improving the breed of Irish cattle, sent for it, expecting to find a work on live stock. We have Miss Edgeworth’s own account of the genesis of the book:—

The first design of the essay was my father’s: under the semblance of attack, he wished to show the English public the eloquence, wit and talents of the lower classes of people in Ireland. Working zealously upon the ideas which he suggested, sometimes what was spoken by him was afterwards written by me; or when I wrote my first thoughts, they were corrected and improved by him; so that no book was ever written more completely in partnership. On this, as on most subjects, whether light or serious, when we wrote together, it would now be difficult, almost impossible, to recollect which thoughts originally were his and which were mine. All passages in which there are Latin quotations or classical allusions must be his exclusively, because I am entirely ignorant of the learned languages. The notes on the Dublin shoe-black’s metaphorical language I recollect are chiefly his.

I have heard him tell that story with all the natural, indescribable Irish tones and gestures, of which written language can give but a faint idea. He excelled in imitating the Irish, because he never overstepped the modesty or the assurance of nature. He marked exquisitely the happy confidence, the shrewd wit of the people, without condescending to produce effect by caricature. He knew not only their comic talents, but their powers of pathos; and often when he had just heard from them some pathetic complaint, he has repeated it to me while the impression was fresh. In the chapter on wit and eloquence in Irish Bulls there is a speech of a poor freeholder to a candidate who asked for his vote; this speech was made to my father when he was canvassing the county of Longford. It was repeated to me a few hours afterwards, and I wrote it down instantly, without, I believe, the variation of a word.

The complaint of a poor widow against her landlord, and his reply, were quoted by Campbell in his Lectures on Eloquence, as happy specimens, under the conviction that they were fictitious. Miss Edgeworth assures us that they are “unembellished facts,” that her father was the magistrate before whom the complaint and defense were made, and that she wrote down the speeches word for word as he repeated them to her. This Essay on Irish Bulls, though a somewhat rambling and discursive composition, is a readable one, full of good stories, pathetic and humorous. Besides giving critical and apt illustrations, the authors did justice to the better traits of the Irish character. It was an earnest vindication of the national intellect from the charge of habitual blundering, showing how blundering is common to all countries, and is no more Irish than Persian. They further proved that most so-called bulls are no bulls at all, but often a poetic license, a heart-spoken effusion, and that thus the offense became a grace beyond the reach of art.

Moral Tales also saw the light in 1801. They too were written to illustrate Practical Education, but aimed at readers of a more advanced age than the children’s tales; in fact, both here and elsewhere Miss Edgeworth strove to do on a larger scale what was achieved by the ancient form of parable, to make an attractive medium for the instruction and conviction of minds. It was a fancy of hers, and perhaps a characteristic of her age, when female authorship was held in somewhat doubtful repute, that she invariably insisted on appearing before the public under cover of her father’s name. He therefore wrote for Moral Tales, as afterwards for all her works, one of his ludicrously bombastic prefaces, which, whatever they may have done in his own time, would certainly to-day be the most effective means of repelling readers. The stories are six in number: Forester, The Prussian Vase, The Good Aunt, Angelina, The Good French Governess, and Mademoiselle Panache. Of these the plots are for the most part poorly contrived, the narrative hammered out invita Minerva, and, owing to their aim, nothing capricious or accidental is permitted. Too obviously they are the mature fruits of purpose and reflection, not happy effusions of the fancy, and hence also not always successful. Sometimes the fault lay with the subject that afforded too little scope, sometimes the moral striven after did not admit of the embellishments requisite for a work of amusement. One thing, however, is certain: that Miss Edgeworth honestly endeavored to combine entertainment with instruction, and that, taken as a whole, she succeeded. She did not shelter herself behind the saying that Il est permis d’ennuyer en moralités d’ici jusqu’à Constantinople. But it is the key to her writings, to their excellences and their defects, that the duty of a moral teacher was always uppermost in her mind. Her aim was not to display her own talents, but to make her readers substantially better and happier, to show how easy and agreeable to practice are high principles. Again and again she insists, with irrefragable force, that it is the ordinary and attainable qualities of life rather than the lofty and heroic ones on which our substantial happiness depends, an insistance new in the domain of fiction, which as a rule preaches other doctrines. With this end in view she had necessarily to sacrifice some freedom and grace of invention to illustrate her moral aphorisms, her salutary truths, and she yielded to the temptation to exaggerate in order to make her work more impressive. Her Moral Tales are a series of climaces of instances, an enlargement of La Bruyère’s idea, a method allowable to creations of fancy, but not quite justifiable when applied to the probable. Moreover, it was a feature of the eighteenth century, to which in many respects Miss Edgeworth belonged, that its tales and novels were not analytic. Psychology based upon biology was as yet unknown, or in so empirical a stage as to be remote from practical application. The writers of those days depict their characters not as the complex bundles of good and bad qualities and potentialities that even the veriest scribbler paints them to-day, but as sharply good or bad, so that one flaw of character, one vice, one folly, was made to be the origin of all their disasters. It is, of course, always dangerous when the author plays the part of Providence, and can twist the narrative to suit the moral; but this censure applies to all moral tales, by no matter whom. Miss Edgeworth strove to civilize and instruct by the rehearsal of a tale, and if we all, from the perversity of human nature, rather revolt against being talked to for our good, it must ever be added in her praise that she generally allures us and makes us listen to her maxims of right living. Her self-imposed task was neither humble nor easy, but one that required judgment, patience and much knowledge of the world; her moral wholesomeness cannot be rated too highly or be too much commended. If she ascribed too large a share of morality to the head instead of the heart, this was the result of the doctrines with which her father had imbued her.

The most successful of the Moral Tales is beyond question Angelina. Its moral is not obtrusive, its fable is well constructed, the tale is told with point, spirit, gentle but incisive satire. The sentimental young lady, a female Don Quixote, roaming the world in search of an unknown friend whose acquaintance she has made solely through the medium of her writings, is a genus that is not extinct. Never has Miss Edgeworth been happier than here, when she combats her heroine’s errors, not by serious arguments, but with the shafts of ridicule. The tale is a gem. Forester, on the other hand, for which Mr. Edgeworth claims that it is a male version of the same character, does not strike us in that light, nor is it as perfect in conception or execution. The character of the eccentric youth who scorns the common forms of civilized society, and is filled with visionary schemes of benevolence and happiness, was based, it would seem, upon that of Mr. Day, and, as a portrait, was doubtless a happy one. But the hero fails to interest, his aberrations are simply foolish, the means whereby he is redeemed too mechanical and crude, the whole both too detailed and too much condensed to hold our attention or to seem probable. The Good French Governess embodies the Edgeworthian mode of giving lessons, which was to make them pleasures, not tasks, to the pupils; maxims now universally recognized and practiced, but new in the days when for little children there were no pleasant roads to learning in the shape of kindergärten. The Good Aunt insists upon the necessity of home example and instruction, the lack of which no school training can supply. It is the weakest of all the tales, and verges dangerously upon the namby-pamby. Mademoiselle Panache, according to Mr. Edgeworth, is “a sketch of the necessary consequences of imprudently trusting the happiness of a daughter to the care of those who can teach nothing but accomplishments;” but which, according to most readers, will be pronounced the melancholy result of an ignorance that could mistake an illiterate French milliner for an accomplished French governess. It is unjust to lay the results of the tuition of such a personage to the charge of that favorite scape-goat — the frivolity of the French nation. The Prussian Vase, a tale, again according to Mr. Edgeworth, “designed principally for young gentlemen who are intended for the bar,” is a pretty but apocryphal anecdote attributed to Frederic the Great, of a nature impossible to the mental bias of that enlightened despot. It is, moreover, an eulogium of the English mode of trial by jury.

Taken as a whole, these tales may be said to enforce the doctrine that unhappiness is more often the result of defects of character than of external circumstances. Like all Miss Edgeworth’s writings, they found instant favor and were translated into French and German. With no desire to detract from their merits, we cannot avoid the inference that this circumstance points to a great lack of contemporary foreign fiction of a pure and attractive kind.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/e/edgeworth/maria/zimmern/chapter6.html

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