Maria Edgeworth, by Helen Zimmern

Chapter viii.

Fashionable and Popular Tales.

When the literary history of the nineteenth century is written, its historians will be amazed to find how important a part the contributions of women have played therein. At the meeting-point of the two centuries it was Miss Edgeworth in Ireland, Miss Austen in England, and Miss Ferrier in Scotland, who for Great Britain inaugurated an era of female authorship that stood and sought to stand simply upon its own merits, neither striving to be masculine nor addressing itself exclusively to women. Fielding, Smollett and the older novelists were not solicitous about virtue. They wrote for men readers only, and if they amused, their end was attained. But when women became readers a new need arose, and with the need came a new supply. The finer ethical instincts of women were revolted by the grossness of the Tom Joneses, the Tristram Shandys of literature; and as society became purer, manners less coarse, men too asked for mental food that should be less gross in texture. Miss Burney had led the way to a new era, a new style, both in fictitious literature and in female authorship. It was in her footsteps that Miss Edgeworth trod; but while Miss Burney aimed at amusement only, Miss Edgeworth inaugurated the novel with a purpose.

Perhaps no phrase has been more misunderstood than this of “a novel with a purpose.”

Obviously it is not only right but imperative that a novel, or any work of art, should have a leading idea, an aim; but this is markedly different from a didactic purpose, which is implied by the phrase. Readers of novels demand before all else to be entertained, and are justified in that demand, and they merely submit to such instruction or moralizing as can be poured into their minds without giving them too much trouble. Miss Edgeworth lost sight of this too often; indeed, it was a point of view that did not enter into her philosophy, narrowed as her experience was by the boundaries of home and the all-pervading influence of her father’s passion for the didactic. The omission proved the stumbling-block that hindered her novels from attaining the highest excellence. A moral was ever uppermost in Miss Edgeworth’s mind, and for its sake she often strained truth and sacrificed tenderness. She was forever weighted by her purpose; hence her imagination, her talents, had not free play, and hence the tendency in all her writings to make things take a more definite course than they do in real life, where purpose and results are not always immediately in harmony, nor indeed always evident. Miss Kavanagh has aptly said, “Life is more mysterious than Miss Edgeworth has made it.” Having said this, however, we have laid our finger upon the weak point of her novels, in which there is so much to praise, such marked ability, such delicious humor, such exuberant creative fancy and variety, that the general public does very ill to have allowed them to sink so much into oblivion.

Between the years 1804 and 1813 Miss Edgeworth published Leonora, Griselda, and the stories of various length that were issued under the collective titles of Tales front Fashionable Life and Popular Tales. Leonora was the first work she wrote after her return from France, where she had enlarged the sphere of her mind and heart. It is a marked improvement upon Belinda, the fable is better contrived, the language flows more easily. It was penned with a view to please M. Edelcrantz, and in respect of being written for one special reader, Leonora recalls that curious work by Madame Riccoboni, Lettres de Fanni Butlerd à Milord Charles Alfred, published as a fiction, but in reality only the collection of the writer’s love-letters to the Englishman who had wronged and deserted her. “Mistris Fanni to one reader,” was the significant heading to the preface of that book.

Miss Edgeworth’s purpose in Leonora certainly led her into an entirely new path. To use her own words, no one would have believed that she could have been such an expert in the language of sentimental logic. For her doubly romantic purpose she was able to argue with all the sophistry and casuistry, of false, artificial and exaggerated feeling that can make vices assume the air of virtues, and virtues those of vices, until it is impossible even to know them asunder. The story itself rests upon a narrow and not very probable foundation. Its great fault is that it is too long drawn out for its base. The principal characters are a virtuous, outwardly cold and precise, inwardly warm-hearted English wife, and a well-bred English husband, led astray by the machinations of a Frenchified coquette who sets upon him from pure désoeuvrement, and for whom any other person who had come into her path at that moment would have been equally acceptable game. The work is thrown into the form of letters, which gives to Miss Edgeworth an opportunity, inimitably carried out, of making all the personages paint themselves and speak in the language that is most natural to them. These letters are excellently varied. Lady Olivia’s teem with French and German sentiment and metaphysics of self-deception; Leonora’s are as candid and generous as herself — yet though her motives are lofty, we discern a certain air of aristocratic hauteur; while the good sense in General B—— ‘s is bluntly expressed.

The fault of the story is that the husband’s conversion ought to have been brought about by purely moral means, and not by the accidental interception of his false mistress’ letters. Thus the value of the whole moral is destroyed by its creator. That Delphine in a manner suggested this story, that but for this romance Leonora might not have assumed its peculiar shape, may be taken almost for granted. A certain notion of refuting this corrupt story, then at the high tide of its popularity, may also have been present in Miss Edgeworth’s mind, who at no time was so much self-absorbed as to lose sight of the ultimate aim in all her writings. Those were the days of excessive sensibility, when to yearn after elective affinities was the fashion. From such a state of feeling Miss Edgeworth’s temperament and training secured her, and for very fear of it she erred in an opposite extreme. But with the true artist’s instinct she recognized that it was in the air, and she makes it the theme of a romance that holds it up not only to ridicule, but shows with relentless force into what abysms it may lead its votaries. Over this novel Miss Edgeworth expended much time and care; it was subjected to frequent revision, while her father “cut, scrawled and interlined without mercy.” It is certainly polished ad unguem, as he rightly deemed that a book of this nature, devoid of regular story, must be; but it might have been cut down still more with advantage.

It is the peculiarity of Miss Edgeworth’s novels, and may be accepted as their key-note, that she systematically addressed herself to the understanding rather than to the heart of her readers, and that she rarely forgot her educational aim. After having striven to instruct children and young men and women, she tried, in a series of tales selected from fashionable life, “to point out some of the errors to which the higher classes of society are disposed.” It is an open question whether it is possible to correct society, or whether that is a hopeless task because society is too vain and silly to listen to words of wisdom. “England,” said Mr. Pecksniff, “England expects every man to do his duty. England will be disappointed.” Miss Edgeworth, however, who never doubted the value of tuition, attempted the task, and she was certainly right in so far that if it were possible to open the eyes of this class of persons, it would be by means of entertaining stories. Of course she only appealed to those who, though not gifted with enough good sense to go right of their own accord, are yet not past teaching, or too devoid of sense to be teachable, and she took immense pains to show how the greater part of our troubles in life arise from ignorance rather than from vice and incapacity. To teach the art of living, the science of being happy, is her one endeavor; and thus her fancy, her wit, her strictures, are all made to bend to her main purpose, that of being the vehicles of her practical philosophy. Yet to regard Miss Edgeworth as a mere teaching machine is to do her gross injustice. Like most people, she was better than her creed. Despite her doctrines, her genius was too strong for her, and it is thanks to this that sundry of these tales from Fashionable Life are among her highest and most successful efforts. They are also as a whole more powerful and varied than any of her previous productions.

The first series consisted of four stories: Ennui, The Dun, Manoeuvring, and Almeria, of which the first is by far the longest. As is too often the case with Miss Edgeworth, the plot is clumsily and coldly contrived, the proportions not well maintained; but the work abounds with masterly delineations of character, and is a striking picture of the satiety induced by being born, like the hero, Lord Glenthorne, on the pinnacle of fortune, so that he has nothing to do but to sit still and enjoy the barrenness of the prospect, or to eat toffee, like the duke in Patience. He tries all amusements, but finds them wanting, and he would probably have been ruined mentally and bodily if a convenient catastrophe had not precipitated him temporarily into indigence and aroused all those better qualities of his nature and excellent abilities that lay buried and inert. It is not the least skillful part of this clever tale that it is told as an autobiography, the hero himself both consciously and unconsciously dissecting his foibles. Much of the scene is laid in Ireland, and gives Miss Edgeworth scope for those amusing collateral incidents, those racy delineations of the various classes of Irish society, in which she is still unsurpassed. She knew how to hit off to the life the several peculiarities of respective stations and characters, and we know not whom most to admire and delight in: the Irish pauper who officiates as postilion, and who assures Lord Glenthorne that his crazy chaise is the best in the country —“we have two more, to be sure, but one has no top and the other no bottom;” the warm-hearted, impulsive, happy-go-lucky Irish nurse, who has no scruple about committing a crime for the sake of those she loves; or Lady Geraldine, the high-born, high-bred Irish peeress, who speaks with an Irish accent, uses Irish idioms, and whose language is more interrogative, more exclamatory, more rhetorical, accompanied with more animation of countenance and demonstrative gesture, than that of the English ladies with whom she is contrasted. With inimitable skill we are made to see that there is something foreign in this lady’s manner, something rather French than English, and yet not French either, but indigenous. Of course, rebels play a part in the story — it would not be a true Irish story without them, but, as usual, Miss Edgeworth dwells by preference upon the milder, more engaging aspects of the Irish character, upon their strange, pathetic life; and while not ignoring, brings into as little prominence as may be the frequent perjuries, the vindictive passions, the midnight butcheries, the lawless ferocity, the treacherous cruelty, of her half-savage compatriots.

The Dun is a short tale in Miss Edgeworth’s most didactic and least happy style, dealing with a theme that should be more often emphasized and brought into view; namely, the unfeeling thoughtlessness of the rich, that withholds from the poor the result of their earnings, one of the most frequent and serious injuries perpetrated by the wealthy upon their indigent brethren.

Manoeuvring is a detailed account of the machinations of a certain Mrs. Beaumont, a country lady, who expends a great deal of Machiavelism, left-handed wisdom and intrigue upon the projects of her children’s marriages, and also upon securing to her family the fortune of an old gentleman who never had a thought of disposing of it otherwise. The mortification and defeats to which her circuitous policy constantly exposes her constitute the plot and the moral of the tale, which is not ill-conceived, and yet for some cause fails to interest us long.

In Almeria, Miss Edgeworth’s admirable story-telling powers, her grace and shrewdness, are once more seen at their very best. It is the history of a woman who has sacrificed all the happiness of life, all the better instincts of her nature, for the empty ambition of being admitted into the charmed circle of fashionable society; and who, though she finds out in time that it is Dead Sea apples she has sought, has become so immeshed that she cannot break away, but leads an existence of pleasure-hunting, ever seeking, never finding that commodity, a warning example of

How the world its veterans rewards —

A youth of folly, an old age of cards.

The moral is not insisted on, but is allowed to speak for itself, and is on that account far more eloquent.

Except when dealing with Irish scenes, Miss Edgeworth is never happier than when painting the perverse or intriguing fine ladies of society, who, having no real troubles or anxieties to occupy them, shielded from the physical evils of existence, make to themselves others, and find occupation for their empty heads and hours, with results put before us so simply, and devoid of euphemism, by Dr. Watts. Well indeed has the proverb said, “An empty mind is the devil’s house.” In her kindly way Miss Edgeworth can be scathing, and she exercises this power upon women of mere fashion. The ladies of the period were less occupied with public and philanthropic schemes than they are now, and hence had more time to expend on follies and frivolities. The whole pitiful system of unreal existence led by these women is exposed with an almost remorseless hand, for Miss Edgeworth had no tenderness for foolish failings. Inimitably, too, we are made to see how then, as now, there was tolerated in fashionable society a degree of vulgarity which would neither be suffered nor attempted in lower life. It was just because Miss Edgeworth’s lines were cast among the rich and idle that she was able to understand all the misery and heartlessness of the lives of a large section of this community. We see how their petty cravings, their preposterous pursuits, bring positive misery on themselves if not on others; how their dispositions are sophisticated, their tempers warped, their time and talents wasted, in their restless chase after social distinction, after the craze of being in the fashion. “The scourges of the prosperous;” thus happily have these giant curses of mere fashionable life been defined. Miss Edgeworth certainly understood fully the nature of the disorder of her patients, the ennui, the stagnation of life and feeling that devoured them and sunk many of them at last to a depth at which they no longer merited the name of rational human beings. At the same time (and this is a point which must be insisted upon) there is no sourness about Miss Edgeworth’s pictures of good society; her pen, in speaking of it, is not dipped in vinegar and wormwood, as was the pen of Thackeray, and sometimes even that of George Eliot. Without snobbishness, without envy, she writes quite simply, and absolutely objectively, of that which surged around her whenever she left the quiet of Edgeworthstown and visited in some of the many noble houses of Ireland, Scotland and England, in which she was a familiar friend. That her pictures of contemporary society were correct has never been disputed. She reproduced faithfully not only its coarser and silly side, but also the more brilliant conversational features, that make it contrast so favorably with that of our own day, in which the art of talking has been lost. Lord Jeffrey, an authority, and one not given to flattery, says that Miss Edgeworth need not be afraid of being excelled in “that faithful but flattering representation of the spoken language of persons of wit and politeness — in that light and graceful tone of raillery and argument, and in that gift of sportive but cutting médisance which is sure of success in those circles where success is supposed to be most difficult and desirable.” In support of his statement he points to the conversation of Lady Delacour (Belinda), Lady Dashfort (Absentee) and Lady Geraldine (Ennui).

The first series of Tales from Fashionable Life met with so much favor that the publisher clamored for more. Some were lying ready, others had to be written, but in 1812 Miss Edgeworth was able to issue a second series, containing three stories, of which one, The Absentee, ranks worthily beside Castle Rackrent as a masterpiece. The evils this story sought to expose came daily under Miss Edgeworth’s observation; she beheld the Irish landed gentry forsake their homes and their duties in order to go to London and cut a figure in fashionable society, spending beyond their means, oblivious of the state of home affairs, and merely regarding their properties as good milch kine. How their unfortunate tenants were ground down in order to meet these claims they neither knew nor cared. Lord and Lady Clonbrony, the absentees, are drawn with vivid touches: she is devoured by ambition to shine in a society for which she is not fitted, and voluntarily submits to any humiliations and rebuffs, any sacrifices, to attain this end; he, uprooted from his wonted surroundings, cannot acclimatize himself to new ones, and, merely to pass his time, sinks into the vices of gaming and betting. Lady Clonbrony affects a contempt for her native land and pretends she is not Irish. As, however, she cannot rid herself of an Irish pronunciation and Irish phrases, she is constantly placed in the dilemma of holding her tongue and appearing yet more foolish than she is; or, by mistaking reverse of wrong for right, so caricaturing the English pronunciation that thus alone she betrayed herself not to be English. In vain, too, this lady struggles to school her free, good-natured Irish manner into the cold, sober, stiff deportment she deems English. The results to which all this gives rise are delineated with consummate skill and good-humored satire. The scenes that occur in London society are highly diverting, but the story gains in deeper interest when it shifts to Ireland, whither Lady Clonbrony drives her only son, Lord Colambre, whom she has sought to marry against his will to an English heiress. Unknown to his tenants, from whom he has so long been absent, and further purposely disguised in order to elicit the truth concerning certain unfavorable rumors that have reached his ears, Lord Colambre is a witness of the oppressions under which his tenants labor from an unscrupulous and rapacious agent, who feels secure in his master’s absence, and in that master’s indifference to all but the money result of his estate. Charmingly is the Irish character here described; we see it in its best phases, with all its kindliness, wit, generosity. There are elements of simple pathos scattered about this story. With delicate and playful humor we are shown the heroic and imaginative side of the Irish peasantry. We quite love the kindly old woman who kills her last fowl to furnish supper to the stranger, whom she does not know to be her landlord. On the other hand we are amused beyond measure with Mrs. Rafferty, the Dublin grocer’s wife and parvenue, who, in the absence of those who should have upheld Irish society, is able to make that dash that Lady Clonbrony vainly seeks to make in London. Her mixture of taste and incongruity, finery and vulgarity, affectation and ignorance, is delightful. The dinner-party scene at her house would make the reputation of many a modern novelist. It was a dinner of profusion and pretension, during which Mrs. Rafferty toiled in vain to conceal the blunders of her two untrained servants, who were expected to do the work of five accomplished waiters, talking high art meanwhile to her lordly guest, and occasionally venting her ill humor at the servants’ blunders upon her unfortunate husband, calling out so loud that all the table could hear, “Corny Rafferty, Corny Rafferty, you’re no more gud at the fut of my table than a stick of celery!” As for the scene in which Lord Colambre discovers himself to his tenantry and to their oppressor, Macaulay has ventured to pronounce it the best thing written of its kind since the opening of the twenty-second book of the Odyssey. No mean authority and no mean praise! As a story it is certainly one of the best contrived, and the end is particularly happy. Instead of a tedious moral there is a racy letter from the post-boy who drove Lord Colambre, and who paints, with true Hibernian vivacity and some delicious malaprops, the ultimate return of the Clonbrony family to their estate, which, to the optimistic Irish mind, represents the end of all their troubles and the inauguration of a new era of prosperity and justice. For one thing, it is so much more in keeping that an uncultured peasant, rather than a thoughtful and philosophical mind, should believe in so simple a solution to evils of long standing; that what we should have felt an error in Miss Edgeworth becomes right and natural in Larry. The suggestion for this conclusion came from Mr. Edgeworth, and he wrote a letter for the purpose. Miss Edgeworth, however, wrote one too, and her father so much preferred hers that it was chosen to form the admirable finale to the Absentee.

What perfect self-control Miss Edgeworth possessed may be judged from the fact that the whole of the Absentee, so full of wit and spirit, was written in great part while she was suffering agonies from toothache. Only by keeping her mouth full of some strong lotion could she in any way allay the pain, yet her family state that never did she write with more rapidity and ease. Her even-handed justice, her stern love of truth, are markedly shown in this novel. She does not exaggerate for the sake of strengthening her effects; thus, for example, she does not make all her agents bad, as some writers would have done; indeed, one is a very model middle-man. She is always far more careful to be true than to be effective, she uses the sober colors of reality, she paints with no tints warmer than life. The chief and abiding merit of her Irish scenes is not that of describing what had not been described before, but of describing well what had been described ill.

Vivian was written with extreme care and by no means with the same rapidity, yet it cannot be compared to the Absentee. Here Miss Edgeworth was once more clogged by her purpose and unable for a moment to lose sight of it. “I have put my head and shoulders to the business,” she writes to her cousin, “and if I don’t make a good story of it, it shall not be for want of pains.” It proved no easy task, and only the fact that her father so much approved it, upheld her. “My father says Vivian will stand next to Mrs. Beaumont and Ennui. I have ten days’ more work on it, and then huzza! ten days’ more purgatory at other corrections, and then a heaven upon earth of idleness and reading, which is my idleness.” Vivian is a particularly aggravating story, so excellent that it is hard to comprehend why it is not of that first-class merit which it just seems to miss. Its aim is to illustrate the evils and perplexities that arise from vacillation and infirmity of purpose, and it is rather a series of incidents than one well-rounded plot. Miss Edgeworth loves to paint, not an episode in life, but the history of a whole life-career. This permits her to trace out those gradual evolutions of some fault of character in which she displays such consummate ability, such precision and metaphysical subtlety. The hero, Vivian, a man of good disposition, but lacking firmness of purpose, cannot say “no,” while at the same time he has all the spirit of opposition which seems to go hand in hand with weak characters, and is by them mistaken for resolution. The faults, the errors, the griefs, this trait of character leads him into are the staple of the story, which ends mournfully, since Vivian’s inability to cure himself of his fault finally leads to his own death in a duel. He has not inaptly been named “a domestic Hamlet.” Like Hamlet, he is neither able to accommodate himself to life as it is, nor strong enough to strike out a new life on his own account. The tale abounds in clever pictures of aristocratic and political society, and is full of the intrigues, the petty meannesses of social leaders. As usual, the moral instances are both striking and amusing, reason and ridicule being mixed in those just proportions that Miss Edgeworth knew how to blend so happily. A serious defect is undoubtedly the fact that it is not possible to care for the hero, and hence we grow rather indifferent to his good or ill fortune, and after a while are weary of the undoubted skill and perverted ingenuity with which he apologizes for his vacillation. On the other hand, as ever with Miss Edgeworth, the subordinate characters are throughout excellent, drawn with force and life-like power. Lord Glistonbury alone would redeem the book from the possibility of being dull. This talkative, conceited man, of neither principle nor understanding, who chatters adopted opinions and original nonsense, who loves to hear himself speak, and believes he is uttering great things, is a distinct creation.

The story of Madame de Fleury is slight in texture. It relates the experience of a rich and benevolent French lady who conducts a school for poor children after the Edgeworth type, and is rather a transcript from real life than a tale. Formal and conventional though it is, however, it was never wholly possible to Miss Edgeworth to belie her genius. Invariably she introduces some character, trait or observation that redeems even a dull tale from condemnation. In this case it is the delicate skill with which is depicted the gradual decline in character of Manon, who from an unconscientious child becomes a bold, unscrupulous woman. It was in penning Madame de Fleury that Miss Edgeworth encountered the difficulty she had observed of making truth and fiction mix well together. Emilie de Coulanges is the too correctly virtuous and rather colorless daughter of a refugee French countess, whose provoking character is deftly depicted with its selfishness, its self-absorption, that renders her both ungrateful and regardless of the comfort of the English lady who has most generously entertained her at no little personal inconvenience. Unfortunately an irritable temper mars Mrs. Somers’ good, generous nature, and causes her to weary out even the affections of those who have most cause to love her. It also renders her suspicious of the probity, the good intentions of her friends. She loves to arouse sentimental quarrels; the bickerings and ultimate reconciliation give her real pleasure, as a form of mental titillation, and she fails to see that, though with her it is all surface, as her real feelings are not aroused, this may not be the case with her victims. Mrs. Somers, who may rank as the true heroine, is a bold yet highly-finished portrait, conceived and executed in Miss Edgeworth’s best manner. The countess is little less happy. Miss Edgeworth possessed in a high degree that intuitive judgment of character which is more common in women than in men, and which, when properly exercised, balanced by judgment and matured by experience, explains the success they have met with in the domain of fictitious literature.

Again and again Miss Edgeworth proved the fecund creativeness with which she could delineate the moral and intellectual anatomy of the most varied and various characters. Her personages are animate with life and brightness. Above all else she was an artist in detail, and never more felicitous than when furnishing studies of foible in female form. Of this the Modern Griselda is a notable instance — a brilliant performance, almost too brilliant, for it scintillates with wit and epigrammatic wisdom; it never fails or flags for one little moment, so that at last the reader’s attention is in danger of being surfeited by a feast of good things. The fable is the direct opposite to that of the old story of Griselda. In the words of Milton we are shown how it befalls the man

Who to worth in woman over-trusting,

Lets her will rule: restraint she will not brook;

And left to herself, if evil thence ensue,

She first his weak indulgence will accuse.

This the modern Griselda does to her husband’s cost and her own. The story is a remarkable evidence of Miss Edgeworth’s independence of genius. She showed no weak sympathy with the failings of her sex just because it was her sex, but, like a true friend, held them up to view and pointed them out for correction. Her objectiveness did not insure her, however, from misconstruction. Mrs. Barbauld wrote to her:—

I became very impatient for your Griselda before Johnson thought proper to produce it; need I add we have read it with great pleasure? It is charming, like everything you write, but I can tell you the gentlemen like it better than the ladies, and if you were to be tried by a jury of your own sex I do not know what punishment you might be sentenced to for having betrayed their cause. “The author is one of your own sex; we men have nothing to do but to stand by and laugh,” was the remark of a gentleman, no less candid a man than Dr. Aiken: and then the moral (a general moral if I understand it right) that a man must not indulge his wife too much! If I were a new-married woman I do not know whether I would forgive you till you had made the amende honorable by writing something to expose the men. All, however, are unanimous in admiring the sprightliness of the dialogue and the ingenious and varied perverseness of the heroine.

To this letter Miss Edgeworth replied:—

Let me assure you that the little tale was written in playfulness, not bitterness of heart. Not one of the female committee who sat upon it every day whilst it was writing and reading ever imagined that it should be thought a severe libel upon the sex, perhaps because their attention was fixed upon Mrs. Granby, who at least is as much a panegyric as Mrs. Bolingbroke is a satire upon the sex.

Popular Tales were issued, and also in great part written, before the two series of Fashionable Tales, and, taken as a whole, do not approach them in merit. They are more crude in conception, more didactic in manner; the moral is too obviously thrust into view, and at times even the very philosophy the author strives to inculcate is halting. The intensity and severe restraint of her purpose had blinded her vision, perverted her logic; and thus the value of some of these ingenious apologues is lowered. There is a character of childishness and poorness about many of these tales that detracts seriously from the really accurate observation and acute knowledge of human nature that they inclose. Further, too, there is always such a sober, practical, authentic air about all Miss Edgeworth’s narratives, that glaring inconsistencies and forced catastrophes strike us with double force as ludicrous and unnatural when introduced by her. We certainly incline to think that the result of perusing at one sitting the two volumes of Miss Edgeworth’s Popular Tales could lead to that outburst of pharisaical pride:—

Said I then to my heart, “Here’s a lesson for me!

That man’s but a picture of what I might be;

But thanks to my friends for their care in my breeding,

Who have taught me, betimes, to love working and reading.”

Popular Tales were devised with a view to correct the errors and temptations of middle-class life, and were intended for a class which in those days was not much in the habit of reading.

Mr. and Miss Edgeworth, though advanced and liberal thinkers in many ways, were conservative in others, and, curiously enough, carried the idea of class distinction into the domain of reading. They deemed that to reach the middle classes a different character of story must be conceived from that destined for persons of rank. There is a naïvete, a gentle absurdity, about this simple fancy that we cannot help attributing to Mr. Edgeworth’s unimaginative mind. In a brief but bombastic preface this worthy personage sets forth the pretension of the writer of these stories, and gives a list of the classes for which they are adapted. Why did he not also devise some method, by which to insure that none of the tales should be read or bought save by persons of a certain social standard? It would have been equally reasonable. To make a distinction between tales for children and for adults is proper and right; to draw a fine distinction between classes, unfit and childish. The process of natural selection will of its own accord effect the result that no one will read that which is tedious. Yet even when hampered by the illustration of copy-book morality, Miss Edgeworth could not hide her power. She never repeats herself; every story is unlike the other. She does not angrily apply herself to the correction of the vices and abuses she holds peculiar to the class she addresses; neither does she magnify, even though she emphasizes. We only behold them shorn of the indulgences and palliations they too often meet with. She was neither a Utopian purist nor a sentimental innocent; nor can she belie a natural tendency to make her ethics rather a code of high-minded expediency than of high principle for its own sake only. Throughout her writings she shows that from low as well as high motives, good actions are the best; but she never suffers her characters to rest in the reward of a quiet conscience. Her supreme good sense was always mingled with a regard for the social proprieties; she never loses these quite from sight; her idea of right is as much to preserve these as for right itself. For, after all, Miss Edgeworth’s life revolved amid the fashionable world, and lofty as her aims are, she was not wholly untainted by her surroundings. She accounts it no crime in her heroines if they look out for a good establishment, money, horses, carriages; provided always that the man they marry be no dunce, she will overlook any little lack of affection. But, after all, she was teaching only in accordance with the superficial philosophy of the last century, which led people to found their doctrines entirely upon self-interest.

Still, a tone of rationality and good sense was so new in the tales of Miss Edgeworth’s period, that to this alone a large share of the undoubted success and popularity of the Popular Tales may be ascribed. Lord Jeffrey, criticising them at the time of their appearance, remarked that “it required almost the same courage to get rid of the jargon of fashionable life, and the swarms of peers, foundlings and seducers, as it did to sweep away the mythological persons of antiquity and to introduce characters who spoke and acted like those who were to peruse these adventures.” Miss Edgeworth was certainly the first woman to make domestic fiction the vehicle of great and necessary truths, and on this account alone she must ever take high rank, and be forgiven if that which has been said of her in general be specially true of Popular Tales, that: “She walks by the side of her characters as Mentor by the side of Telemachus, keeping them out of all manner of pleasant mischief, and wagging the monitory head and waving the remonstrating finger, should their breath come thick at approaching adventures.”

5 Miss Edgeworth erroneously, but persistently, speaks of this publication as the Journal Britannique.

6 A contemporary epigram ran thus:—

“La Genlis se consume en efforts superflus,

La vertu n’en veut pas; le vice n’en veut plus.”

7 Afterwards King Louis Philippe. It was at a Swiss school that he taught, not at a German university.

8 John Langan was the steward; in face and figure the prototype of Thady in Castle Rackrent.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/e/edgeworth/maria/zimmern/chapter8.html

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