Maria Edgeworth, by Helen Zimmern

Chapter ix.

Visit to London. — Mr. Edgeworth’s Death.

Busily, happily, uneventfully time flowed on at Edgeworthstown, while abroad Miss Edgeworth’s fame was steadily on the increase. But whatever the world might say, however kind, nay flattering, its verdict, this preëminently sensible woman did not suffer herself to be deluded by success. That she knew precisely and gauged correctly the extent and limits of her power, is proved by a letter written to Mr. Elton Hammond, who had over-zealously defended her from criticism:—

I thank you for your friendly zeal in defense of my powers of pathos and sublimity, but I think it carries you much too far, and you imagine that I refrain from principle or virtue from displaying powers which I really do not possess. I assure you that I am not in the least degree capable of writing a dithyrambic ode, or any other kind of ode. Therefore it would be the meanest affectation in me to pretend to refrain from such efforts of genius. In novel-writing I certainly have from principle avoided all exaggerated sentiment; but I am well aware that many other writers possess in a much higher degree than I do the power of pathos and the art of touching the passions. As to how I should use these powers if I had them, perhaps I cannot fairly judge, but all I am at present sure of is that I will not depreciate that which I do not possess.

Another letter to the same correspondent deserves quotation, as giving her views on authorship. Mr. Hammond had consulted her as to the advisability of his adventuring on that career. Miss Edgeworth replied:—

If everybody were to wait till they could write a book in which there should not be a single fault or error, the press might stand still for ages yet unborn. Mankind must have arrived at the summit of knowledge before language could be as perfect as you expect yours to be. Till ideas are exact, just and sufficient, how can words which represent them be accurate? The advantage of the art of printing is that the mistakes of individuals in reasoning and writing will be corrected in time by the public — so that the cause of truth cannot suffer, and I presume you are too much of a philosopher to mind the trifling mortification to your vanity which the detection of a mistake might occasion. You know that some sensible person has observed, only in other words, that we are wiser to-day than we were yesterday. . . . I think that only little or weak minds are so dreadfully afraid of being ever in the wrong. Those who feel that they have resources, that they have means of compensating for errors, have never this horror of being found in a mistake.

In the spring of 1813 Mr., Mrs. and Miss Edgeworth visited London, where they were much lionized. According to contemporaries it was the daughter for whom the attentions were mainly meant, though she, of course, deemed them intended for her father. Crabb Robinson said that Miss Edgeworth gained the good will of every one during this visit. Not so her father; his “cock-sureness,” dictatorial and dogmatic manner gave much offense in society.

They met every one worth meeting during their brief stay, and many famous names glint across the pages of the one letter that has been preserved treating of this London visit. Perhaps it was the only one written, for she describes themselves as being, from morning till night, in a whirl of gaiety and sight-seeing, “that how we got through the day and night with our heads on our shoulders is a matter of astonishment to me. . . . But I trust we have left London without acquiring any taste for dissipation or catching the rage for finery and fine people.” In this one letter there are, unfortunately, none of those delightfully detailed descriptions of persons and events that she gave from France. Among the distinguished persons she met, Lord Byron is mentioned. Singularly enough she dismisses him with just the last remark that one would have expected concerning the poet, about whose good looks, at least, the world was unanimous: “Of Lord Byron, I can only tell you that his appearance is nothing that you would remark.” He, on his part, was more favorably impressed. He writes in his journal:—

I had been the lion of 1812. Miss Edgeworth and Mme. de Staël with The Cossack, towards the end of 1813, were the exhibitions of the succeeding year. I thought Edgeworth a fine old fellow, of a clarety, elderly, red complexion, but active, brisk and restless. He was seventy, but did not look fifty, no, nor forty-eight even. I had seen poor Fitz–Patrick not very long before — a man of pleasure, wit and eloquence, all things. He tottered, but still talked like a gentleman, though feebly; Edgeworth bounced about and talked loud and long; but he seemed neither weakly nor decrepit, and hardly old.

Byron then remarks that he heard Mr. Edgeworth boast of having put down Dr. Parr, a boast which Byron took leave to think not true. He adds:—

For the rest, he seemed intelligent, vehement, vivacious and full of life. He bids fair for a hundred years. He was not much admired in London, and I remember a “ryghte merrie” and conceited jest which was rife among the gallants of the day, viz.: a paper had been presented for the recall of Mrs. Siddons to the stage, to which all men had been called to subscribe; whereupon Thomas Moore, of profane and poetical memory, did propose that a similar paper should be subscribed and circumscribed for the recall of Mr. Edgeworth to Ireland. The fact was, everybody cared more about her. She was a nice little unassuming “Jeanie Deans” looking body, as we Scotch say, and if not handsome, certainly not ill-looking. Her conversation was as quiet as herself. One would never have guessed she could write her name; whereas her father talked, not as if he could write nothing else, but as if nothing else was worth writing.

To turn from them to their works, I admire them; but they excite no feeling and they leave no love, except for some Irish steward or postilion. However, the impression of intellect and prudence is profound, and may be useful.

To the Edgeworths’ regret they left London before the arrival of Madame de Staël, for whom all the world was eagerly looking. The poet Rogers, noted for malicious sayings, asserted at a dinner-party that this was not accident, but design; that Madame de Staël would not arrive till Miss Edgeworth had gone. “Madame de Staël would not like two stars shining at the same time.” Fortunately, for once, he was reproved; for it happened that, unknown to him, Madame de Staël’s son was of the company, who indignantly repelled the insinuation that his mother could be capable of such meanness.

As always, Miss Edgeworth was glad to get home again:—

The brilliant panorama of London is over, and I have enjoyed more pleasure and have had more amusement, infinitely more than I expected, and received more attention, more kindness, than I could have thought it possible would be shown to me; I have enjoyed the delight of seeing my father esteemed and honored by the best judges in England; I have felt the pleasure of seeing my true friend and mother — for she has been a mother to me — appreciated in the best society; and now, with the fullness of content, I return home, loving my own friends and my own mode of life preferably to all others, after comparison with all that is fine and gay, and rich and rare.

* * *

I feel that I return with fresh pleasure to literary work from having been so long idle, and I have a famishing appetite for reading. All that we saw in London I am sure I enjoyed, while it was passing, as much as possible; but I should be sorry to live in that whirling vortex, and I find my taste and conviction confirmed on my return to my natural friends and my dear home.

Seeing Patronage through the press, and writing the continuations of Frank, Rosamond, and Harry and Lucy, were Miss Edgeworth’s immediate occupations on her return.

Early in 1814 Mr. Edgeworth showed the first infirmities of age, which resulted in a long and painful illness. During its course Miss Edgeworth’s letters were only bulletins of his health. The anxiety the family had so long felt concerning Lovell Edgeworth, on whom, on Mr. Edgeworth’s death, all his duties would devolve, and who was still a prisoner, was heightened by this event. It was, therefore, an increased joy when, upon the entrance of the Allies into Paris, after a forcible detention of eleven years, Lovell Edgeworth was at last released and able to hasten home. The pleasure of seeing him helped to restore his father’s health; but it was evident that Mr. Edgeworth’s constitution had received a shock, and he himself never swerved from the opinion that his existence might be prolonged a year, or even two, but that permanent recovery was out of all question. This did not depress him. As before, he continued to be actively employed, interested in all new things, in all the life about him, and repeatedly exclaimed, “How I enjoy my existence!” “He did not for his own sake desire length of life,” says his daughter, “but it was his prayer that his mind might not decay before his body.” He assured his friends that as far as this might be allowed to depend on his own watchful care over his understanding and his temper, he would preserve himself through the trials of sickness and suffering to the last, such as they could continue to respect and love. This assurance he faithfully redeemed, by dint of a self-control and a regard for the comfort of others that cannot be too much commended, and which of itself alone would win pardon for many of his irritating faults.

Waverley had just appeared, and every one was reading and discussing it. Scott, who had always been an ardent admirer of Miss Edgeworth, and who said in after-years that he should in all likelihood never have thought of a Scotch novel had he not read Maria Edgeworth’s exquisite pieces of Irish character, had desired his publisher to send her a copy on its first appearance, inscribed, “From the Author.” She had, however, not yet received this copy when late one night, after having finished hearing the story read aloud to her family, in all the first fervor of her admiration, she sat down to write to the unknown author. Mrs. Edgeworth, who had been the reader, relates that as she closed the volume Mr. Edgeworth exclaimed, “Aut Scotus, aut Diabolus,” and with these words Miss Edgeworth began her long and ardently-appreciative letter to the nameless novelist. All Miss Edgeworth’s ready, generous, truly Irish enthusiasm breaks forth in this epistle, which is too laudatory, too much written à la volée to be truly critical. But Miss Edgeworth never was critical when her feelings came into play, or were allowed their course unchecked. She narrates to Scott how the story was read aloud, how when ended they all felt depressed to think that they must return to the flat realities of life, and how little disposed they were to read the “Postscript, which should have been a Preface.” While she was writing her letter Mrs. Edgeworth opened the book again and noticed this chapter.

“Well, let us hear it,” said my father. Mrs. Edgeworth read on. Oh! my dear sir, how much pleasure would my father, my mother, my whole family, as well as myself, have lost if we had not read to the last page! And the pleasure came upon us so unexpectedly — we had been so completely absorbed, that every thought of ourselves, of our own authorship, was far, far away. I thank you for the honor you have done us and for the pleasure you have given us, great in proportion to the opinion we had formed of the work we had just perused, and, believe me, every opinion I have in this letter expressed was formed before any individual in the family had peeped to the end of the book, or knew how much we owed you.

Your obliged and grateful

MARIA EDGEWORTH.

To this letter Ballantyne replied; thus, even towards Miss Edgeworth, Scott kept up his anonymity. A little later she tells a friend: “Scott says upon his honor that he had nothing to do with Guy Mannering, though he had a little to do, he says, with Waverley.”

The following winter was spent by the family at Dublin, for the sake of first-class medical advice for Mr. Edgeworth. That indefatigable, active-minded old man meantime, though far from well, made experiments on wheel carriages and published a report. There was much gaiety and some interesting society to enliven the winter, but nothing worthy of note is recorded by Miss Edgeworth. Anxiety on account of her beloved father was uppermost in her mind, yet she continued to write, and was busy upon some plays and upon preparing a third edition of Patronage. In this third edition she made some important alterations, changing the dénouement to gratify remonstrances that had reached her. She did not like this alteration, and doubted the propriety of making it after a work had gone through two editions. Her father, however, approved, and the public was more satisfied. There was certainly much that was unnatural in the previous course of the tale, in which the newly-married wife refuses to go abroad with her adored husband, but lets him go alone and remains with her father, who, it is true, was in grief, but who had another daughter to console him. This might be Edgeworthian, but it was not human nature; and the incident gave universal offense.

Every new book of value found its way to Edgeworthstown, and was eagerly read and discussed by the family. Miss Austen was soon an established favorite, while Mrs. Inchbald had long been valued. An occasional correspondence was maintained with her. Writing of the Simple Story, Miss Edgeworth says:—

By the force that is necessary to repress feelings we judge of the intensity of the feeling, and you always contrive to give us by intelligible but simple signs the measure of this force. Writers of inferior genius waste their words in describing feeling, in making those who pretend to be agitated by passion describe the effects of that passion and talk of the rending of their hearts, etc. — a gross blunder, as gross as any Irish blunder; for the heart cannot feel and describe its own feelings at the same moment. It is “being like a bird in two places at once.” . . . Did you really draw the characters from life, or did you invent them? You excel, I think, peculiarly, in avoiding what is commonly called fine writing— a sort of writing which I detest, which calls the attention away from the thing to the manner, from the feeling to the language, which sacrifices everything to the sound, to the mere rounding of a period, which mistakes stage effect for nature. All who are at all used to writing know and detect the trick of the trade immediately, and, speaking for myself, I know that the writing which has the least appearance of literary manufacture almost always pleases me the best. It has more originality in narration of fictitious events: it most surely succeeds in giving the idea of reality and in making the biographer for the time pass for nothing. But there are few who can in this manner bear the mortification of staying behind the scenes. They peep out, eager for applause, and destroy all illusion by crying, “I said it! I wrote it! I invented it all! Call me to the stage and crown me directly!”

Mrs. Inchbald had written praising Patronage, but she had also found some faults. To this Miss Edgeworth replied:—

MY DEAR MRS. INCHBALD:

Nobody living but yourself could or would have written the letter I have just received from you. I wish you could have been present when it was read at our breakfast-table, that you might have seen what hearty entertainment and delight it gave to father, mother, author, aunts, brothers and sisters, all to the number of twelve. Loud laughter at your utter detestation of poor Erasmus “as nauseous as his medicines,” and your impatience at all the variety of impertinent characters who distract your attention from Lord Oldborough. Your clinging to him quite satisfied us all. It was on this character my father placed his dependence, and we all agreed that if you had not liked him there would have been no hope for us. We are in the main of your opinion, that Erasmus and his letters are tiresome; but then please recollect that we had our moral to work out, and to show to the satisfaction or dissatisfaction of the reader how in various professions young men may get on without patronage. To the good of our moral we were obliged to sacrifice; perhaps we have sacrificed in vain. Wherever we are tiresome we may be pretty sure of this, and after all, as Madame de Staël says, “good intentions go for nothing in works of art”— much better in French, “La bonne intention n’est de rien en fait d’esprit.”

You will make me foreswear truth altogether, for I find whenever I meddle with the least bit of truth I can make nothing of it, and it regularly turns out ill for me. Three things to which you object are facts, and that which you most abhor is most true. A nobleman whom I never saw and whose name I have forgotten, else I should not have used the anecdote — the word which you thought I could not have written and ought not to have known how to spell. But pray observe, the fair authoress does not say this odious word in her own proper person. Why impute to me the characteristic improprieties of my characters? I meant to mark the contrast between the niceness of his grace’s pride and the coarseness of his expression. I have now changed the word severe into coarse to mark this to the reader. But I cannot alter without spoiling the fact. I tried if saliva would do, but it would not. So you must bear it as well as you can and hate His Grace of Greenwich as much as you will, but don’t hate me. Did you hate Cervantes for drawing Sancho Panza eating behind the door?

My next fact, you say, is an old story. May be so, and may be it belonged to your writer originally, but I can assure you it happened very lately to a gentleman in Ireland, and only the parting with the servant was added. I admit the story is ill told and not worth telling, and you must admit that it is very natural or it would not have happened twice.

The sixpence under the seal is my third fact. This happened in our own family. One of my own grandfather’s uncles forged a will, and my grandfather recovered the estate my father now possesses by the detection of the forgery of a sixpence under the seal.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, for liking the two Clays. But pray don’t envelop all the country gentlemen of England in English Clay.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, says my father, for liking Lady Jane Grandville. Her ladyship is his favorite, but nobody has ever mentioned her in their letters but you. I cannot believe that you ever resembled that selfish, hollow Lady Angelica. Would you ever have guessed that the character of Rosamond is like — M. E.? All who know me intimately say it is as like as possible. Those who do not know me intimately would never guess it.

Harrington came next. The idea of writing a story of which the hero should be a Jew was not her own, but suggested by an unknown correspondent in the United States, a Jewish lady, who gently reproached her for having so often made Jews ridiculous, and begged she would write a story that should treat of a good Jew. Scarcely was it finished than she began Ormond. In February, 1817, she read the first chapter to her father as they were driving out to pay a visit, the last Mr. Edgeworth ever paid. His health had become a source of grave anxiety, and though he masked all his sufferings with cheerfulness and touching unselfishness, it was too evident that his case was serious. The interest and delight he took in Ormond, and his desire to see the story finished, encouraged Miss Edgeworth to go on.

Her stepmother writes:—

In all her anguish of mind at the state of his health, Maria, by a wonderful effort of affection and genius, produced those gay and brilliant pages, some of the gayest and most brilliant she ever composed. . . . The admirable characters of King Corny and Sir Ulick O’Shane, and all the wonderful scenes full of wit, humor and feeling, were written in agony of anxiety, with trembling hand and tearful eyes. As she finished chapter after chapter, she read them out, the whole family assembling in their father’s room to listen to them. Her father enjoyed these readings so exceedingly as to reward her for the wonderful efforts she made.

Enfeebled as he was by illness, and often while enduring pain, Mr. Edgeworth nevertheless continued as before to revise his daughter’s manuscript with “an acuteness, a perseverance of attention of which I cannot bear to think,” she writes in after years. “He would work at it in his bed for hours together, once at an end for six hours, during an interval of sickness and exquisite pain.”

Thanks to the kindness of her publisher, she was able on Mr. Edgeworth’s birthday (May, 1817) to put the printed volumes into his hands. It was the last book of hers to which he was to write a preface, and it was characteristic, like his others:—

In my seventy-fourth year I have the satisfaction of seeing another work of my daughter brought before the public. This was more than I could have expected from my advanced age and declining health. I have been reprehended by some of the public critics for the notices which I have annexed to my daughter’s works. As I do not know their reasons for this reprehension, I cannot submit even to their respectable authority. I trust, however, the British public will sympathize with what a father feels for a daughter’s literary success, particularly as this father and daughter have written various works in partnership. The natural and happy confidence reposed in me by my daughter puts it in my power to assure the public that she does not write negligently. I can assert that twice as many pages were written for these volumes as are now printed.

And now, indulgent reader, I beg you to pardon this intrusion, and with the most grateful acknowledgments I bid you farewell forever.

RICHARD LOVELL EDGEWORTH.

This preface was dated May 31st, 1817. On June 13th Mr. Edgeworth died, retaining to the last, as he had prayed, his intellectual faculties. His death was an acute grief to the whole family, a terrible, an irreparable blow to his eldest daughter. She was almost overwhelmed by sorrow, and during the first months that followed her father’s death she wrote scarcely any letters. She had not the heart to do so; besides, her eyesight had been so injured by weeping, as well as by overwork the previous winter, when she had been sitting up at night, struggling with her grief and writing Ormond, that it caused real alarm to her friends. She was unable to use her eyes without pain; “the tears,” she said, “felt like the cutting of a knife.” On this account, as well as from her sorrow, the rest of the year is a blank in her life. In the late autumn she went to stay at Black Castle with Mrs. Ruxton, who cheered and nursed her. With rare strength of mind she followed the medical directions to abstain from reading and writing. Needlework, too, of which she was fond, was forbidden to her; she therefore learned to knit in order to employ herself. With patience, fortitude and cheerful disregard of self she bore the mental and physical sufferings that marked the year 1817 a black one in her life.

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