The story of the Edgeworth Family, if it were properly told, should be as long as the ARABIAN NIGHTS themselves; the thousand and one cheerful intelligent members of the circle, the amusing friends and relations, the charming surroundings, the cheerful hospitable home, all go to make up an almost unique history of a county family of great parts and no little character. The Edgeworths were people of good means and position, and their rental, we are told, amounted to nearly £3000 a year. At one time there was some talk of a peerage for Mr. Edgeworth, but he was considered too independent for a peerage.
The family tradition seems to have been unconventional and spirited always. There are records still extant in the present Mr. Edgeworth’s possession, — papers of most wonderful vitality for parchment, — where you may read passionate remonstrances and adjurations from great-grandfathers to great-great-grandfathers, and where great-great-grandmothers rush into the discussion with vehement spelling and remonstrance, and make matters no better by their interference. I never read more passionately eloquent letters and appeals. There are also records of a pleasanter nature; merrymakings, and festive preparations, and 12s. 6d. for a pair of silk stockings for Miss Margaret Edgeworth to dance in, carefully entered into the family budget. All the people whose portraits are hanging up, beruffled, dignified, calm, and periwigged, on the old walls of Edgeworthstown certainly had extraordinarily strong impressions, and gave eloquent expression to them. I don’t think people could feel quite so strongly now about their own affairs as they did then; there are so many printed emotions, so many public events, that private details cannot seem quite as important. Edgeworths of those days were farther away from the world than they are now, dwelling in the plains of Longford, which as yet were not crossed by iron rails. The family seems to have made little of distances, and to have ridden and posted to and fro from Dublin to Edgeworthstown in storm and sunshine.
When Messrs. Macmillan asked me to write a preface to this new edition of Miss Edgeworth’s stories I thought I should like to see the place where she had lived so long and where she had written so much, and so it happened that being in Ireland early this year, my daughter and I found ourselves driving up to Broadstone Station one morning in time for the early train to Edgeworthstown. As we got out of our cab we asked the driver what the fare should be. ‘Sure the fare is half a crown,’ said he, ‘and if you wish to give me more, I could keep it for myself!’
The train was starting and we bought our papers to beguile the road. ‘Will you have a Home Rule paper or one of them others?’ said the newsboy, with such a droll emphasis that we couldn’t help laughing. ‘Give me one of each,’ said I; then he laughed, as no English newsboy would have done. . . . We went along in the car with a sad couple of people out of a hospital, compatriots of our own, who had been settled ten years in Ireland, and were longing to be away. The poor things were past consolation, dull, despairing, ingrained English, sick and suffering and yearning for Brixton, just as other aliens long for their native hills and moors. We travelled along together all that spring morning by the blossoming hedges, and triumphal arches of flowering May; the hills were very far away, but the lovely lights and scents were all about and made our journey charming. Maynooth was a fragrant vision as we flew past, of vast gardens wall-enclosed, of stately buildings. The whole line of railway was sweet with the May flowers, and with the pungent and refreshing scent of the turf-bogs. The air was so clear and so limpid that we could see for miles, and short-sighted eyes needed no glasses to admire with. Here and there a turf cabin, now and then a lake placidly reflecting the sky. The country seemed given over to silence, the light sped unheeded across the delicate browns and greens of the bog-fields; or lay on the sweet wonderful green of the meadows. One dazzling field we saw full of dancing circles of little fairy pigs with curly tails. Everything was homelike but NOT England, there was something of France, something of Italy in the sky; in the fanciful tints upon the land and sea, in the vastness of the picture, in the happy sadness and calm content which is so difficult to describe or to account for. Finally we reached our journey’s end. It gave one a real emotion to see EDGEWORTHSTOWN written up on the board before us, and to realise that we were following in the steps of those giants who had passed before us. The master of Edgeworthstown kindly met us and drove us to his home through the outlying village, shaded with its sycamores, underneath which pretty cows were browsing the grass. We passed the Roman Catholic Church, the great iron crucifix standing in the churchyard. Then the horses turned in at the gate of the park, and there rose the old home, so exactly like what one expected it, that I felt as if I had been there before in some other phase of existence.
It is certainly a tradition in the family to welcome travellers! I thought of the various memoirs I had read, of the travellers arriving from the North and the South and the West; of Scott and Lockhart, of Pictet, of the Ticknors, of the many visitants who had come up in turn; whether it is the year 14, or the year 94, the hospitable doors open kindly to admit them. There were the French windows reaching to the ground, through which Maria used to pass on her way to gather her roses; there was the porch where Walter Scott had stood; there grew the quaint old-fashioned bushes with the great pink peonies in flower, by those railings which still divide the park from the meadows beyond; there spread the branches of the century-old trees. Only last winter they told us the storms came and swept away a grove of Beeches that were known in all the country round, but how much of shade, of flower, still remain! The noble Hawthorn of stately growth, the pine-trees (there should be NAMES for trees, as there are for rocks or ancient strongholds). Mr. Edgeworth showed us the oak from Jerusalem, the grove of cypress and sycamore where the beautiful depths of ground ivy are floating upon the DEBRIS, and soften the gnarled roots, while they flood the rising banks with green.
Mr. and Mrs. Edgeworth brought us into the house. The ways go upstairs and downstairs, by winding passages and side gates; a pretty domed staircase starts from the central hall, where stands that old clock-case which Maria wound up when she was over eighty years old. To the right and to the left along the passages were rooms opening from one into another. I could imagine Sir Walter’s kind eyes looking upon the scene, and Wordsworth coming down the stairs, and their friendly entertainer making all happy, and all welcome in turn; and their hostess, the widowed Mrs. Edgeworth, responding and sympathising with each. We saw the corner by the fire where Maria wrote; we saw her table with its pretty curves standing in its place in the deep casements. Miss Edgeworth’s own room is a tiny little room above looking out on the back garden. This little closet opens from a larger one, and then by a narrow flight of stairs leads to a suite of ground-floor chambers, following one from another, lined with bookcases and looking on the gardens. What a strange fellow-feeling with the past it gave one to stand staring at the old books, with their paper backs and old-fashioned covers, at the gray boards, which were the liveries of literature in those early days; at the first editions, with their inscriptions in the author’s handwriting, or in Maria’s pretty caligraphy. There was the PIRATE in its original volumes, and Mackintosh’s MEMOIRS, and Mrs. Barbauld’s ESSAYS, and Descartes’s ESSAYS, that Arthur Hallam liked to read; Hallam’s CONSTITUTIONAL HISTORY, and Rogers’s POEMS, were there all inscribed and dedicated. Not less interesting were the piles of Magazines that had been sent from America. I never knew before how many Magazines existed even those early days; we took some down at hazard and read names, dates, and initials. . . . Storied urn and monumental bust do not bring back the past as do the books which belong to it. Storied urns are in churches and stone niches, far removed from the lives of which they speak; books seem a part of our daily life, and are like the sound of a voice just outside the door. Here they were, as they had been read by her, stored away by her hands, and still safely preserved, bringing back the past with, as it were, a cheerful encouraging greeting to the present. Other relics there are of course, but, as I say, none which touch one so vividly. There is her silver ink-stand, the little table her father left her on which she wrote (it had belonged to his mother before him). There is also a curious trophy — a table which was sent to her from Edinburgh, ornamented by promiscuous views of Italy, curiously inappropriate to her genius; but not so the inscription, which is quoted from Sir Walter Scott’s Preface to his Collected Edition, and which may as well be quoted here: ‘WITHOUT BEING SO PRESUMPTUOUS AS TO HOPE TO EMULATE THE RICH HUMOUR, THE PATHETIC TENDERNESS, AND ADMIRABLE TRUTH WHICH PERVADE THE WORKS OF MY ACCOMPLISHED FRIEND,’ Sir Walter wrote, I FELT THAT SOMETHING MIGHT BE ATTEMPTED FOR MY OWN COUNTRY OF THE SAME KIND AS THAT WHICH MISS EDGEWORTH SO FORTUNATELY ACHIEVED FOR IRELAND.’
In the MEMOIRS of Miss Edgeworth there is a pretty account of her sudden burst of feeling when this passage so unexpected, and so deeply felt by her, was read out by one of her sisters, at a time when Maria lay weak and recovering from illness in Edgeworthstown.
Our host took us that day, among other pleasant things, for a marvellous and delightful flight on a jaunting car, to see something of the country. We sped through storms and sunshine, by open moors and fields, and then by villages and little churches, by farms where the pigs were standing at the doors to be fed, by pretty trim cottages. The lights came and went; as the mist lifted we could see the exquisite colours, the green, the dazzling sweet lights on the meadows, playing upon the meadow-sweet and elder bushes; at last we came to the lovely glades of Carriglass. It seemed to me that we had reached an enchanted forest amid this green sweet tangle of ivy, of flowering summer trees, of immemorial oaks and sycamores.
A squirrel was darting up the branches of a beautiful spreading beech-tree, a whole army of rabbits were flashing with silver tails into the brushwood; swallows, blackbirds, peacock-butterflies, dragonflies on the wing, a mighty sylvan life was roaming in this lovely orderly wilderness.
The great Irish kitchen garden, belonging to the house, with its seven miles of wall, was also not unlike a part of a fairy tale. Its owner, Mr. Lefroy, told me that Miss Edgeworth had been constantly there. She was a great friend of Judge Lefroy. As a boy he remembered her driving up to the house and running up through the great drawing-room doors to greet the Judge.
Miss Edgeworth certainly lived in a fair surrounding, and, with Sophia Western, must have gone along the way of life heralded by sweetest things, by the song of birds, by the gold radiance of the buttercups, by the varied shadows of those beautiful trees under which the cows gently tread the grass. English does not seem exactly the language in which to write of Ireland, with its sylvan wonders of natural beauty. Madame de Sevigne’s descriptions of her woods came to my mind. It is not a place which delights one by its actual sensual beauty, as Italy does; it is not as in England, where a thousand associations link one to every scene and aspect — Ireland seems to me to contain some unique and most impersonal charm, which is quite unwritable.
All that evening we sat talking with our hosts round the fire (for it was cold enough for a fire), and I remembered that in Miss Edgeworth’s MEMOIRS it was described how the snow lay upon the ground and upon the land, when the family came home in June to take possession of Edgeworthstown.
As I put out my candle in the spacious guest-chamber I wondered which of its past inhabitants I should wish to see standing in the middle of the room. I must confess that the thought of the beautiful Honora filled me with alarm, and if Miss Seward had walked in in her pearls and satin robe I should have fled for my life. As I lay there experimentalising upon my own emotions I found that after all, natural simple people do not frighten one whether dead or alive. The thought of them is ever welcome; it is the artificial people who are sometimes one thing, sometimes another, and who form themselves on the weaknesses and fancies of those among whom they live, who are really terrifying.
The shadow of the bird’s wing flitted across the window of my bedroom, and the sun was shining next morning when I awoke. I could see the cows, foot deep in the grass under the hawthorns. After breakfast we went out into the grounds and through an arched doorway into the kitchen garden. It might have been some corner of Italy or the South of France; the square tower of the granary rose high against the blue, the gray walls were hung with messy fruit trees, pigeons were darting and flapping their wings, gardeners were at work, the very vegetables were growing luxuriant and romantic and edged by thick borders of violet pansy; crossing the courtyard, we came into the village street, also orderly and white-washed. The soft limpid air made all things into pictures, into Turners, into Titians. A Murillo-like boy, with dark eyes, was leaning against a wall, with his shadow, watching us go by; strange old women, with draperies round their heads, were coming out of their houses. We passed the Post–Office, the village shops, with their names, the Monaghans and Gerahtys, such as we find again in Miss Edgeworth’s novels. We heard the local politics discussed over the counter with a certain aptness and directness which struck me very much. We passed the boarding-house, which was not without its history — a long low building erected by Mr. and Miss Edgeworth for a school, where the Sandfords and Mertons of those days were to be brought up together: a sort of foreshadowing of the High Schools of the present. Mr. Edgeworth was, as we know, the very spirit of progress, though his experiment did not answer at the time. At the end of the village street, where two roads divide, we noticed a gap in the decent roadway — a pile of ruins in a garden. A tumble-down cottage, and beyond the cottage, a falling shed, on the thatched roof of which a hen was clucking and scraping. These cottages Mr. Edgeworth had, after long difficulty, bought up and condemned as unfit for human habitation. The plans had been considered, the orders given to build new cottages in their place, which were to be let to the old tenants at the old rent, but the last remaining inhabitant absolutely refused to leave; we saw an old woman in a hood slowly crossing the road, and carrying a pail for water; no threats or inducements would move her, not even the sight of a neat little house, white-washed and painted, and all ready for her to step into. Her present rent was 10d. a week, Mr. Edgeworth told me, and she had been letting the tumble-down shed to a large family for 1s. 4d. This sub-let was forcibly put an end to, but the landlady still stops there, and there she will stay until the roof tumbles down upon her head. The old creature passed on through the sunshine, a decrepit, picturesque figure carrying her pail to the stream, defying all the laws of progress and political economy and civilisation in her feebleness and determination.
Most of the women came to their doors to see us go by. They all looked as old as the hills — some dropt curtseys, others threw up their arms in benediction. From a cottage farther up the road issued a strange, shy old creature, looking like a bundle of hay, walking on bare legs. She came up with a pinch of snuff, and a shake of the hand; she was of the family of the man who had once saved Edgeworthstown from being destroyed by the rebels. ‘Sure it was not her father,’ said old Peggy,’ it was her grandfather did it!’ So she explained, but it was hard to believe that such an old, old creature had ever had a grandfather in the memory of man.
The glebe lands lie beyond the village. They reach as far as the church on its high plateau, from which you can see the Wicklow Hills on a fine day, and the lovely shifting of the lights of the landscape. The remains of the great pew of the Edgeworth family, with its carved canopy of wood, is still a feature in the bare church from which so much has been swept away. The names of the fathers are written on the chancel walls, and a few medallions of daughters and sisters also. In the churchyard, among green elder bushes and tall upspringing grasses, is the square monument erected to Mr. Edgeworth and his family; and as we stood there the quiet place was crossed and recrossed by swallows with their beating crescent wings.
Whatever one may think of Mr. Edgeworth’s literary manipulations and of his influence upon his daughter’s writings, one cannot but respect the sincere and cordial understanding which bound these two people together, and realise the added interest in life, in its machinery and evolutions, which Maria owed to her father’s active intelligence. Her own gift, I think, must have been one for perceiving through the minds of others, and for realising the value of what they in turn reflected; one is struck again and again by the odd mixture of intuition, and of absolute matter of fact which one finds in her writings.
It is difficult to realise, when one reads the memoirs of human beings who loved and hated, and laughed and scolded, and wanted things and did without them, very much as we do ourselves, that though they thought as we do and felt as we do (only, as I have said, with greater vehemence), they didn’t LOOK like us at all; and Mr. Edgeworth, the father of Maria Edgeworth, the ‘gay gallant,’ the impetuous, ingenious, energetic gentleman, sat writing with powdered hair and a queue, with tights and buckles, bolt upright in a stiff chair, while his family, also bequeued and becurled and bekerchiefed, were gathered round him in a group, composedly attentive to his explanations, as he points to the roll upon the table, or reads from his many MSS. and note-books, for their edification.
To have four wives and twenty-two children, to have invented so many machines, engines, and curricles, steeples and telegraph posts, is more than commonly falls to the lot of one ordinary man, but such we know was Mr. Edgeworth’s history told by his own lips.
I received by chance an old newspaper the other day, dated the 23rd July 1779. It is called the LONDON PACKET, and its news, told with long s’s and pretty curly italics, thrills one even now as one looks over the four short pages. The leading article is entitled ‘Striking Instance of the PERFIDY of France.’ It is true the grievance goes back to Louis XIV., but the leader is written with plenty of spirit and present indignation. Then comes news from America and the lists of New Councillors elected:
‘Artemus Ward, Francis Dana, Oliver Prescott, Samuel Baker, while a very suitable sermon on the occasion is preached by the Rev. Mr. Stillman of Boston.’ How familiar the names all sound! Then the thanks of the Members of Congress are given to ‘General Lee, Colonel Moultrie, and the officers and soldiers under their command who on the 28th of June last Repulsed with so much Valour the attack that was made that day on the State of South Carolina by the fleet and army of his Britannic Majesty.’
There is an irresistible spirit of old-world pigtail decorum and dash about it all. We read of our ‘grand fleet’ waiting at Corunna for the Spanish; of 80,000 men on the coast of Brittany supposed to be ready for an invasion of England; of the Prince of Conde playing at cards, with Northumberland House itself for stakes (Northumberland House which he is INTENDING to take). We read the list of Lottery Prizes, of the £1000 and £500 tickets; of the pressing want of seamen for His Majesty’s Navy, and how the gentlemen of Ireland are subscribers to a bounty fund. Then comes the narrative of James Caton of Bristol, who writes to complain that while transacting his business on the Bristol Exchange he is violently seized by a pressgang, with oaths and imprecations. Mr. Farr, attempting to speak to him, is told by the Lieutenant that if he does not keep off he will be shot with a pistol. Mr. Caton is violently carried off, locked up in a horrible stinking room, prevented from seeing his friends; after a day or two he is forced on board a tender, where Mr. Tripp, a midshipman, behaves with humanity, but the Captain and Lieutenant outvie each other in brutality; Captain Hamilton behaving as an ‘enraged partisan.’ Poor Mr. Caton is released at last by the exertions of Mr. Edmund Burke, of Mr. Farr, and another devoted friend, who travel post-haste to London to obtain a Habeas Corpus, so that he is able to write indignantly and safe from his own home to the LONDON PACKET to describe his providential escape. The little sheet gives one a vivid impression of that daily life in 1779, when Miss Edgeworth must have been a little girl of twelve years old, at school at Mrs. Lataffiere’s, and learning to write in her beautiful handwriting. It was a time of great events. The world is fighting, armies marching and counter-marching, and countries rapidly changing hands. Miss Seward is inditing her elegant descriptions for the use of her admiring circle. But already the circle is dwindling! Mr. Day has parted from Sabrina. The well-known episodes of Lichfield gaieties and love-makings are over. Poor Major Andre has been exiled from England and rejected by Honora. The beautiful Honora, whose “blending charms of mind and person” are celebrated by one adoring lover after another, has married Mr. Edgeworth. She has known happiness, and the devoted affection of an adoring husband, and the admiring love of her little step-daughter, all this had been hers; and now all this is coming to an end, and the poor lady lying on her death-bed imploring her husband to marry her sister Elizabeth. Accordingly Mr. Edgeworth married Elizabeth Sneyd in 1780, which was also the year of poor Andre’s death.
There is a little oval picture at the National Gallery in Dublin, the photograph of a sketch at Edgeworthstown House, which gives one a very good impression of the family as it must have appeared in the reigns of King George and the third Mrs. Edgeworth. The father in his powder and frills sits at the table with intelligent, well-informed finger showing some place upon a map. He is an agreeable-looking youngish man; Mrs. Edgeworth, his third wife, is looking over his shoulder; she has marked features, beautiful eyes, she holds a child upon her knee, and one can see the likeness in her to her step-daughter Honora, who stands just behind her and leans against the chair. A large globe appropriately stands in the background. The grown-up ladies alternate with small children. Miss Edgeworth herself, sitting opposite to her father, is the most prominent figure in the group. She wears a broad leghorn hat, a frizzed coiffure, and folded kerchief; she has a sprightly, somewhat French appearance, with a marked nose of the RETROUSSE order. I had so often heard that she was plain that to see this fashionable and agreeable figure was a pleasant surprise.
Miss Edgeworth seems to be about four-and-twenty in the sketch; she was born in 1767; she must have been eleven in 1778, when Mr. Edgeworth finally came over to Ireland to settle on his own estate, and among his own people. He had been obliged some years before to leave Edgeworthstown on account of Mrs. Honora Edgeworth’s health; he now returned in patriarchal fashion with Mrs. Elizabeth Edgeworth, his third wife, with his children by his first, second, and third marriages, and with two sisters-inlaw who had made their home in his family. For thirty-five years he continued to live on in the pretty old home which he now adapted to his large family, and which, notwithstanding Miss Edgeworth’s objections, would have seemed so well fitted for its various requirements. The daughter’s description of his life there, of his work among his tenants, of his paternal and spirited rule, is vivid and interesting. When the present owner of Edgeworthstown talked to us of his grandfather, one felt that, with all his eccentricities, he must have been a man of a far-seeing mind and observation. Mr. Erroles Edgeworth said that he was himself still reaping the benefit of his grandfather’s admirable organisation and arrangements on the estate, and that when people all around met with endless difficulties and complications, he had scarcely known any. Would that there had been more Mr. Edgeworths in Ireland!
Whatever business he had to do, his daughter tells us, was done in the midst of his family. Maria copied his letters of business and helped him to receive his rents. ‘On most Irish estates,’ says Miss Edgeworth, ‘there is, or there was, a personage commonly called a driver, — a person who drives and impounds cattle for rent and arrears.’ The drivers are, alas! from time to time too necessary in collecting Irish rents. Mr. Edgeworth desired that none of his tenants should pay rent to any one but himself; thus taking away subordinate interference, he became individually acquainted with his tenantry. He also made himself acquainted with the different value of land on his estate. In every case where the tenant had improved the land his claim to preference over every new proposer was admitted. The mere plea, ‘I have been on your Honour’s estate so many years,’ was disregarded. ‘Nor was it advantageous that each son,’ says Miss Edgeworth, ‘of the original tenant should live on his subdivided little potato garden without further exertion of mind or body.’ Further on she continues: ‘Not being in want of ready money, my father was not obliged to let his land to the highest bidder. He could afford to have good tenants.’ In the old leases claims of duty-fowl, of duty-work, of man or beast had been inserted. Mr. Edgeworth was one of the first to abolish them. The only clause he continued in every lease was the alienation fine, which was to protect the landlord and to prevent a set of middlemen from taking land at a reasonable rent, and letting it immediately at the highest possible price. His indulgence as to the time he allowed for the payment of rent was unusually great, but beyond the half year the tenants knew his strictness so well, that they rarely ventured to go into arrears, and never did so with impunity. ‘To his character as a good landlord,’ she continues, ‘was added that he was a real gentleman; this phrase comprises a good deal in the opinion of the lower Irish.’ There is one very curious paragraph in which Miss Edgeworth describes how her father knew how to make use of the tenants’ prejudices, putting forward his wishes rather than his convictions. ‘It would be impossible for me,’ says his daughter, ‘without ostentation to give any of the proofs I might record of my father’s liberality. Long after they were forgotten by himself, they were remembered by the warm-hearted people among whom he lived.’
Mr. Edgeworth was one of those people born to get their own way. Every one seems to have felt the influence of his strong character. It was not only with his family and his friends that he held his own — the tenants and the poor people rallied to his command. To be sure, it sounds like some old Irish legend to be told that Mr. Edgeworth had so loud a voice that it could be heard a mile off, and that his steward, who lived in a lodge at that distance from the house, could hear him calling from the drawing-room window, and would come up for orders.
In 1778, says Miss Edgeworth retrospectively, when England was despatching her armies all over the world, she had no troops to spare for the defence of Ireland then threatened with a French invasion; and the principal nobility and gentry embodied themselves volunteers for the defence of the country. The Duke of Leinster and Lord Charlemont were at the head of the ‘corps which in perfect order and good discipline rendered their country respectable.’ The friends of Ireland, profiting by England’s growing consideration for the sister country, now obtained for her great benefits for which they had long been striving, and Mr. Grattan moved an address to the throne asserting the legislative independence of Ireland. The address passed the House, and, as his daughter tells us, Mr. Edgeworth immediately published a pamphlet. Miss Edgeworth continues as follows, describing his excellent course of action: ‘My father honestly and unostentatiously used his utmost endeavours to obliterate all that could tend to perpetuate ill-will in the country. Among the lower classes in his neighbourhood he endeavoured to discourage that spirit of recrimination and retaliation which the lower Irish are too prone to cherish. They are such acute observers that there is no deceiving them as to the state of the real feeling of their superiors. They know the signs of what passes within with more certainty than any physiognomist, and it was soon seen by all those who had any connection with him that my father was sincere in his disdain of vengeance.’ Further on, describing his political feelings, she says that on the subject of the Union in parliamentary phrase he had not then been able to make up his mind. She describes with some pride his first speech in the Irish House at two o’clock in the morning, when the wearied members were scarcely awake to hear it, and when some of the outstretched members were aroused by their neighbours to listen to him! ‘When people perceived that it was not a set speech,’ says Miss Edgeworth, ‘they became interested.’ He stated his doubts just as they had occurred as he threw them by turn into each scale. After giving many reasons in favour of what appeared to be the advantages of the Union, he unexpectedly gave his vote against it, because he said he had been convinced by what he had heard one night, that the Union was decidedly against the wishes of the majority of men of sense and property in the nation. He added (and surely Mr. Edgeworth’s opinion should go for something still) that if he should be convinced that the opinions of the country changed, his vote would be in its favour.
His biographer tells us that Mr. Edgeworth was much complimented on his speech by BOTH sides, by those for whom he voted, and also by those who found that the best arguments on the other side of the question had been undoubtedly made by him. It is a somewhat complicated statement and state of feeling to follow; to the faithful daughter nothing is impossible where her father is concerned. This vote, I believe, cost Mr. Edgeworth his peerage. ‘When it was known that he had voted against the Union he became suddenly the idol of those who would previously have stoned him,’ says his devoted biographer. It must not, however, be forgotten that Mr. Edgeworth had refused an offer of £3000 for his seat for two or three weeks, during that momentous period when every vote was of importance. Mr. Pitt, they say, spent over £2,000,000 in carrying the measure which he deemed so necessary.
As a rule people’s books appeal first to one’s imagination, and then after a time, if the books are good books and alive, not stuffed dummies and reproductions, one begins to divine the writers themselves, hidden away in their pages, and wrapped up in their hot-press sheets of paper; and so it happened by chance that a printed letter once written by Maria Edgeworth to Mrs. Barbauld set the present reader wondering about these two familiar names, and trying to realise the human beings which they each represented. Since those days Miss Edgeworth has become a personage more vivid and interesting than any of her characters, more familiar even than ‘Simple Susan’ or ‘Rosamond of the Purple Jar.’ She has seemed little by little to grow into a friend, as the writer has learnt to know her more and more intimately, has visited the home of that home-loving woman, has held in her hands the delightful Family Memoirs, has seen the horizons, so to speak, of Maria Edgeworth’s long life.1 Several histories of Miss Edgeworth have been lately published in England. Miss Zimmern and Miss Oliver in America have each written, and the present writer has written, and various memoirs and letters have appeared in different magazines and papers with allusions and descriptions all more or less interesting. One can but admire the spirit which animated that whole existence; the cheerful, kindly, multiplied interest Maria Edgeworth took in the world outside, as well as in the wellbeing of all those around her. Generations, changes, new families, new experiences, none of these overwhelmed her. She seemed to move in a crowd, a cheerful, orderly crowd, keeping in tune and heart with its thousand claims; with strength and calmness of mind to bear multiplied sorrows and a variety of care with courage, and an ever-reviving gift of spirited interest. Her history is almost unique in its curious relationships; its changes of step-mothers, its warm family ties, its grasp of certain facts which belong to all time rather than to the hour itself. Miss Edgeworth lived for over eighty years, busy, beneficent, modest, and intelligent to the last. When she died she was mourned as unmarried women of eighty are not often mourned.
The present owner of Edgeworthstown told us that he could just remember her, lying dead upon her bed, and her face upon the pillow, and the sorrowful tears of the household; and how he and the other little children were carried off by a weeping aunt into the woods, to comfort and distract them on the funeral day. He also told us of an incident prior to this event which should not be overlooked. How he himself, being caught red-handed, at the age of four or thereabouts, with his hands in a box of sugar-plums, had immediately confessed the awful fact that he had been about to eat them, and he was brought then and there before his Aunt Maria for sentence. She at once decided that he had behaved Nobly in speaking the truth, and that he must be rewarded in kind for his praiseworthy conduct, and be allowed to keep the sugar-plums!
This little story after half a century certainly gives one pleasure still to recall, and proves, I think, that cakes may be enjoyed long after they have been eaten, and also that there is a great deal to be said for justice with lollipops in the scale. But what would Rosamond’s parents have thought of such a decision? One shudders to think of their disapproval, or of that of dear impossible Mr. Thomas Day, with his trials and experiments of melted sealing-wax upon little girls’ bare arms, and his glasses of tar-water so inflexibly administered. Miss Edgeworth, who suffered from her eyes, recalls how Mr. Day used to bring the dose, the horrible tar-water, every morning with a ‘Drink this, Miss Maria!’ and how she dared not resist, though she thought she saw something of kindness and pity beneath all his apparent severity.
Severity was the order of those times. The reign of sugar-plums had scarcely begun. It was not, as now, only ignorance and fanaticism that encouraged the giving of pain, it was the universal custom. People were still hanged for stealing, women were still burnt — so we have been assured — in St. Stephen’s Green; though, it is true, they were considerately strangled first. Children were bullied and tortured with the kindest intentions; even Maria Edgeworth at her fashionable school was stretched in a sort of machine to make her grow; Mr. Day, as we know, to please the lady of his affections, passed eight hours a day in the stocks in order to turn out his knock-knees. One feels that a generation of ladies and gentlemen who submitted to such inflictions surely belonged to a race of heroes and heroines, and that, if the times were difficult and trying, the people also were stronger to endure them, and must have been much better fitted with nerves than we are.
Miss Edgeworth’s life has been so often told that I will not attempt to recapitulate the story at any length. She well deserved her reputation. Her thoughts were good, her English was good, her stories had the charm of sincerity, and her audience of children was a genuine audience, less likely to be carried away by fashion than more advanced critics might be. There is a curious matter-of-fact element in all she wrote, combined with extraordinary quickness and cleverness; and it must be remembered, in trying to measure her place in literature, that in her day the whole great school of English philosophical romance was in its cradle; George Eliot was not in existence; my father was born in the year in which THE ABSENTEE was published. Sir Walter Scott has told us that it was Miss Edgeworth’s writing which first suggested to him the idea of writing about Scotland and its national life. Tourgenieff in the same way says that it was after reading her books on Ireland that he began to write of his own country and of Russian peasants as he did. Miss Edgeworth was the creator of her own special world of fiction, though the active Mr. Edgeworth crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s, interpolated, expurgated, to his own and Maria’s satisfaction. She was essentially a modest woman; she gratefully accepted his criticism and emendations. Mr. Clark Russell quotes Sydney Smith, who declared that Mr. Edgeworth must have written or burst. ‘A discharge of ink was an evacuation absolutely necessary to avoid fatal and plethoric congestion.’ The only wonder is that, considering all they went through, his daughter’s stories survived to tell their tale, and to tell it so well, with directness and conviction, that best of salt in any literary work. A letter Maria wrote to her cousin will be remembered. ‘I beg, dear Sophy,’ she says, ‘that you will not call my stories by the sublime name of my works; I shall else be ashamed when the little mouse comes forth.’
Maria’s correspondence is delightful, and conveys us right away into that bygone age. The figures rapidly move across her scene, talking and unconsciously describing themselves as they go; you see them all through the eyes of the observant little lady. She did not go very deep; she seems to me to have made kindly acquaintance with some, to have admired others with artless enthusiasm. I don’t think she troubled herself much about complication of feeling; she liked people to make repartees, or to invent machines, to pay their bills, and to do their duty in a commonplace and cheerfully stoical fashion. But then Maria Edgeworth certainly did not belong to our modern schools, sipping the emetic goblet to give flavour to daily events, nor to that still more alarming and spreading clique of DEGENERES who insist upon administering such doses to others to relieve the tedium of the road of life.
Perhaps we in our time scarcely do justice to Miss Edgeworth’s extraordinary cleverness and brightness of apprehension. There is more fun than humour in her work, and those were the days of good rollicking jokes and laughter. Details change so quickly that it is almost impossible to grasp entirely the aims and intentions of a whole set of people just a little different from ourselves in every single thing; who held their heads differently, who pointed their toes differently, who addressed each other in a language just a little unlike our own. The very meanings of the words shift from one generation to another, and we are perhaps more really in harmony with our great-great-grandfathers than with the more immediate generations.
Her society was charming, so every one agrees; and her acquaintance with all the most remarkable men of her time must not be forgotten, nor the genuine regard with which she inspired all who came across her path.
‘In external appearance she is quite the fairy of our nursery tale, the WHIPPETY STOURIE, if you remember such a sprite, who came flying through the window to work all sorts of marvels,’ writes Sir Walter. ‘I will never believe but what she has a wand in her pocket, and pulls it out to conjure a little before she begins those very striking pictures of manners.’
Among others Sir William Hamilton has left a pleasing description of Miss Edgeworth. ‘If you would study and admire her as she deserves, you must see her at home,’ says he, ‘and hear her talk. She knows an infinite number of anecdotes about interesting places and persons, which she tells extremely well, and never except when they arise naturally out of the subject. . . . To crown her merits, she seemed to take a prodigious fancy to me, and promised to be at home, and made me promise to be at Edgeworthstown for a fortnight some time next vacation.’ We owe to him also an amusing sketch of some other collateral members of the family; the fine animated old lady, who immediately gets him to explain the reason why a concave mirror inverts while a convex mirror leaves them erect; the young ladies, one of whom was particularly anxious to persuade him that the roundness of the planets was produced by friction, perhaps by their being shaken together like marbles in a bag.
There is also an interesting letter from Sir W. Hamilton at Edgeworthstown on 23rd September 1829. Wordsworth is also staying there. ‘After some persuasion Francis and I succeed in engaging Mr. Wordsworth in many very interesting conversations. Miss Edgeworth has had for some time a very serious illness, but she was able to join us for dinner the day that I arrived, and she exhibited in her conversations with Mr. Wordsworth a good deal of her usual brilliancy; she also engaged Mr. Marshall in some long conversations upon Ireland, and even Mr. Marshall’s son, whose talent for silence seems to be so very profound, was thawed a little on Monday evening, and discussed after tea the formation of the solar system. Miss Edgeworth tells me that she is at last employed in writing for the public after a long interval, but does not expect to have her work soon ready for publication.’ 2
Besides Wordsworth and Sir William Hamilton and Mr. Marshall, we presently come to Sir John Herschell. ‘I saw your admirable friend Miss Edgeworth lately in town,’ he writes to Hamilton; ‘she is a most warm admirer of yours, and praise such as hers is what any man might be proud of.’ Later on Miss Edgeworth, corresponding with Sir W. Hamilton, tells him she is ill and forbidden to write, or even to think. This is what she thinks of THINKING: ‘I am glad to see that the severe sciences do not destroy the energy and grace of the imagination, but only chasten it and impart their philosophical influence.’
1 Now published and edited by Mr. Hare (Nov. 1894).
2 There is a curious criticism of Miss Edgeworth by Robert Hall, the great preacher, which should not be passed over. ‘As to her style,’ he says, ‘she is simple and elegant, content to convey her thoughts in their most plain and natural form, that is indeed the perfection of style. . . . In point of tendency,’ he continues, ‘I should class her books among the most irreligious I ever read. . . . She does not attack religion nor inveigh against it, but makes it appear unnecessary by exhibiting perfect virtue without it. . . . No works ever produced so bad an effect on my own mind as hers.’
Certain events are remembered and mourned for generations, so there are others, happy and interesting in themselves, which must continue to give satisfaction long after they are over, and long after those concerned in them have passed away. And certainly among things pleasant to remember is the story of Sir Walter Scott’s visit to Ireland in July 1825, when he received so warm a greeting from the country and spent those happy hours with Miss Edgeworth at Edgeworthstown. Fortunately for us, Lockhart was one of the party. Anne Scott, and Walter the soldier, and Jane Scott the bride, were also travelling in Sir Walter’s train. The reception which Ireland gave Sir Walter was a warm-hearted ovation. ‘It would be endless to enumerate the distinguished persons who, morning after morning, crowded to his levee in St. Stephen’s Green,’ says Lockhart, and he quotes an old saying of Sir Robert Peel’s, ‘that Sir Walter’s reception in the High Street of Edinburgh is 1822 was the first thing that gave him (Peel) a notion of the electric shock of a nation’s gratitude.’ ‘I doubt if even that scene surpassed what I myself witnessed,’ continues the biographer, ‘when Sir Walter returned down Dame Street after inspecting the Castle of Dublin.’
From ovations to friendship it was Sir Walter’s inclination to turn. On the 1st August he came to Edgeworthstown, accompanied by his family. ‘We remained there for several days, making excursions to Loch Oel, etc. Mr. Lovell Edgeworth had his classical mansion filled every evening with a succession of distinguished friends. Here, above all, we had the opportunity of seeing in what universal respect and comfort a gentleman’s family may live in that country, provided only they live there habitually and do their duty. . . . Here we found neither mud hovels nor naked peasantry, but snug cottages and smiling faces all about. . . . Here too we pleased ourselves with recognising some of the sweetest features in Goldsmith’s picture of “Sweet Auburn! loveliest village of the plain.”’ Oliver Goldsmith received his education at this very school of Edgeworthstown, and Pallas More, the little hamlet where the author of THE VICAR OF WAKEFIELD first saw the light, is still, as it was then, the property of the Edgeworths.
So Scott came to visit his little friend, and the giant was cheered and made welcome by her charming hospitality. It was a last gleam of sunshine in that noble life. We instinctively feel how happy they all were in each other’s good company. We can almost overhear some of their talk, as they walk together under the shade of the trees of the park. One can imagine him laughing in his delightful hearty way, half joking, half caressing. Lockhart had used some phrase (it is Lockhart who tells us the story) which conveyed the impression that he suspects poets and novelists of looking at life and at the world chiefly as materials for art. ‘A soft and pensive shade came over Scott’s face. “I fear you have some very young ideas in your head,” he says. “God help us, what a poor world this would be if that were the true doctrine! I have read books enough, and observed and conversed with enough eminent minds in my time, but I assure you I have heard higher sentiments from the lips of poor uneducated men and women, exerting the spirit of severe yet gentle heroism, or speaking their simple thoughts, than I ever met with out of the pages of the Bible. We shall never learn to feel and respect our real calling unless we have taught ourselves to consider everything as moonshine compared with the education of the heart,”’ said the great teacher. ‘Maria did not listen to this without some water in her eyes, — her tears are always ready when a generous string is touched, — but she brushed them gaily aside, and said, “You see how it is: Dean Swift said he had written his books in order that people should learn to treat him like a great lord; Sir Walter writes his in order that he might be able to treat his people as a great lord ought to do.”’
Years and years afterwards Edward Fitzgerald stayed at Edgeworthstown, and he also carries us there in one of his letters. He had been at college with Mr. Frank Edgeworth, who had succeeded to the estate, and had now in 1828 come to stay with him. The host had been called away, but the guest describes his many hostesses: ‘Edgeworth’s mother, aged seventy-four; his sister, the great Maria, aged seventy-two; and another cousin or something. All these people were pleasant and kind, the house pleasant, the grounds ditto, a good library, so here I am quite at home, but surely must go to England soon.’ One can imagine Fitzgerald sitting in the library with his back to the window and writing his letters and reading his thirty-two sets of novels, while the rain is steadily pouring outside, and the Great Authoress (so he writes her down) as busy as a bee sitting by chattering and making a catalogue of her books. ‘We talk about Walter Scott, whom she adores, and are merry all day long,’ he says. ‘When I began this letter I thought I had something to say, but I believe the truth was I had nothing to do.’
Two years later Mr. Fitzgerald is again there and writing to Frederick Tennyson: ‘I set sail from Dublin tomorrow night, bearing the heartfelt regrets of all the people of Ireland with me.’ Then comes a flash of his kind searching lantern: ‘I had a pleasant week with Edgeworth. He farms and is a justice, and goes to sleep on the sofa of evenings. At odd moments he looks into Spinoza and Petrarch. People respect him very much in these parts.’ Edward Fitzgerald seems to have had a great regard for his host; the more he knows him the more he cares for him; he describes him ‘firing away about the odes of Pindar.’ They fired noble broadsides those men of the early Victorian times, and when we listen we still seem to hear their echoes rolling into the far distance. Mr. Fitzgerald ends his letter with a foreboding too soon to be realised: ‘Old Miss Edgeworth is wearing away. She has a capital bright soul, which even now shines quite youthfully through her faded carcase.’ It was in May 1849 that Maria Edgeworth went to her rest. She died almost suddenly, with no long suffering, in the arms of her faithful friend and step-mother.
In 1799, When Maria was in London, she and her father went to call upon Mr. Johnson, the bookseller, who was then imprisoned in the King’s Bench for a publication which was considered to be treasonable, and they probably then and there arranged with him for the publication of CASTLE RACKRENT, for in January 1800, writing to her cousin, Miss Ruxton, Maria says, ‘Will you tell me what means you have of getting parcels from London to Arundel, because I wish to send my aunt a few popular tales. . . . We have begged Johnson to send CASTLE RACKRENT, and hope it has reached you. DO NOT MENTION THAT IT IS OURS.’
The second edition of CASTLE RACKRENT came out with Miss Edgeworth’s name to it in 1811. ‘Its success was so triumphant,’ Mrs. Edgeworth writes,‘that some one — I heard his name at the time, but do not now remember it — not only asserted that he was the author, but actually took the trouble to copy out several chapters with corrections and erasions as if it was his original manuscript.’
It was when Miss Edgeworth first came to Ireland, — so she tells one of her correspondents, — that she met the original Thady of CASTLE RACKRENT. His character struck her very much, and the story came into her mind. She purposely added to the agent’s age so as to give time for the events to happen.
Honest Thady tells the story; you can almost hear his voice, and see him as he stands: ‘I wear a long greatcoat winter and summer, which is very handy, as I never put my arms into the sleeves; they are as good as new, though come Holantide next I’ve had it these seven years: it holds on by a single button round my neck, cloak fashion. To look at me, you would hardly think “Poor Thady” was the father of Attorney Quirk; he is a high gentleman, and never minds what poor Thady says, and having better than fifteen hundred a year landed estate, looks down upon honest Thady; but I wash my hands of his doings, and as I have lived, so will I die, true and loyal to the family. The family of Rackrents is, I am proud to say, one of the most ancient in the kingdom.’ And then he gives the history of the Rackrents, beginning with Sir Patrick, who could sit out the best man in Ireland, let alone the three kingdoms itself, and who fitted up the chicken-house to accommodate his friends when they honoured him unexpectedly with their company. There was ‘such a fine whillaluh at Sir Patrick’s funeral, you might have heard it to the farthest end of the county, and happy the man who could get but a sight of the hearse.’ Then came Sir Murtagh, who used to boast that he had a law-suit for every letter in the alphabet. ‘He dug up a fairy-mount against my advice,’ says Thady, ‘and had no luck afterwards. . . . Sir Murtagh in his passion broke a blood-vessel, and all the law in the land could do nothing in that case. . . . My lady had a fine jointure settled upon her, and took herself away, to the great joy of the tenantry. I never said anything one way or the other,’ says Thady, ‘whilst she was part of the family, but got up to see her go at three o’clock in the morning. “It’s a fine morning, honest Thady,” says she; “good-bye to ye,” and into the carriage she stepped, without a word more, good or bad, or even half-a-crown, but I made my bow, and stood to see her safe out of sight for the sake of the family.’
How marvellously vivid it all is! every word tells as the generations pass before us. The very spirit of romantic Irish fidelity is incarnate in Thady. Jason Quirk represents the feline element, which also belongs to our extraordinary Celtic race. The little volume contains the history of a nation. It is a masterpiece which Miss Edgeworth has never surpassed. It is almost provoking to have so many details of other and less interesting stories, such as EARLY LESSONS, A KNAPSACK, THE PRUSSIAN VASE, etc., and to hear so little of these two books by which she will be best remembered.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50