Few of Miss Edgeworth’s stories were written quickly. In her case, however, the Horatian maxim was scarcely justified, for her best tales are almost without exception those written with a running pen. Patronage was one that was longest in hand, having originated in 1787 from a story told by Mr. Edgeworth to amuse his wife when recovering from her confinement. From her frequent mention of it, quite contrary to her usual custom, one may conclude she did not find it an easy task. In 1811 she writes: “I am working away at Patronage, but cannot at all come up to my idea of what it should be.” We do not know whether it ever did, but whatever her verdict may finally have been, it is certain that Patronage, though one of the longest and most ambitious of her stories, is as a story one of the least successful. It is labored; art and design are too apparent; the purpose has too fatally hampered the invention. There is no denying that, while containing many excellent scenes, much shrewd observation of character, Patronage drags, and the reader is weary ere he has done. It is both artificial and common-place, and what is more unfortunate still, the whole fabric is built upon a confusion of premises. Its purpose is to demonstrate the evils that result from patronage, and to show how much more successful are those who rely only upon their own exertions. Both premises involve a petitio principii. A capable person helped at the outset may have cause eternally to bless the patron who enabled him to start at once in his proper groove, instead of wasting strength and time after the endeavor — often vain — to find it unassisted. Had she attempted to prove that it was better for each person to fight his way alone, because this was better for the moral development of his character, it would have been another matter. But this is not the line she pursues. There are no such subtle psychic problems worked out. The whole question is treated from the surface only, and the two families chosen to “point the moral” are not fairly contrasted. The Percys, the good people who shrink from help so nervously that they would rather do themselves harm than accept a helping hand, possess every virtue and capacity under the sun, while their rivals and relatives, the Falconers, have no resources but those of cringing falsehood. They are absolutely incapable, have learnt nothing, do not care to learn, and depend entirely upon finding a patron. They further rely upon their luck that, when settled in their various posts, no untoward accident may reveal their inability to fill them. Thus sound morality, good sense and an independent spirit are contrasted with meanness, folly and ignorance. As an eminent critic has well remarked: “The rival families are so unequal that they cannot be handicapped for the race. The one has all the good qualities, the other almost all the bad. Reverse the position; encumber the Percys (to borrow a Johnsonian phrase) with any amount of help; leave the Falconers entirely to their own resources; and the sole difference in the result under any easily conceivable circumstances will be that the Percys will rise more rapidly and the Falconers will never rise at all.”
The materials of the fable, therefore, are not happy; neither, such as they are, are they artfully managed. The working out is bald, the moral bluntly enforced. Never was Miss Edgeworth more weighted by her aim, never were the fallacies of her cut-and-dried theories better illustrated. In this, her longest work, it is specially evident that her manner was not adapted to what the French call ouvrages de longue haleine. But if we at once dismiss from our minds the idea of deriving instruction from the fable, if we judiciously skip the dull pages of rhetoric or moral preachings that are interspersed, we can gain much real enjoyment from this book, whose characters are excellently planned and consistently carried out. Patronage contains some of Miss Edgeworth’s finest creations. The Percys as a whole are
Too bright and good
For human nature’s daily food;
but even in their family had grown up a character whom we can love, with whom we can sympathize — the warm-hearted, generously impulsive, sprightly Rosamond, who, according to her own testimony, resembled her creator. Caroline Percy is one of the very wise, self-contained and excellent young persons who so often appear under different disguises in Miss Edgeworth’s tales. She is exactly one of those heroines to whom applies the wickedly witty remark put by Bulwer into the mouth of Darrell in What Will He Do with It? “Many years since I read Miss Edgeworth’s novels, and in conversing with Miss Honoria Vipont methinks I confer with one of Miss Edgeworth’s heroines — so rational, so prudent, so well-behaved, so free from silly romantic notions, so replete with solid information, moral philosophy and natural history; so sure to regulate her watch and her heart to the precise moment, for the one to strike and the other to throb, and to marry at last a respectable, steady husband, whom she will win with dignity, and would love with — decorum! a very superior girl indeed.”9
There is also a certain family likeness in the good fathers of her books. They are, as a rule, preternaturally wise, circumspect, and apt to resemble Mr. Edgeworth. It has been well remarked that though we are told that a just man sins seven times a day, Miss Edgeworth’s just heroes and heroines never fall. Undoubtedly there is a want of variety as well as of human nature in her good characters, but not so in her bad. There she ranges over so wide a field that we can but wonder whence she gathered all this vast experience. She owned a perfect mine of social satire, and the skill with which she drew upon it and shaped her various characters, so as to give them a positive personal interest and vitality, is astounding. She is equally happy in her villains, her fools, her fops; indeed, in painting these latter species Miss Edgeworth is unrivalled. She seemed to know every weakness and absurdity of which human nature is capable. The manner in which she holds this up to view is sometimes almost remorseless, as from the altitude of one who has absolutely nothing in common with such creatures. In Patronage we have several such. Inimitable are the two Clays, brothers, men of large fortunes, which they spend in all manner of extravagance and profligacy, not from inclination, but merely to purchase admission into fine company. They are known respectively as French and English Clay; the one affecting a preference for all that is French; the other, a cold, reserved, dull man, as affectedly denouncing everything foreign, boasting loudly that everything about him is English, that only what is English is worthy attention; “but whether this arises from love of his country or contempt of his brother” does not appear. If there is anything to choose between these two capital creations, English Clay is perhaps the better. His slow, surly reserve, supercilious silence and solemn self-importance are wonderfully sustained; but hardly less excellent is his brother, with his affected tones, his foreign airs, and quick, talkative vanity. Lord William is another remarkably well-drawn picture. He is an upright, honorable and enlightened nobleman, who constantly fails to do himself justice, because he labors under that morbid shyness known as mauvaise honte, so common in England, so rare out of her borders. The patron, Lord Oldborough, a high-minded, austere, but absorbingly ambitious man, is elaborated with much care and penetration. Very skillfully are we made to feel that his vices are rather those of his position than of his heart. Nor must Buckhurst Falconer be passed over, the only member of the Falconer family who has one redeeming feature. He once had a heart, and, though weak as water, and swayed by the low principles that prevail in his family, he cannot succeed in stifling every good or noble feeling, though he has striven hard to compass this end. These will crop forth occasionally, though they cannot stay his descent down the path of corruption. But they permit us to feel for him, to pity him; he is no cut-and-dried mechanical knave.
A book that contains so many fine conceptions cannot be called a failure, even to-day, and since Miss Edgeworth’s contemporaries admitted her premises, it is no wonder that on its appearance Patronage achieved a great success. In those days, when novel-writing had not become so much of an art as now, the rapid downfall of the whole Falconer family within the space of a few weeks presented nothing ludicrous. Such incidents were familiar in romance, and held allowable there, even if known to be untrue to life. We now judge from the latter standard only, and reject, even in fiction, the improbable. In Patronage, Miss Edgeworth’s fondness for poetical justice has certainly carried her very far. Here, as in other of her stories, difficulties are not allowed to develop and be overcome gradually, but the knot is cut in the most ludicrously childish and awkward manner, a summary catastrophe is imagined, so that the modern reader cannot forbear a smile. Still, Patronage remains a remarkable book, replete with sound sense, acute observation and rapid graphic illustrations of character.
Scarcely so Harrington. Here, as in Patronage, Miss Edgeworth had set herself to work out a moral, this time an apology for Jews. It was written to suggestion, and was on a theme that lay entirely outside the domain of her experience. She had to evolve a Jew out of her moral consciousness, and her delineation is as little successful as that of other writers who have set themselves the same task. Her zeal outran her judgment; her elaborate apology is feeble; and if the Jews needed vindication they could hardly be flattered by one of this nature, for she does not introduce us to a true Jew at all. Her ideas were based upon that rare and beautiful character, Moses Mendelssohn, a character as little typical of the Jewish as of any other race or religious creed, but common to all men who think and feel philosophically and have raised themselves above the petty prejudices of mankind. This was as much as to say that only a Jew who was no Jew was admirable and estimable. And even his daughter Berenice, whom we are led to regard throughout as a Jewess, is finally discovered to have been born of a Christian mother and christened in her youth, so that her lover, Harrington, can marry her without any sacrifice to his social and racial prejudices. This is weak indeed, since the whole purpose of the story was to overcome the baseless dislike Harrington had from childhood entertained for the mere name of Jew. It would, therefore, have been far more to the purpose had his prejudices been really, and not apparently, overcome. The truth is that Miss Edgeworth herself was a lady not free from prejudices; and a regard for the opinion of the world, for birth and social station, was one of these. At the eleventh hour she probably could not reconcile herself to letting her hero, a man of good society, marry a Spanish Jewess; and since he had shown himself willing to do so, carried away by his deep and sincere feeling, she doubtless held that he had done enough, and so terrible a fate must be averted from his head.
The story could not and did not satisfy Miss Mordecai’s requirements, though she accepted it as an attempt at making amends. But the authoress herself recognized in later life that her friend “had no reason to be satisfied with it, as the Jewess turns out to be a Christian. Yet she was good enough to accept it as a peace-offering, and to consider that this was an Irish blunder, which, with the best intentions, I could not avoid.”
Contemporary opinion certainly treated Harrington as not one of the happiest of their favorite novelist’s stories. Yet with all its palpable defects there is such an admixture of excellence that Harrington should not be left unread, even though we may regret that such capital figures, painted with such nice skill and delicate discrimination, should be imbedded in so puerile a tale. The characters are keenly and lightly drawn, standing out boldly and clearly. The jargon of society is once more successfully reproduced, as well as those fashionable ladies who hide the claws of a tigress under a velvet paw, and whose complex and shifting nature Miss Edgeworth understood so well and reproduced so faithfully. How she, with her simple, direct character, came to comprehend them so fully, is almost a marvel. But intuition of character was a forte with Miss Edgeworth and the grand secret of her novelistic success. Her truth of touch was remarkable. Lady Anne Mowbray is a perfect model of that mixture of feline grace and obstinate silliness which the world so much admires in its young ladies; while her mother’s insignificance, which is not disguised by a stately, formal manner, is delineated and sustained to perfection. Lord Mowbray is yet another of Miss Edgeworth’s marvelously acute portraits of a true man of the world, of an evil nature. This is concealed by a fair semblance and good manners, so that it is needful to know him well to guess at the villain that is hidden under this attractive disguise.
Miss Edgeworth is at her ease and at her happiest in Ormond. Here she is on Irish ground, always for her the best, where she moves with most abandon; where she casts aside for a time some of her cold philosophy, and allows herself to appear as the vivacious Irishwoman, which at heart she was. Ireland, with its long history of bloodshed and social disorder, had none of those romantic incidents to offer to the novelist that were to be found in the equally wild but more noble and chivalric history of Scotland. Hence Sir Walter Scott had an easier task to perform than Miss Edgeworth. The history of which he treated allowed of judicious and poetic gilding. It lifted into more romantic regions. Irish history has, unfortunately, never been elevating, soul-ennobling. It is too much the record of rebellious seditions and foolish intrigues, lightly entered upon, inconsistently carried out. Such a history could scarcely kindle romantic ideas and desires in the hearts of youth, as did Scott’s pictures; and Miss Edgeworth did wisely in her Irish tales to leave history carefully on one side, and to deal only with the Hibernian character and the delineation of social manners. For many years the mere name of Irishman had been regarded in England as a term of reproach, and they figured as buffoons in all the novels and plays of the period. It was Miss Edgeworth who first came to the rescue of her countrymen, and she did this by no exaggerated praises, but by sympathetic yet true presentment. Her national story of Castle Rackrent had established for her a reputation as a relentlessly truthful writer. She had invested the tale with none of the poetical glamor employed by most historical novelists, who seek to hide from sight the ugly sores that exist in the society they depict, and thus endeavor to make us deem that those good old times of which they write had, despite their lawlessness, some power and strength of goodness unknown to us. Miss Edgeworth was too realistic a portrait painter to employ such methods; hence, where Sir Walter Scott’s rich imagination led him at times astray, she, on her part, was often hampered for want of that faculty. Still, her very reserve was fortunate, considering the theme on which it was exercised, as matters Irish have for some cause never been treated with judicial calmness. Hence to no writer are the Irish so much indebted. Their less judicious friends were satisfied with indignantly repelling the charges made against them, while national partiality magnified all their gifts. Miss Edgeworth felt with them, loved them, but she was not blinded by her affection. Starting from the assumption that the prejudices which existed against her countrymen arose from imperfect acquaintance with them, she candidly presented them just as they were, with both their virtues and vices unvarnished.
After Castle Rackrent, Ormond was certainly the finest effort of Miss Edgeworth’s genius, and it is scarcely fanciful to believe that it owes some of its excellence to the influence exerted upon her mind by Waverley. Had she but had Scott’s eye for nature, and introduced us to some of the beautiful scenery in which her story occurs, the book might worthily rank beside any of the Scotch Waverley novels. Was it owing to Scott’s influence, also, that we have in this case a less obtrusive moral?
The story of Ormond is in some respects the reverse of Vivian. The hero possesses innate force of character, and we watch in his career the progress of a mind that has not been cultivated, but shows itself capable of being educated by circumstances. Ormond is one of those persons in whom native intuition takes the place of instruction, and who of their proper strength are equal to all emergencies. The complications of the story arise from these inward propensities of his nature and the contending influences from without with which he has to grapple. He was an orphan who had been adopted by Sir Ulick O’Shane, but had not been educated, because Sir Ulick deemed that there was no use giving him the education of a landed gentleman when he was not likely to have an estate. An unfortunate difference with Sir Ulick’s wife obliged Ormond to leave his guardian’s roof and avail himself of the hospitality of a cousin, Cornelius O’Shane, who called himself King of the Black Islands, after his estate. More familiarly this original is spoken of as King Corny. Besides being one of the most delightful creations in romantic literature, he is an instructive study towards the comprehension of the Irish character. Macaulay pointed out, in speaking of the aboriginal aristocracy of Ireland, that Miss Edgeworth’s King Corny belonged to a later and much more civilized generation, but added that “whoever has studied that admirable portrait can form some notion of what King Corny’s great-grandfather must have been like.” King Corny is a most genuine character; there is no nonsense, no false reticence about him; he is hasty and violent at times, but he is not ashamed to show it, neither does he hide his warm, kind heart. His frank and unsuspecting nature makes him adored by all his tenantry, none of whom would wrong their king. There is not a page in which he figures that does not furnish charming reading, and there is not a reader but will resent that King Corny is made to die so early in the book. It is all the more vexatious to have the most original and attractive figure thus removed, because it was needless for the due development of the story. That the interest, which certainly flags after his demise, is sustained at all is a proof that the story, as a story, is above Miss Edgeworth’s average. And indeed, attention is well maintained to the end, notwithstanding a few most marvelously unnatural incidents that occur in the latter portion and stagger belief. They once more reveal Miss Edgeworth’s curious clumsiness in getting her brain-children out of the difficulties in which she has involved them. The quick alternation of laughter and tears that is a marked feature of her Irish tales recurs in the earlier portions of the book, where the scene is laid in the Black Islands, of which Harry Ormond becomes “prince presumptive.” The famous postilion’s letter in the Absentee is hard run by the letter King Corny writes to Ormond when offering him his hospitality. Admirable, too, is the account of his reception by the single-hearted, generous, though eccentric monarch. This reception scene is characteristic of the primitive and somewhat dissolute manners of the time. Indeed, the whole of Harry Ormond’s residence in the Black Islands affords Miss Edgeworth opportunities for exercising her peculiar felicity in displaying manners and customs. She does not present these by merely a few prominent and striking traits, but with delicate skill she insinuates little touches here and there that give local color and perfume to the whole. It is quite true that Miss Edgeworth’s books bear reading twice; once for the general impression, the second time to see how cunningly this impression is produced.
Miss Edgeworth not having in the case of Ormond weighted herself with a text, we have hardly any of her “unco’ gude” characters, but many of those mixtures that are truer to poor humanity. The exceptions are Lady and Miss Annaly, some of her monotonously similar pattern women, and Dr. Cambray, one of her dull and wooden immaculate men. Happily they appear but little in the story. The most able character, after King Corny, is Sir Ulick O’Shane, the political schemer and trimmer. A more vulgar or common-place writer would have represented him as an offensive hypocrite. Miss Edgeworth does not paint him in repellent colors, but lets him reveal his baseness little by little, and rather against his will, until the final catastrophe presents him in all his native vileness. His easy and agreeable social manners, his gentlemanly mode of feeling and acting, due, no doubt, to a long inheritance of gentlemanly traditions, are shown with profound penetration. It is a part of Miss Edgeworth’s power to evince how “great effects from trivial causes spring;” she makes us vividly realize all the circumstances under which her events occur. Thus we witness their development, instead of being only presented with the final results. This was rather a new departure in her day, when events finished, cut and dried, were alone considered worthy of note. In her conversations she shows considerable dramatic skill: they are enlivened not only by looks and gestures, but by what is often as significant, by moments of silence, by changes of countenance, by all the minor matters that distinguish spoken from written words. Neither in dramatic presentation of incident, nor in picturesqueness and vividness of character-drawing, has Miss Edgeworth ever touched a higher standard than in Ormond. The fact that it was written and sent to press so quickly, in order to gratify her sick father, proved in its favor. The result was that it was penned with more spontaneity, was less carefully worked up than either Patronage or Belinda, or even the Absentee, and consequently it reads more natural. There are fewer forced sentences, fewer attempts at pointed and epigrammatic writing. These epigrammatic sentences, which, with but few exceptions, are but half epigrams, are somewhat aggravating, especially if too constantly repeated, since they thus picture neither common nor uncommon talk. It is this tendency, carried to its highest expression in the Modern Griselda, that makes Miss Edgeworth’s personages, while acting and thinking like real people, not always talk as men and women would. As a rule, however, her style is easy, finished, flexible, and at times racy, and while seldom rising to eloquence, never sinking to tameness. Now and then it is a trifle cold, and she is too fond of erudite or far-fetched illustrations. The conversation of her day was, to use the language of the day, “polite;” that is to say, slightly stilted, prim, and confined within narrow bounds, and that she reflected it is a matter of course, but, as a whole, she managed to keep herself singularly free from its worst features. Indeed, her work was really of first-rate quality, and if we read it without troubling ourselves about her ethical designs or expecting to find a cleverly-told plot, we cannot fail to derive enjoyment from it, or to comprehend why her contemporaries rated her so highly, though they, on their part, perhaps, valued her moral teaching more than the present generation, which does not believe in mere sermons as panaceas. Indeed, now-a-days, the fashion is too much to divorce art from didactic intention. In those days it was the fashion to over-rate the service works of imagination can render virtue.
It would be easy to bring forward testimony regarding the fervent admiration bestowed on Miss Edgeworth by her contemporaries. She certainly missed, but she only just missed, the highest greatness. Did Madame de Staël put her sure finger on the cause when she said, after reading Fashionable Tales and expressing her great admiration, “Que Miss Edgeworth était digne de l’enthousiasme, mais qu’elle s’est perdue dans la triste utilité?” Yet to preach utility was held by Miss Edgeworth as a duty; but for this she might perhaps never have written at all, since no pecuniary needs drove her to authorship. And allowing for this moral strain in her works, and the blemishes that result thence, which compared with all she achieved are but trivial, in estimating her work as a whole, we may well afford to change what Chateaubriand called “the petty and meagre criticism of defects for the comprehensive and prolific criticism of beauties.” We must not look for features such as she cannot furnish, any more than we should seek for figs upon an apple-tree. There are certain things Miss Edgeworth can do, and do inimitably; there are others entirely foreign to her sphere. Her novels have been described as a sort of essence of common sense, and even more happily it has been said that it was her genius to be wise. We must be content to take that which she can offer; and since she offers so much, why should we not be content? Miss Edgeworth wrote of ordinary human life, and not of tremendous catastrophes or highly romantic incidents. Hers was no heated fancy. She had no comprehension of those fiery passions, those sensibilities that burn like tinder at contact with the feeblest spark; she does not believe in chance, that favorite of so many novelists; neither does she deal in ruined castles, underground galleries nor spectres, as was the fashion in her day. In her stories events mostly occur as in sober and habitual fact. In avoiding the stock-in-trade of her contemporaries she boldly struck out a line of her own which answers in some respects to the modern realistic novel, though devoid, of course, of its anatomical and physiological character. She used materials which her predecessors had scorned as worthless. She endeavored to show that there is a poetry in self-restraint as well as in passion, though at the very time she wrote it was the fashion to sneer at this, and to laud as fine that self-forgetfulness, that trampling down of all obstacles, no matter of what nature, sung by Byron and Shelley. She permitted just that amount of tenderness which the owner could keep under due control. She had no taste for what was named the grandeur, beauty and mystery of crime. She seldom devoted her attention to crimes at all, but gave it to those minor virtues and vices that contribute more largely to our daily sufferings or enjoyments. The novels of her day were too apt to bring forward angels or monsters, and though she also erred at times in the former respect, yet on the whole she departed from it, and was among the first to strike out that path since so successfully trodden, especially by female novelists, and notably by George Eliot — that of interesting us in persons moving in the common walks of men. In her Popular and Moral Tales she was encumbered like a clergyman in his sermon, and hence a too solemn and rather stifling air of moral reflection is apt to pervade. That she overcame it as much as she did, that her novels are as attractive and readable as they are, is to the credit of her genius, which not even Mr. Edgeworth could wholly overlay and stifle, and she thus with few exceptions triumphed over that tendency to the “goody,” from which it seems so difficult for works intended for edification to keep themselves exempt. Next to her children’s and Irish tales she is most excellent in her studies from fashionable life. Her heroes and heroines moving in the dismal round of inanities, miscalled diversions, are portraits touched up with nice care in detail, with a keen eye for subtleties and demi-tints. She loved to expose the false and mawkish doctrines thought fit for women. Her fashionable heroines followed the sentimental teachings of Rousseau and Mrs. Chapone, and held that the highest mission of woman is to please, and that she should be not only excused but commended if she employed every art to compass that end. High-mindedness was a factor unknown or at least unadmitted in their philosophy; fashion governed all; to be in the fashion was the main object of their lives. Miss Edgeworth did not condemn this too mercilessly or from too lofty a platform. Her morality, though unexceptionable, is never austere; she allows and even sanctions worldly wisdom within certain limits; she was too much a woman of the world herself to set up Utopian or ascetic standards. To make conscience agree with the demands of polite opinion was admitted to be a desirable and important factor. After all, we are all more or less affected by the mental atmosphere in which we live; none of us can wholly get outside the spiritual air that environs us, and see things from different points of view; and Miss Edgeworth could do so less than many, because she was less highly endowed with sympathetic imagination. Thus her shortcomings are, in her case, more than in that of many others, the fault of her surroundings and education. For, placed immediately under Mr. Edgeworth’s personal influence, his powers of suasion and plausible presentment, it was not easy to escape, and his daughter never questioned his final wisdom or desired such escape. In a critical reading of her books it is amusing to note how ever and again her father crops forth. Thus her heroes constantly ask what manner of education the young lady of their choice has received, because as “prudent men” they feel that only on this can they base their future hopes of happiness. And yet, strangely enough, with this absolute faith in the power of education is combined a belief that nothing, not even this almighty thing, can overcome the fact that if a girl be the daughter of a woman who has at any time forgotten herself, no matter how good the education may have been, no matter that this parent may have died at her birth or the child never lived beside her, Miss Edgeworth’s heroes regard her as necessarily lost — consider that it is impossible she should continue in the straight path. They will stifle their strongest feelings; make themselves and the girl miserable rather than marry her. A special instance of this occurs in the Absentee, where Lord Colambre prefers to break off his engagement with his adored cousin, the charming and high-spirited Grace Nugent, rather than wed her after he hears a rumor that her mother has not been legally married to her father. Hence a deus ex machina has to be evoked, who, like all such gods, cuts the Gordian knot in bungling fashion. After attributing all possibilities to education, there is quite a comic inconsistency in this method of visiting the offenses of the wrong-doer upon the victim. But Miss Edgeworth, or rather her father, appeared to have no comprehension of the fact that misfortunes of birth most frequently act on the children as a deterrent; so that they make, as it were, hereditary expiation. But here appears the want of tenderness in Miss Edgeworth’s work — a quantity she owned as a woman and lacked as an author. The two were certainly curiously different at times. But though not tender, she is always amiable and kindly, even though she does not look far beneath the surface and never deals with the soul. Unknown to her were its silent tragedies, its conflicts, hopes and fears. Those feelings that did not manifest themselves in life or action were beyond her range of comprehension. She had a genius for observing such things as can be observed; the lower depths are never stirred by herself or her characters. But it was her genius for observation, her power for reproducing what she had seen, that made her greatness — a greatness limited in its extent, but none the less greatness of its kind. Her works fully merit the admiration they have so long enjoyed.
An amusing summing-up of Miss Edgeworth’s novels is given by Leigh Hunt in his poem, Blue Stocking Revels. Apollo gives a ball to all the eminent contemporary authoresses, and criticises his guests as they enter.
At the sight of Miss Edgeworth he says:
“Here comes one
As sincere and kind as lives under the sun;
Not poetical, eh? nor much given to insist
On utilities not in utility’s list.
(Things nevertheless without which the large heart
Of my world would but play a poor husk of a part.)
But most truly within her own sphere sympathetic,
And that’s no mean help towards the practic-poetic.”
Then smiling, he said a most singular thing —
He thanked her for making him “saving of string!”
But for fear she should fancy he did not approve her in
Matters more weighty, praised her Manoeuvring.
A book which, if aught could pierce craniums so dense,
Might supply cunning folks with a little good sense.
“And her Irish” (he added), “poor souls! so impressed him,
He knew not if most they amused or distressed him.”
And now finally we are confronted with the question, will Miss Edgeworth’s works live, or will they be left to grow dusty upon the library-shelves, in company with many names much respected in their day? Who shall say? The novel is, of its very essence, the most ephemeral style of literature, since it deals with the ever-shifting pictures of its time. Nor is this unjust. The novelist of worth receives, as a rule, his meed of recognition in his life-time, which is not the lot of writers in all branches of literature. On the other hand, to the student of manners, novels have a value no historian can outvie, and on this account alone Miss Edgeworth’s should not be left unread. But not only on this account, for it is perhaps just in this direction that they err somewhat; for though no doubt true pictures of one section of society, there is no denying that Miss Edgeworth’s outlook is not catholic; that the world, as she saw it, was prescribed almost exclusively within the bounds of so-called “good society”— a circle in which the heights and depths of life and feeling are rarely touched, because of the conventional boundaries within which its inmates are cooped.
Whence, then, the undeniable fact that Miss Edgeworth has gradually grown to join that band of authors known as standard, who are more spoken of than read? There is so much in her mode of life-conception that is entirely modern, so much that is in keeping rather with the advanced school of utilitarian ethicists than with the more sentimental school of her day, that it certainly does appear puzzling why she has not better maintained her place; for it would be idle to pretend that she has maintained it such as it was in her life-time. It cannot be because her plots are ill-constructed. When at her best she holds attention notwithstanding. Nor does an author’s power to engross us at all depend on his constructive faculty. Indeed, some of those writers who most hold their readers have distinctly lacked this gift, which often exists independently of fine novelistic qualities. In portions of her work Miss Edgeworth need fear no rivals. Why is it, then, that in attempting an estimate of her powers, while allowing to her first-class excellences, we have to deny her a first-class place, thus condoning, to some extent, those who leave her unread to turn to less edifying and admirable writers? Is it not because there is absent from Maria Edgeworth’s writings that divine spark of the ideal that alone allows works to live for all time — that spark which it is given to many an inferior author to own, while it is here denied to a woman of great intellectual power? While preëminently upright, high-principled and virtuous, Miss Edgeworth’s ethics are pervaded by a certain coldness and self-consciousness that irresistibly give to her good people a pharisaical character; an impression from which it is always difficult and at times impossible for the reader to shake himself free. Her heroes and heroines act with too little spontaneity; they seem to calculate and know too surely the exact sum total of ultimate gain that will, in a justly-ordered world, accrue to them for their good actions, their self-sacrifice and devotion. Her heroes are almost as calculating as her villains.
It is a severe test to which to put an author, to read all his works consecutively; but it is one that more surely than aught else enables us to mark his place of merit. If he can stand this trial he is decidedly above the average; if he issue thence triumphant he may without hesitation be pronounced among the great. Miss Edgeworth weathers this test very respectably; indeed it, more than all else, enforces upon the reader the great versatility she displays in character and situation. Yet it is just after such a perusal that the absolute lack of the ideal element is so strongly borne in upon us. As the thirsty mountaineer drinks eagerly from the first clear streamlet that meets him trickling down from the heights, so Miss Edgeworth’s readers eagerly turn from her to some more spontaneous writer to quench the drought that this continuous perusal has engendered. Even in this prosaic and materialistic age the belief in blue roses is happily not wholly dead; and though we will not suffer the garden of a novelist to grow no other plant, because we know that one filled with blue roses only is out of nature in this terrestrial globe, yet, in a well-ordered parterre, we do require that the blue rose should also have its place. It is to novelist and poet that the cultivation of this rare and heaven-born plant has been entrusted. Miss Edgeworth knew it not. Neither by hereditary tendency nor by training had she made acquaintance with this wonder-flower, for whose botanical analysis Mr. Edgeworth would have searched a Flora in vain, and whose existence he would therefore stoutly have denied.
With “little stores of maxims,” like Tennyson’s faithless love, Miss Edgeworth, acting from the very highest motives, after careful and philosophic deliberation, at personal suffering to herself, in her printed words, preached down the instincts of the heart. She knew not that excellent as utilitarianism is in its place and sphere, there is something more, something beyond, that is needed to form the basis upon which human actions are set in motion. For the spiritual and divine element in man she made no allowance, and it was this that drew down on her, from shallow contemporary critics, that condemnation of want of religion, flung in a narrow, dogmatic spirit, that wounded her so deeply. Outwardly the Edgeworths conformed to the established faith, and though liberal in the sense of being wide-minded, they were not in religious matters advanced in thought. Indeed, they thought little, if at all, of the next world, finding full occupation for their minds in this. Miss Edgeworth was hemmed in by the visible; she did not seek to justify the ways of God to man; life was to her no riddle; if man would but act rightly, all would be well; she deemed that it is given into his own hands to do good or evil, to be happy or the reverse. There was in her nothing of the poet and the seer; and by so much as she fails to speak to humanity in all its aspects, by so much she fails to take rank among the greatest teachers of our race. But with wisdom and good sense she recognized her limitations; she set herself a humbler but no less useful task; she carried out her aim faithfully and conscientiously, and by so much she too must be ranked among the good and faithful servants who do the work appointed by their Lord. And after all, is not the harmony of humanity best served by the free emission of the most diverse notes? Miss Edgeworth set herself to preach utilitarianism and the minor virtues. She succeeded; and in so far as she succeeded in that which she set herself to do, life was for her successful, and she was great.
9 It is but fair to add that Bulwer in a note disclaims the excessive severity and sweeping character of this criticism.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50