It was in 1825 that the second part of Harry and Lucy was published, completing the labors planned for Miss Edgeworth by her father. The good reception it met with caused her to contemplate writing some more short tales, but she missed the guiding friend that had so long directed her. A story called Taken for Granted had long been on the stocks. Though never finished, she was occupied with it for some time, and began to see clearly where her difficulties lay.
Your observations about the difficulties of Taken for Granted are excellent; I “take for granted” I shall be able to conquer them. If only one instance were taken, the whole story must turn upon that, and be constructed to bear on one point; and that pointing to the moral would not appear natural. As Sir Walter said to me in reply to my observing, “It is difficult to introduce the moral without displeasing the reader”: “The rats won’t go into the trap if they smell the hand of the rat-catcher.”
The opening of the year 1826 was one of general financial depression. This was, of course, felt yet more acutely in Ireland, where money affairs are never too flourishing. Even the estate of Edgeworthstown, that had as yet safely weathered all storms, was affected, and it was in consequence of this that, at her brother Lovell’s desire, Miss Edgeworth once more resumed the rent-receiving and general management, which since her father’s death she had abandoned. With consummate skill and energy she managed so that her family escaped the flood that swamped so many. For Miss Edgeworth had keen business faculties, though, except in the matter of the estate, they had never been called into play. Her stepmother tells how —
“The great difficulty was paying everybody when rents were not to be had; but Maria, resolutely avoiding the expense and annoyance of employing a solicitor, undertook the whole, borrowing money in small sums, paying off encumbrances, and repaying the borrowed money as the times improved; thus enabling her brother to keep the land which so many proprietors were then obliged to sell. While never distressing the tenants, she at last brought the whole business to a triumphant conclusion.”
Yet at no time was Miss Edgeworth absorbed in one thing only; her wide and universal interests could not slumber. Thus, with all the work of a large estate on her hands, she still found time to read extensively. The letters published by Sir Walter Scott under the pseudonym of Sir Malachy Malagrowther had just appeared. They interested her strangely.
Lord Carrington was so kind as to frank to me these extraordinary performances, which shall reach you through Lord Rosse, if you please. It is wonderful that a poet could work up such an enthusiasm about one-pound notes; wonderful that a lawyer should venture to be so violent on the occasion as to talk of brandishing claymores, and passing the fiery cross from hand to hand; and yet there is the Chancellor of the Exchequer answering it from his place in Parliament as a national concern! If Pat had written it, the Attorney–General would, perhaps, have noticed it; but “Up with the shillalah!” in Pat’s mouth, and “Out with the claymore!” in Sir Malachy’s, are different quite.
A visit from Sir Humphrey Davy during the summer was a great delight. Miss Edgeworth speaks of the range and pitch of his mind with high praise, and relates besides an amusing anecdote that he told:—
Sir Humphrey repeated to us a remarkable criticism of Bonaparte’s on Talma’s acting: “You don’t play Nero well; you gesticulate too much; you speak with too much vehemence. A despot does not need all that; he need only pronounce. Il sait qu’il se suffit. And,” added Talma, who told this to Sir Humphrey, “Bonaparte, as he said this, folded his arms in his well-known manner, and stood as if his attitude expressed the sentiment.”
A little later another sister was taken from the family circle by marriage; this time it was Miss Edgeworth’s travelling companion and friend Harriet, who married Mr. Butler, a clergyman. The home party was thinning, and Miss Edgeworth, who liked to have a large number of her loved ones about her, felt this keenly. But happily young nephews and nieces were springing up to take the places of those who were gone, and fill the house with that sunshine of child-life and child-laughter that had seldom been absent from its walls.
She wrote to her brother about a little nephew:—
How you will like that child and make it see “upper air!” How long since those times when you used to show its mother and Harriet upper air! Do you remember how you used to do it to frighten me, and how I used to shut my eyes when you threw them up, and how you used to call me to look? Ah! le bon temps! But we are all very happy now, and it is delightful to hear a child’s voice cooing or even crying again in this house.
She was devoted to children, and never happier than when surrounded by them. They in their turn loved the kind little old lady — for she was getting an old lady now — who played with them so merrily, who entered into all their fun, who told them such pretty stories, who plied them with pennies and all manner of good and pretty things. She never lost the power of speaking their language; her letters to children are among some of the most genial she wrote. She was pleased and gratified when the little ones liked her or her stories.
Visits to Mrs. Ruxton at Black Castle, to married brothers and sisters, or to friends, formed more and more frequent interludes in her home-life; but each time she returns, Miss Edgeworth records her excessive happiness to find herself at Edgeworthstown again, with her beloved stepmother and those who still were left.
After one such visit to Mrs. Ruxton, she writes to her:—
After spending four months with you, it is most delightful to me to receive from you such assurances that I have been a pleasure and a comfort to you. I often think of William’s most just and characteristic expression, that you have given him a desire to live to advanced age, by showing him how much happiness can be felt and conferred in age, where the affections and intellectual faculties are preserved in all their vivacity. In you there is a peculiar habit of allowing constantly for the compensating good qualities of all connected with you, and never unjustly expecting impossible perfections. This, which I have so often admired in you, I have often determined to imitate; and in this my sixtieth year, to commence in a few days, I will, I am resolved, make great progress. “Rosamond at sixty,” says Margaret. We are all a very happy party here, and I wish you could see at this moment, sitting opposite to me on a sofa and in an arm-chair, the mother and daughter and grandchild.
The outward course of existence at home was one of quiet routine. Habits of order had been early impressed upon Miss Edgeworth by Mrs. Honora Edgeworth, and though naturally impetuous, she had curbed herself to act with method. It was thanks to these acquired habits that she was able to accomplish daily such a surprising amount of multifarious work. It was her custom to get up at seven, take a cup of coffee, read her letters, and then walk out about three-quarters of an hour before breakfast. So punctual and regular was she that for many years a lady residing in the village used to be roused by her maid with the words, “Miss Edgeworth’s walking, ma’am; it’s eight o’clock.” She generally returned with her hands full of roses or other flowers that she had gathered, and taking her needlework or knitting, would sit down at the family breakfast, a meal that was a special favorite of hers, though she rarely partook of anything. But while the others were eating she delighted to read out to them such extracts from the letters she had received as she thought would please them. She listened, too, while the newspaper was read aloud, although its literary and scientific contents always attracted her more than its political; for in politics, except Irish, she took little interest.
This social meal ended, she would sit down to write, penning letters, attending to business, or inditing stories if any such were in progress. She almost always wrote in the common sitting-room, as she had done during her father’s life-time, and for many years on a little desk he had made for her, and on which, shortly before his death, he had inscribed the words:—
On this humble desk were written all the numerous works of my daughter, Maria Edgeworth, in the common sitting-room of my family. In these works, which were chiefly written to please me, she has never attacked the personal character of any human being, or interfered with the opinions of any sect or party, religious or political; while endeavoring to inform and instruct others, she improved and amused her own mind and gratified her heart, which I do believe is better than her head.
R. L. E.
After her father’s death she used a writing-desk that had been his, and which accompanied her whenever she went away. At home it was placed on a table he had made, and to which she, inheriting some of his faculty for mechanical inventions, had attached some ingenious contrivances of her own, such as brackets, fire-screens and paper-rests. In summer time this little table was generally rolled into a recess behind the pillars of the library; in winter it stood near the fire. She wrote on folio sheets, which she sewed together in chapters, and her manuscripts were wonderfully neat, clean and free from erasures. At luncheon-time she ceased writing, and since she made this her chief meal in the day, she was obliged, often most unwillingly, to forego her desire to return to her desk. But she knew that to write directly after eating was bad for her, and she submitted instead to doing some needlework. It was while working with her needle, however, that most of her stories were conceived and developed.
Sometimes she would drive out in the afternoon. She was rather nervous about horses, and always sat with her back to them, that she might not see them. When quite at ease on the score of coachman and steeds, she greatly enjoyed a drive in an open carriage, talking and laughing all the time, and amusing her companions with her endless flow of anecdotes and fun. With her habitual indifference to nature she rarely knew and still less cared whither the drive had been directed. Most commonly she wrote again till dinner-time. In her later years she would retire and sleep for an hour after this meal, rejoining the family circle at the tea-table. The evenings were usually spent in reading aloud; sometimes Miss Edgeworth was the reader, sometimes she would work and listen while others read. The enjoyment she felt in literature was imparted to those about her; she would manage to extract something, either knowledge or amusement, out of the dullest book. Her stepmother says that she would often linger after the usual bed-time, to talk over what she had heard, when bright, deep or solid observations would alternate with gay anecdotes apropos of the work or its author. For Miss Edgeworth’s best talk was not reserved for abroad, but was rather poured forth at its best when surrounded by those she loved. That her conversation was at all times delightful there is abundant testimony. Mr. Ticknor says of it: “There was a life and spirit about her conversation, she threw herself into it with such abandon, she retorted with such brilliant repartee, and, in short, she talked with such extraordinary flow of natural talent, that I don’t know whether anything of the kind could be finer.”
It is said that even those who came to pay a mere morning call would often remain for hours, loth to terminate the conversation. Nor was her talk by any means uniformly grave; she knew most happily how to blend the grave and gay; she loved to laugh herself and arouse laughter in others, and when she laughed she did so with all the exuberant enjoyment of an Irishwoman. Indeed, there was far more of the light-hearted, merry Irishwoman in Miss Edgeworth than her writings, especially her moral tales, would lead the world to suppose. In her, Irish good qualities were mingled with practical wisdom, judgment and good sense, and produced a combination both rare and charming. She said of herself that she was ugly, remarking that she was the last ugly person left; the rest of the world were no longer anything but plain; but those who knew her did not subscribe to this verdict. She was not, and never had been, good-looking;10 but a face that beamed such kindliness, reflected such intelligence, could never be really plain. In form she was petite; her well-made, almost elegant figure, that remained slight to the last, was enhanced by a scrupulously trim appearance. She was very neat and particular in her dress, and was not only always tidy, but well attired and in accordance with the fashion. She maintained throughout her life that a woman should not be above attending to her dress. Ostentation of any kind was foreign to her nature. When a relative died, leaving her a pair of valuable diamond ear-rings and pearl bracelets, her instant thought was, what good could she do with them? They were sold at once, and with the proceeds she built a village market-house and a room for the magistrate’s petty sessions. Her generosity, both in giving money, time and labor for others, was boundless; and her kindnesses were made doubly kind by the thoughtfulness with which they were executed. Thus, for example, many of her tenants and neighbors had relations or friends who had emigrated to the United States. These poor people often found that letters they wrote to America miscarried, a frequent reason being of course insufficient or illegible addresses. To obviate this, Miss Edgeworth caused them to send her all their letters, which she then forwarded once a month. This labor often gave her no small trouble, but she grudged neither this nor the time spent in making up the monthly packet. Her poor neighbors, she deemed, repaid her only too richly by their gratitude. She was certainly one of the few people who practice what they preach; she exemplified in her own person all those judicious plans and rules for helping the needy which she had brought forward in her works. When it is further remembered that Miss Edgeworth retained to the very last, until her eighty-second year, that faculty, which is judged the exclusive gift of youth, of admitting new interests into her life, and that she further made them to run side by side with those she had held of yore, in this mode enriching and widening her mental and emotional horizon, it is little wonder that her old age was one of serene felicity.
The marriage of Fanny Edgeworth, Miss Edgeworth’s favorite among all her younger sisters, was a real grief to her for the moment, though, with her usual unselfishness, she upbraided herself for feeling such a “shameful, weak, selfish sorrow at parting with this darling child.” A pleasure of a very different kind came to her shortly after in the shape of Sir Walter Scott’s introduction to his collected Waverley Novels. The sheets, while passing through the press, had been sent to her, and she felt that Scott had, in the most delightful and kind manner, said everything that could gratify her “as an author, friend and human creature.”
You might well say that I should be “ill to please”— you might have said impossible to please — if what you sent me had not pleased, gratified, delighted me to the top of my bent; saturated me head and heart with the most grateful sense of the kindness of my most admired friend, and with the unspeakable gratification of such a testimony of his esteem and affection. I know full well, most sincerely I feel, that he over-values infinitely what I have written; but of this I am proud, because it proves to me that private friendship of his which I value above all, even his public praise. . . .
Believe me, my dear sir, I feel it all; and if I could, as you say, flatter myself that Sir Walter Scott was in any degree influenced to write and publish this novel from seeing my sketches of Irish character, I should indeed triumph in the thought of having been the proximate cause of such happiness to millions.
Among the many advanced movements that Mr. Edgeworth had advocated was the cause of Catholic emancipation. In such public measures as her father had felt an interest, Miss Edgeworth felt one too; and it was a great joy to her that not only she, but her father’s sister, had lived to see this measure carried. It is amusing to learn that it was a grievance of O’Connell’s against Miss Edgeworth that she never directly espoused this cause by means of her pen. This was, in real fact, a compliment, as showing what a power her writings had become.
In the summer, the “reaper whose name is Death” reappeared amidst that united family, carrying off this time the able engineer, William Edgeworth, who also succumbed to the fatal family malady. It was a shock and a grief to his devoted sister, who sorrowed the more when she saw her juniors go before her, and the grief told on her own health. She was ailing until autumn, often confined to the sofa and forbidden her pen, though, happily for her, neither her needle nor her books. Her idle fancy began once more to weave romances, and she planned the story of Helen and made some notes for it. Contrary to her previous custom, she did not draw up a complete sketch, as she had done while writing under her father’s guidance. She jotted down the rough outlines, and trusted to spontaneous promptings to fill in the details. But she was not even certain at all whether she should attempt to write it; and although encouraged by the success of Harry and Lucy, she was nervous about grappling with higher work, deprived of the guide who had been her life-long stay.
For years she had rejected all suggestions to turn her attention once more to novel-writing, and but for the encouragement of her sister Harriet (Mrs. Butler), Helen would probably never have seen the light. It was first seriously thought of in 1830, but proceeded slowly. Life brought more interruptions to her than it had done in youth — family events, visits of kindness and pleasure, absorbed much time. Then, too, she was greatly engrossed by her agency business, to which all else was made to defer. She was punctual, we are told, not only to the day, but to the hour, of her payments; and her exertions to have the rents paid and the money ready for these payments were unvarying. She herself looked after the repairs, the letting of the village houses, the drains, gutters and pathways, the employment of the poor — in short, all the hundred and one duties that devolve upon the steward of landed property. It was considered by her family that all this exertion was in no wise too much for her; that, on the contrary, it was good for her health, inducing her to walk out and take more exercise than she would have done without an object in view. Even the very drudgery of accounts and letters of business, says her stepmother, “though at times almost too much for her bodily strength, invigorated her mind; and she went from the rent-book to her little desk and the manuscript of Helen with renewed vigor. She never wrote fiction with more life and spirit than when she had been for some time completely occupied with the hard realities of life.”
Nevertheless, Helen progressed slowly, and was several times in danger of being thrust aside. She wrote to her sister:—
My dear Harriet, can you conceive yourself to be an old lamp at the point of extinction, and dreading the smell you would make at going out, and the execrations which in your dying flickerings you might hear? And then you can conceive the sudden starting up again of the flame when fresh oil is poured into the lamp. And can you conceive what that poor lamp would feel returning to light and life? So felt I when I had read your letter on reading what I sent to you of Helen. You have given me new life and spirit to go on with her. I would have gone on from principle, and the desire to do what my father advised — to finish whatever I began; but now I feel all the difference between working for a dead or a live horse.
To the day of her death Miss Edgeworth never became the prudent, staid, self-contained person we should imagine her from her books, did we possess them only as guides to her character. Rosamond remained as generously impulsive as ever. On one occasion she writes to Mrs. Ruxton:—
It is very happy for your little niece that you have so much the habit of expressing to her your kind feelings. I really think that if my thoughts and feelings were shut up completely within me, I should burst in a week, like a steam engine without a snifting-clack, now called by the grander name of a safety-valve. You want to know what I am doing and thinking of: of ditches, drains and sewers, of dragging quicks from one hedge and sticking them down into another, at the imminent peril of their green lives; of two houses to let, one tenant promised from the Isle of Man, another from the Irish Survey; of two bullfinches, each in his cage on the table — one who would sing if he could, and the other who could sing, I am told, if he would. Then I am thinking for three hours a day of Helen, to what purpose I dare not say.
Before the year 1830 was ended Miss Edgeworth had lost this aunt, whom she had loved so long and fondly. It was the severing of a life-long friendship, the heaviest blow that had befallen her since her father’s death. She was in London when the event took place, and it was some comfort to her to find herself so kindly welcomed by those whom she had liked best in years gone by. She says sadly:—
It is always gratifying to find old friends the same after long absence, but it has been particularly so to me now, when not only the leaves of the pleasures of life fall naturally in its winter, but when the great branches on whom happiness depended are gone.
During this visit she kept out of all large parties, but renewed many old ties. One of the things she enjoyed most was a children’s party at Mrs. Lockhart’s. She was in her element among the young ones. “If Mrs. Lockhart had invented forever she could not have found what would please me more.” This London visit extended over some months:—
Old as I am, and imaginative as I am thought to be, I have really always found that the pleasures I have expected would be great, have actually been greater in the enjoyment than in the anticipation. This is written in my sixty-fourth year. The pleasure of being with Fanny has been far, far greater than I had expected. The pleasures here altogether, including the kindness of old friends and the civilities of acquaintances, are still more enhanced than I had calculated upon by the home and the quiet library and easy-chair morning retreat I enjoy.
On her return to Edgeworthstown she wrote:—
My last visit to universal London confirms to my own feelings your eulogium. I never was so happy there in my life, because I had, besides all the external pleasures, the solid satisfaction of a home there, and domestic pleasures, without which I should soon grow aweary of the world, and wish the business of the town were done. It is most gratifying to me, at such a distance, to hear and to believe that such kind and cultivated friends as you miss my company and wish for my future return. I should be very sorry if I were told this minute that I was never to see London again, and yet I am wondrous contented and happy at home.
It is a curious circumstance, but a fact of frequent observation, that large families are often more united than small ones. The Edgeworths were a case in point. They had that devoted affection, that blind belief in one another, that often distinguishes a clan. They preferred each other’s society to that of strangers; they regarded themselves as beings apart; what one did, the others approved; harmony and good will reigned supreme. With so many different families living under one roof, it was a rare and curious fusion, this home party, of which one of the brothers said that “each star is worthy of separate observation for its serenity, brilliancy or magnitude; but it is as a constellation they claim most regard, linked together by strong attachment and moving in harmony through their useful course.”
It was as a star of the first magnitude in this constellation that Miss Edgeworth loved to move and have her being, and she chose to be set there rather than shine in brilliancy alone. Miss Edgeworth, the woman, must always be thought of in connection with her home and home attachments. To love, shrouded in the quiet obscurity of domestic life, was the secret of existence to this simple-minded nature.
That Helen was liked by the home circle was a real pleasure to its author. She was anxious for criticism and took all she received in good part. “I am a creature,” she once said, “that can take advice, can be the better for it, and am never offended by it.” The family approval given, the manuscript was despatched to London with more confidence than she had ever expected to feel again in a literary work. Lockhart managed the business arrangements, for to this she did not feel equal, and when asked if the book should be in two or three volumes, replied:—
I have satisfied my own conscience, which is my point, as I know that far from having stretched a single page, or a single sentence, to make out a third volume, I have cut as much as ever I could — cut it to the quick; and now it matters not whether it be printed in three or in two volumes. If tiresome to the ear in three, it would be equally so in two, and would look worse to the eye.
The reason why her new story was not an Irish one she gives in a letter to a brother in India:—
I should tell you beforehand that there is no humor in it and no Irish character. It is impossible to draw Ireland as she now is in a book of fiction — realities are too strong, party passions too violent to bear to see, or care to look at their faces in the looking-glass. The people would only break the glass and curse the fool who held the mirror up to nature — distorted nature, in a fever. We are in too perilous a case to laugh: humor would be out of season, worse than bad taste. Whenever the danger is passed, as the man in the sonnet says, “We may look back on the hardest part and laugh.” Then I shall be ready to join in the laugh. Sir Walter Scott once said to me, “Do explain to the public why Pat, who gets forward so well in other countries, is so miserable in his own.” A very difficult question; I fear above my power. But I shall think of it continually, and listen, and look, and read.
Things were once more in a bad way in that unhappy country, and Miss Edgeworth saw great distress all around her. A letter written at that time might almost be written to-day:—
I fear we have much to go through in this country before we come to quiet, settled life, and a ready obedience to the laws. There is literally no rein of law at this moment to hold the Irish; and through the whole country there is what I cannot justly call a spirit of reform, but a spirit of revolution, under the name of reform; a restless desire to overthrow what is, and a hope — more than a hope — an expectation of gaining liberty or wealth, or both, in the struggle; and if they do gain either, they will lose both again and be worse off than ever — they will afterwards quarrel amongst themselves, destroy one another, and be again enslaved with heavier chains. I am and have been all my life a sincere friend to moderate measures, as long as reason can be heard; but there comes a time, at the actual commencement of uproar, when reason cannot be heard, and when the ultimate law of force must be resorted to, to prevent greater evils. That time was lost in the beginning of the French Revolution— I hope it may not be lost in Ireland. It is scarcely possible that this country can now be tranquilized without military force to reestablish law; the people must be made to obey the laws or they cannot be ruled after any concessions. Nor would the mob be able to rule if they got all they desire; they would only tear each other to pieces, and die drunk or famish sober. The misfortune of this country has been that England has always yielded to clamor what should have been granted to justice.
As Miss Edgeworth advanced in life she often spoke of “my poor Ireland,” showing that hopelessness with regard to the problem had dawned on her. She was a patriot, but belonged to no party; and was blind neither to the nation’s wrongs, follies nor crimes. She grew more and more to advocate the laissez-faire system. She contended that her observations, which extended over so long a period of time, had shown her steady progression in Ireland, and she believed that the land would ultimately do well if people would only not force their political nostrums upon it. What she did demand from England was equality of legislation, but no more; and this accorded, she believed Ireland would rise from her state of degradation, though of necessity the rise would be slow, since the length of time of recovery must be in proportion to the length and force of the infliction. Mrs. Hall very rightly remarked that Miss Edgeworth’s affection for Ireland was “philosophic.” Yet another change Miss Edgeworth observed in the Irish, and one that made them less useful to her for literary purposes:—
The modern peasantry imagine they have a part to play in the organization of their country; their heads are fuller of politics than fun; in fact, they have been drilled into thinking about what they cannot understand, and so have become reserved and suspicious — that is, to what they used to be.
After Helen had passed through the press, Miss Edgeworth accompanied her friends Sir Culling and Lady Smith in a trip through Connemara. Of the adventures they had on this journey — real Irish adventures, with innumerable sloughs to traverse, with roads that imperilled life, with inns whose dirt and discomfort passed belief, with roadside hospitality from kindly but eccentric gentlefolks — Miss Edgeworth wrote a letter some forty pages long to a brother in India. For fun and graphic vivacity it is not surpassed by the best of her printed Irish scenes. After her return “rents and odious accounts” kept her mind from running too much upon Helen, about which she was more anxious than about any book she had ever sent into the world. It soon proved as great a success as her earlier works, and a second edition was demanded after a few weeks. Her own feelings about the matter are expressed in a letter she wrote to Mr. Bannatyne, who had congratulated her on its public reception:—
MY DEAR MR. BANNATYNE:
I thank you with all my heart for the “nervousness” you felt about my venturing again before the public, and it is a heart-felt as well as a head-felt satisfaction to me that you do not think I have lowered what my father took such pains to raise for me. You cannot conceive how much afraid I was myself to venture what had not his corrections and his sanction. For many, many years that feeling deterred me from any attempt in this line. Of what consequence, then, to my happiness it is to be assured, by friends on whose sincerity and judgment I can depend, that I have not done what I ought to repent or to be ashamed of.
Concerning Helen contemporary public opinion was much divided; some regarded it as a falling-off in power, others as an advance, but all agreed that there was a change. The change is one of tone and feeling, induced in part, no doubt, by the fact that it was the emanation of her own brain only; in part that years had caused Miss Edgeworth, as it causes all of us, to regard life from a different standpoint. Experience had taught her to
Gentler scan her brother man
than she did in earlier life. Helen is so much superior in ease, nature and poetry, that it makes us deplore that Miss Edgeworth’s talents had not been allowed unchecked sway. Not only is the fable more skillfully framed, but the whole shows greater passion and finer insight into the more subtle moods of humanity. Too often when men and women go on writing far into their latter years we are apt to wish that, like Prospero, they had buried their wand before it had lost its power. This is not the case with Miss Edgeworth. Helen, her last novel, which appeared after so long a silence, is in some respects the most charming of her tales — a fact doubtless due in some measure to the time that had elapsed since the cessation of her father’s active influence. The old brilliancy, the quick humor, the strong sense of justice and truth which is the moral backbone of her work, are there as before; but through the whole tale there breathes a new spirit of wider tenderness for weak, struggling human nature, and a gentleness towards its foibles, which her earlier writings lacked. Years had taught her a wider toleration, had shown her, too, how large a part quick, unreasoning instincts and impulses play in the lives of men and women, even of those whose constant struggle it is to subdue act and thought to the rule of duty. Helen is more of a romance than any of its predecessors, perhaps because the chief interest of the tale is concentrated in the heroine, who is the central figure round which the other persons of the story revolve, while in Miss Edgeworth’s earlier novels the subsidiary characters are the most interesting and amusing. We wish Belinda well, but she does not move our feelings as does Lady Delacour, and Sir Philip Baddeley is infinitely more diverting than Clarence Harvey is fascinating. And it is the same in all the others, while the centre of Helen is the girl herself. Yet the other characters are no less admirably drawn, with the old delicacy and firmness of touch, the occasional quaint gleams of humor. In its way Miss Edgeworth never limned a finer portrait than that of Lady Davenant, the large-brained, large-hearted woman of the world, endowed with strong principle, keen sense and real vigor of character, mingled with prejudice, impulsive likes and dislikes, an imperfect adherence in practice to her own theories of right and wrong, and a stern power of self-judgment. There is nothing exaggerated in this admirable and vigorous piece of work. We comprehend Cecilia’s nervous fear of the mother whose unswerving truth cows her, while it attracts the answering truth of nature of her truer and stronger friend. Equally good is the character of Lady Cecilia, through whose duplicity and cowardice arise all Helen’s troubles; her husband, General Clarendon, who held
All fraud and cunning in disdain,
A friend to truth, in speech and action plain;
the malicious Lady Beatrice and her silly, pretty sister; while Horace Churchill, the man about town, who is more modern in tone than Miss Edgeworth’s earlier portraits of the same class, loses nothing by comparison with them. Despite his restless egotism, his spitefulness, his generally unpleasant character, he is a gentleman in all outside seeming, the old-fashioned, perfect tone of high breeding marks him, and he is even capable of a certain generosity that seems more an inherited instinct than a part of his individual nature. Esther, the general’s sister, is one of the quaintest and most delightful characters in the book, drawn with kindliness and humor — a girl with the power of a noble woman hidden under the crust of a gruff and abrupt exterior, which springs half from shyness, half from a defiant love of truth and hatred of conventional chains. The purpose of Helen is to show how much the sufferings and dissensions of social life arise from the prevailing digressions from truth, often due in the first instance to small society politenesses. Its key-note lies in the ejaculation of Miss Clarendon: “I wish that word fib was out of the English language, and white lie drummed out after it. Things by their right names, and we should all do much better. Truth must be told, whether agreeable or not.” Most perfectly and naturally is the imbroglio brought to pass, the entanglement caused by the love-letters, the way in which every fresh deceit on the part of Cecilia, meant to be harmless, tells in her husband’s mind against the friend behind whom she is basely hiding her own fault. With Cecilia, whose failings were of the kind with which Miss Edgeworth had least mercy, she is singularly gentle. For once she lets us pity the offender while we condemn the crime. Life had probably taught her that consequences are so surely unpitying that she no longer felt the need to insist on this, as she had done in former years, when she would probably have sketched for us the whole course of Cecilia’s punishment, whose nature she now only indicates. Helen is a charming heroine; no wax doll of impossible perfection, but a very woman, wayward and weak sometimes, but true, high-spirited, impulsively generous, staunch in her friendship and her love, with deep and passionate feelings controlled, not crushed, by duty.
Another marked change is shown in the manner in which Helen and Granville Beauclerc fall in love. Miss Edgeworth had always protested against the doctrine that love is a mere matter of personal beauty; she showed how it may enslave for a moment, but that a preference resting on so precarious a foundation was but a paltry tribute to her sex. Love, she rightly preached, must be founded on higher motives; but her heroes and heroines were too apt to fall in love in an edifying and instructive manner; they know too well why they succumbed to the tender passion. Until now she had almost denied the existence of romantic love, agreeing, it would seem, with her own Mrs. Broadhurst: “Ask half the men you are acquainted with why they are married, and their answer, if they speak the truth, will be: ‘Because I met Miss Such-a-one at such a place, and we were continually together.’” “‘Propinquity, propinquity,’ as my father used to say — and he was married five times, and twice to heiresses.” That amiable and respectable Bluebeard, Miss Edgeworth’s father, had hitherto held final sway over her characters. Was it the removal of this influence that allowed Helen and Granville to fall in love in a more rational manner? Helen does not now wait to see whether Beauclerc has every virtue under the sun before she ventures to love him; indeed, she sees his foibles clearly, and it is just when she believes that he has shown a lack of honor and sincerity that in her burst of grief she discovers that she loves him; loves him whatever he is, whatever he does. As for Granville, he falls in love in a thorough-going, earnest manner, which increases our feeling of his reality. It has been objected to Miss Edgeworth’s love-making that it is stiff as compared with that of the present day. It certainly presents a contrast to that of the Broughton school; but the loves of Helen and Granville, as told by her in so real and human a manner, reveal their feelings to be none the less tender that they are not hysterical, or any the less deep for their power of modesty, reverence and reserve.
Helen was suggested by Crabbe’s tale, The Confidant, but that feeling which is sinfully gratified and severely punished in Crabbe’s story becomes refined and reformed in Miss Edgeworth’s crucible. It is, however, interesting to compare her romance with the rapid sketch of the stern original. Another new feature in Helen is a tendency to describe natural objects. Until now there had never been in Miss Edgeworth’s writings a description of scenery or a sign of delight in it. She had, as we know, a contempt for the mere pleasures of the senses, and so little appreciation of the beautiful that she once condemns a character who buys something to gratify the eye, not recognizing that the eye, as well as the body and mind, must be fed. Yet in Helen, to our surprise, we encounter some lovingly detailed scenic bits; we even find her citing Wordsworth. It is clear she had not remained wholly untouched by the new influences surging around her. Another feature of Helen is the lack of a didactic tone. Speaking of Scott’s novels, she remarks that his morality is not in purple patches, ostentatiously obtrusive, but woven in through the very texture of the stuff. She knew that her faults lay in the opposite direction, and it is evident she had striven to avoid them. A writer who can learn from criticism and experience, who can adopt a new method of writing when past the age of sixty, is a remarkable writer indeed.
The fears that Miss Edgeworth had felt concerning Helen were truly uncalled for, but the eagerness with which she listened to criticisms upon it showed how little confident she felt of it herself. To her friend Dr. Holland she wrote after its appearance:—
I am very glad that you have been pleased with Helen— far above my expectations! And I thank you for that warmth of kindness with which you enter into all the details of the characters and plan of the story. Nothing but regard for the author could have made you give so much importance to my tale. It has always been my fault to let the moral end I had in view appear too soon and too clearly, and I am not surprised that my old fault, notwithstanding some pains which I certainly thought I took to correct it, should still abide by me. As to Lady Davenant’s loving Helen better than she did her daughter — I can’t help it, nor could she. It is her fault, not mine, and I can only say it was very natural that, after having begun by mistake and neglect in her early education, she should feel afterwards disinclined to one who was a constant object of self-reproach to her. Lady Davenant is not represented as a perfect character. All, then, that I have to answer for is, whether her faults are natural to the character I drew, and tend in their representation to the moral I would enforce or insinuate.
Oh, thank you for telling me of my blunder in making the dean die of apoplexy with his eyes fixed on Helen. Absurd! How shall I kill him in the next edition, if ever I am allowed an opportunity? Would palsy do? May there not be a partial power of will surviving a stroke of palsy, which would permit the poor old man to die with his eyes directed to his niece? Please to answer this question; and if palsy will not do my business, please to suggest something that will, and with as little alteration of the text as maybe. Not because I am unwilling to take the trouble of correcting, but that I don’t think it worth while to make alterations, even emendations, of great length. Better make a new one, according to Pope’s hackney coachman’s principle. (The punctuation shall be mended.)
10 She always refused to have her portrait taken, and all published so-called portraits of Maria Edgeworth are purely fancy productions.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50