Ireland is not among those countries that arouse in the hearts of strangers a desire to pitch their tents, and to judge from the readiness with which her own children leave her, we cannot suppose that they find her a fascinating land. And little wonder, when we consider the state of ferment and disorder which, in a greater or less degree, has always prevailed there. Yet Miss Edgeworth says:—
Things and persons are so much improved in Ireland of latter days, that only those who can remember how they were some thirty or forty years ago can conceive the variety of domestic grievances which, in those times, assailed the master of a family immediately upon his arrival at his Irish home. Wherever he turned his eyes, in or out of his house, damp, dilapidation, waste appeared. Painting, glazing, roofing, fencing, furnishing, all were wanting. The back yard, and even the front lawn round the windows of the house, were filled with loungers, “followers” and petitioners; tenants, under-tenants, drivers, sub-agent and agent, were to have audience; and they all had grievances and secret informations, accusations, reciprocating and quarrels each under each interminably. Alternately as landlord and magistrate, the proprietor of an estate had to listen to perpetual complaints, petty wranglings and equivocations, in which no human sagacity could discover the truth or award justice.
Returning to the country at the age of sixteen,2 Maria Edgeworth looked at everything with fresh eyes. She was much struck with the difference between England and Ireland; the tones and looks, the melancholy and gaiety of the people, were new and extraordinary to her. A deep impression was made upon her observant mind, and she laid the foundations for those acute delineations of Irish character with which she afterwards delighted the world. It was her good fortune and ours that at an age when the mind is most impressionable she came into these novel scenes in lieu of having lived in their midst from childhood, when it is unlikely that she would so well have seized their salient traits.
It was June when the family arrived at Edgeworthstown, and though nominally summer, there was snow on the roses Maria ran out to gather. She felt as if transported into a novel and curious world. Unfortunately neither the situation nor the house of Edgeworthstown were beautiful; there was nothing here to arouse romance in the girl’s nature. The country of Longford is in general flat, consisting of large districts of bog; only on the northern boundaries are there some remarkably sterile mountains. The house was an old-fashioned mansion, built with no pretensions to beauty. It needed much alteration and enlargement to suit the requirements of a growing family, and to accommodate his seven children suitably, Mr. Edgeworth saw himself forced to build. His extreme good sense guarded him from the usual errors committed by the Irish squires of that period, who were either content to live in wretched houses, out of repair, or to commence building on a scale as though they had the mines of Peru at their command, and then abandoning their plans as though they had not sixpence. The house at Edgeworthstown, without ever having pretensions to architecture, was simply made habitable. From the very commencement they began the even tenor of life that was to distinguish the family. The father was the centre of this remarkably united household. Miss Edgeworth says:—
Some men live with their family without letting them know their affairs; and, however great may be their affection and esteem for their wives and children, think that they have nothing to do with business. This was not my father’s way of thinking. Whatever business he had to do was done in the midst of his family, usually in the common sitting-room, so that we were intimately acquainted, not only with his general principles of conduct, but with the most minute details of their every-day application. I further enjoyed some peculiar advantages: he kindly wished to give me habits of business; and for this purpose allowed me, during many years, to assist him in copying his letters of business, and in receiving his rents.
Indeed, from their arrival the eldest daughter was employed as her father’s agent, for it was Mr. Edgeworth’s conviction that to remedy some of the worst evils of his unhappy country, it was needful to get rid of the middle-men. On his own estate he was resolved not to let everything go wrong for the good old Irish reason that it had always been so. He labored with zeal, justice, forbearance. He received his rents direct, he chose his tenants for their character, he resisted sub-division of holdings, and showed no favor to creed or nationality. Miss Edgeworth proved herself his worthy daughter. She exhibited acuteness and patience in dealing with the tenants, admiring their talents while seeing their faults; generous, she was not to be duped; and just, she was not severe. Thus in a brief time, thanks to this firm but kindly government, their estate came to be one of the best managed in the county. The work it induced was certainly fortunate for Maria; besides teaching her habits of business, it made her familiar with the modes of thought and expression of the Irish. She learnt to know them thoroughly and truly at their best and at their worst.
But Maria’s entire time was not occupied with the tenantry. It was a part of her father’s system that young children should not be left to servants, from whom he deemed, not without justice, that they learnt much that was undesirable. He therefore committed to the charge of each of his elder girls one of their younger brothers and sisters, and little Henry, Mrs. Elizabeth Edgeworth’s child, fell to Maria’s lot. She devoted herself with ardor to the boy, and was fondly attached to him. But it was, of course, the father who superintended the general education, following the lines afterwards laid down in Practical Education. His system certainly succeeded with his numerous children, though it might, as a rule, incline to make the pupils somewhat presumptuous, self-sufficient and pragmatical. The animation spread through the house by connecting the children with all that was going on was highly useful; it awakened and excited mental exertion, and braced the young people to exercise independence of thought. Mr. Edgeworth made no empty boast when he wrote to Mr. Darwin:—
“I do not think one tear per month is shed in this house, nor the voice of reproof heard, nor the hand of restraint felt.”
How primitive was the state of Ireland in those days can be gathered from the fact that, except bread and meat, all articles of food and household requirement were to be had only in Dublin, and not always even there. Neither was there much congenial society. The Edgeworths had no liking for the country gentlemen who spent their lives in shooting, hunting and carousing — booby squires who did not even know that their position put duties upon them. Formal dinners and long sittings, with the smallest of small talk, were the order of the day and night. They were, however, fortunate in finding in this social wilderness some few persons really worth knowing, chief among whom were the families resident at Pakenham Hall and Castle Forbes. The former house, the residence of Lord Longford, was only twelve miles distant, but it was separated from Edgeworthstown by a vast bog, a bad road, an awkward ferry and an ugly country. Nevertheless, these obstacles were braved, and at Pakenham Hall Maria met many people of literary and political distinction. At Castle Forbes, some nine miles distant, by a more practicable road, there was also to be met society varied and agreeable, more especially so when Lady Granard’s mother, Lady Moira, was in the country. Lady Moira was a woman of noble character, much conversational talent and general knowledge. As daughter to the Countess of Huntingdon she had seen much strange society, and had been in the very midst of the evangelical revival. Besides this she was a person of great influence in Ireland. Her house in Dublin was the resort of the wise and witty of the day, hence she was able to initiate Maria into a new and larger world, to expand her ideas, and to increase her insight into character. It was indeed fortunate for Miss Edgeworth that this old lady took a special fancy to her. She was in those days very reserved in manner and little inclined to converse — a contrast to after years, when her conversation delighted all listeners. It was, perhaps, partly weak health that made her silent, but probably yet more the consciousness of great powers which were under-rated or misunderstood by her youthful contemporaries. She had no frivolous small society talk to offer them. Lady Moira, however, recognized the capacity of this timid, plain, inoffensive young girl. She talked to her, drew her out, plied her with anecdotes of her own experiences in life, and gave her the benefit of her riper wisdom.
Thus Miss Edgeworth early lived with and learnt to understand the fashionable society of which she wrote so much. It is always fortunate for a novelist to be born, as she was, amid the advantages of refinement and breeding, without being elevated out of reach of the interests and pleasures which dwell in the middle ranks. For want of this, many, even amongst the most eminent writers of fiction, have suffered shipwreck.
While thus reserved in society, Maria relaxed with her father. She knew he appreciated her powers, and his approbation was sufficient at all times to satisfy her. One of her pleasures was to ride out with him — not that she was a good horsewoman, for she was constitutionally timid, but because it afforded her the opportunity of uninterrupted exchange of talk. It was on these rides that most of their writings were planned.
In the autumn of their return to Ireland (1782) Miss Edgeworth began, at her father’s suggestion, to translate Madame de Genlis’ Adèle et Théodore. It was her first work intended for publication. The appearance of Holcroft’s translation prevented its execution, but neither she nor her father regarded the time bestowed on it as misspent; it gave her that readiness and choice of words which translation teaches. Mr. Day, who had a horror of female authorship, remonstrated with Mr. Edgeworth for having ever allowed his daughter to translate, and when he heard that the publication was prevented, wrote a congratulatory letter on the event. It was from the recollection of the arguments he used, and from her father’s replies, that five years afterwards Miss Edgeworth wrote her Letters to Literary Ladies, though they were not published till after the death of Mr. Day. Indeed, it is possible that had he lived Maria Edgeworth would have remained unknown to fame, so great was her father’s deference to his judgment, though sensible that there was much prejudice mixed with his reasons. “Yet,” adds Miss Edgeworth, “though publication was out of our thoughts, as subjects occurred, many essays and tales were written for private amusement.”
The first stories she wrote were some of those now in the Parent’s Assistant and Early Lessons. She wrote them on a slate, read them out to her sisters and brothers, and, if they approved, copied them. Thus they were at once put to the test of childish criticism; and it is this, and living all her life among children, that has made Miss Edgeworth’s children’s stories so inimitable. She understood children, knew them, sympathized with them. Her father’s large and ever-increasing family, in which there were children of all ages, gave her a wide and varied audience of youthful critics, among the severest in the world. Many of her longer tales and novels were also written or planned during these years. Her father had, however, imbued her with the Horatian maxim, novumque prematur in annum, so that many things lay by for years to be considered by her and her father, recorrected, revised, with the result that nothing was ever given to the world but the best she could produce.
Thus, contented, busy, useful, the even course of her girlhood flowed on and merged into early womanhood, with no more exciting breaks than the arrival of a box of new books from London, an occasional visit to her neighbors, or, best of all, to Black Castle, a few hours’ drive from Edgeworthstown, where lived her father’s favorite sister, Mrs. Ruxton, her aunt and life-long friend. For forty-two years aunt and niece carried on an uninterrupted correspondence, while their meetings were sources of never-failing delight.
In 1789 the sudden death of Mr. Day deprived Mr. Edgeworth of a valued friend. This man, who, for a person not actually insane, was certainly one of the oddest that ever walked this earth, with his mixture of mauvaise honte and savage pride, misanthropy and philanthropy, had exercised a great influence on both their lives. They felt his loss keenly. Another sorrow quickly followed. Honora, the only daughter of Mrs. Honora Edgeworth, a girl of fifteen, endowed with beauty and talents, fell a victim to the family disease. The next year Lovell, the now only surviving child of Honora, also showed signs of consumption. It became needful to remove him from Ireland, and Mr. and Mrs. Edgeworth therefore crossed to England, leaving Maria in charge of the other children. A house was taken at Clifton, and here Miss Edgeworth and her charges rejoined their parents. The conveying so large a party so long a journey in those days was no small undertaking for a young woman of twenty-four. The responsibility was terrible to her, though she afterwards dwelt only on the comic side. At one of the inns where they slept, the landlady’s patience was so much tried by the number of little people getting out of the carriage and the quantity of luggage, that she exclaimed: “Haven’t you brought the kitchen grate too?”
At Clifton the Edgeworths resided for two years. Miss Edgeworth writes to her Uncle Ruxton:—
We live just the same kind of life that we used to do at Edgeworthstown, and though we move amongst numbers, are not moved by them, but feel independent of them for our daily amusement. All the phantasmas I had conjured up to frighten myself vanished after I had been here a week, for I found that they were but phantoms of my imagination, as you very truly told me. We live very near the Downs, where we have almost every day charming walks, and all the children go bounding about over hill and dale along with us.
In a later letter she says that they are not quite as happy here as at home, but have a great choice of books which they enjoy. While at Clifton the eldest son visited them. His Rousseau education had turned him out an ungovernable child of nature; he neither could nor would learn, so there remained no alternative but to allow him to follow his inclinations, which happily led him towards nothing more mischievous than a sailor’s life. At Clifton, too, they became acquainted with Dr. Beddoes, who soon after married Maria’s sister Anna, and became the father of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, the poet of Death. A baby child also died within those two years, which thus embraced meetings, partings, courtships, much pleasant social intercourse, and much serious study. For Maria it also included a visit to an old school-fellow in London:—
She was exceeding kind to me, and I spent most of my time with her as I liked. I say most, because a good deal of it was spent in company, where I heard of nothing but chariots and horses, and curricles and tandems. Oh, to what contempt I exposed myself in a luckless hour, by asking what a tandem was! Since I have been away from home I have missed the society and fondness of my father, mother and sisters, more than I can express, and more than beforehand I could have thought possible; I long to see them all again. Even when I am most amused I feel a void, and now I understand what an aching void is perfectly well.
A letter written from Clifton is a charming specimen of Miss Edgeworth’s easy, warm-hearted family missives, which, like most family letters, contain little of intrinsic value, and yet throw much light upon the nature of their writer:—
CLIFTON, Dec. 13, 1792.
The day of retribution is at hand, my dear aunt. The month of May will soon come, and then when we meet face to face, and voucher to voucher, it shall be truly seen whose letter-writing account stands fullest and fairest in the world. Till then “we’ll leave it all to your honor’s honor.” But why does my dear aunt write, “I can have but little more time to spend with my brother in my life,” as if she was an old woman of one hundred and ninety-nine and upwards? I remember the day I left Black Castle you told me, if you recollect, that “you had one foot in the grave;” and though I saw you standing before me in perfect health, sound wind and limb, I had the weakness to feel frightened, and never to think of examining where your feet really were. But in the month of May we hope to find them safe in your shoes, and I hope that the sun will then shine out, and that all the black clouds in the political horizon will be dispersed, and that “freemen” will, by that time, eat their puddings and hold their tongues. Anna and I stayed one week with Mrs. Powys, at Bath, and were very thoroughly occupied all the time with seeing and — I won’t say with being seen; for though we were at three balls, I do not believe any one saw us. The upper rooms we thought very splendid and the play-houses pretty, but not so good as the theatre at Bristol. We walked all over Bath with my father, and liked it extremely: he showed us the house where he was born.
The day of retribution was indeed nearer at hand than she anticipated. In the autumn of 1793 the news of Irish disturbances grew so alarming that Mr. Edgeworth thought it his duty to return immediately. The caravan was therefore once more transported to Edgeworthstown.
2 Miss Edgeworth, in her father’s Life, states that she was but twelve years old when she returned to Ireland. The date she gives, however, and that afterwards given by her stepmother, show that she must have been sixteen when the removal took place. It can, therefore, have been a mere lapsus calami on her part, as this eminently sensible woman was incapable of the silly weakness of concealing her age.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08