The peace, or rather the truce, of Amiens had induced many travellers to visit France. They all returned enraptured with what they had seen of society in Paris, and with the masterpieces of art dragged thither, as the spoils of military despotism. Letters from some of these tourists awakened in Mr. Edgeworth a wish to revisit France. The desire took shape as resolve after the visit to Edgeworthstown of M. Pictet, of Geneva, who promised the family letters of introduction to, and a cordial welcome among, the thinkers of the land. As translator of Practical Education, and as the editor of the Bibliothéque Britannique,5 in which he had published most of Miss Edgeworth’s Moral Tales, and detailed criticisms of both father and daughter, he had certainly prepared the way for their favorable reception. The tour was therefore arranged for the autumn of 1802, a roomy coach was purchased, and in September Mr., Mrs., Miss and Miss Charlotte Edgeworth started for their continental trip.
The series of letters Miss Edgeworth wrote home during this time are most entertaining, unaffected, sprightly and graphic. She often sketches a character, a national peculiarity, with a touch, while on the other hand she does not shirk detail if only she can succeed in presenting a vivid picture of all she is beholding to those dear ones at home who are debarred from the same enjoyment. Carnarvon, Bangor, Etruria and Leicester were visited on the way out. At Leicester Miss Edgeworth had an amusing adventure:—
Handsome town, good shops. Walked, whilst dinner was getting ready, to a circulating library. My father asked for Belinda, Bulls, etc.: found they were in good repute; Castle Rackrent in better — the others often borrowed, but Castle Rackrent often bought. The bookseller, an open-hearted man, begged us to look at a book of poems just published by a Leicester lady, a Miss Watts. I recollected to have seen some years ago a specimen of this lady’s proposed translation of Tasso, which my father had highly admired. He told the bookseller that we would pay our respects to Miss Watts if it would be agreeable to her. When we had dined we set out with our enthusiastic bookseller. We were shown by the light of a lantern along a very narrow passage between high walls, to the door of a decent-looking house: a maid-servant, candle in hand, received us. “Be pleased, ladies, to walk up stairs.” A neatish room, nothing extraordinary in it except the inhabitants: Mrs. Watts, a tall, black-eyed, prim, dragon-looking woman, in the background; Miss Watts, a tall young lady in white, fresh color, fair, thin, oval face, rather pretty. The moment Mrs. Edgeworth entered, Miss Watts, taking her for the authoress, darted forward with arms, long thin arms, outstretched to their, utmost swing. “Oh, what an honor this is!” each word and syllable rising in tone till the last reached a scream. Instead of embracing my mother, as her first action threatened, she started back to the farthest end of the room, which was not light enough to show her attitude distinctly, but it seemed to be intended to express the receding of awestruck admiration — stopped by the wall. Charlotte and I passed by unnoticed, and seated ourselves, by the old lady’s desire; she, after many twistings of her wrists, elbows and neck, all of which appeared to be dislocated, fixed herself in her arm-chair, resting her hands on the black mahogany splayed elbows. Her person was no sooner at rest than her eyes and all her features began to move in all directions. She looked like a nervous and suspicious person electrified. She seemed to be the acting partner in this house, to watch over her treasure of a daughter, to supply her with wordly wisdom, to look upon her as a phoenix, and — scold her.
Miss Watts was all ecstasy and lifting up of hands and eyes, speaking always in that loud, shrill, theatrical tone with which a puppet-master supplies his puppets. I all the time sat like a mouse. My father asked, “Which of those ladies, madam, do you think is your sister-authoress?” “I am no physiognomist”— in a screech —“but I do imagine that to be the lady,” bowing, as she sat, almost to the ground, and pointing to Mrs. Edgeworth. “No; guess again.” “Then that must be she,” bowing to Charlotte. “No.” “Then this lady,” looking forward to see what sort of an animal I was, for she had never seen me till this instant. To make me some amends, she now drew her chair close to me and began to pour forth praises: “Lady Delacour, oh! Letters for Literary Ladies, oh!”
Now for the pathetic part. This poor girl sold a novel in four volumes for ten guineas to Lane. My father is afraid, though she has considerable talents, to recommend her to Johnson, lest she should not answer! Poor girl! what a pity she had no friend to direct her talents! How much she made me feel the value of mine!
After a trip through the Low Countries, the travellers entered France and received many civilities in all the towns they passed through, thanks to the fact that the Bibliothéque Britannique was taken in every public library. At Paris the Edgeworths were admitted into the best society of the period, which consisted of the remains of the French nobility, and of men of letters and science. The old Abbé Morellet, “respected as one of the most reasonable of all the wits of France,” the doyen of French literature, was a previous acquaintance. By his introductions and those of M. Pictet, added to the prestige of their own names and their relationship to the Abbé Edgeworth, the most exclusive houses were opened to the family, and they thus became acquainted with every one worth knowing, among whom were La Harpe, Madame de Genlis, Kosciusko, Madame Récamier, the Comte de Ségur, Dumont, Suard, Camille Jordan. In all circles the subject of politics was carefully avoided; the company held themselves aloof, and wilfully ignored the important issues that were surging around them; their conversation turned chiefly on new plays, novels and critical essays. As is usual in such small circles with limited interests, a good deal of mutual admiration was practiced, and the Edgeworths received their due share.
At the Abbé Morellet’s Miss Edgeworth met Madame d’Oudinot, Rousseau’s “Julie.” This is her impression:—
Julie is now seventy-two years of age, a thin woman in a little black bonnet; she appeared to me shockingly ugly; she squints so much that it is impossible to tell which way she is looking; but no sooner did I hear her speak than I began to like her, and no sooner was I seated beside her than I began to find in her countenance a most benevolent and agreeable expression. She entered into conversation immediately; her manner invited and could not fail to obtain confidence. She seems as gay and open-hearted as a girl of fifteen. It has been said of her that she not only never did any harm, but never suspected any. She is possessed of that art which Lord Kaimes said he would prefer to the finest gift from the queen of the fairies: the art of seizing the best side of every object. She has had great misfortunes, but she has still retained the power of making herself and her friends happy. Even during the horrors of the Revolution, if she met with a flower, a butterfly, an agreeable smell, a pretty color, she would turn her attention to these, and for a moment suspend the sense of misery — not from frivolity, but from real philosophy. No one has exerted themselves with more energy in the service of her friends. I felt in her company the delightful influence of a cheerful temper and soft, attractive manners — enthusiasm which age cannot extinguish, and which spends, but does not waste itself on small but not trifling objects. I wish I could at seventy-two be such a woman! She told me that Rousseau, whilst he was writing so finely on education, and leaving his own children in the Foundling Hospital, defended himself with so much eloquence that even those who blamed him in their hearts could not find tongues to answer him. Once at dinner at Madame d’Oudinot’s there was a fine pyramid of fruit. Rousseau in helping himself took the peach which formed the base of the pyramid, and the rest fell immediately. “Rousseau,” said she, “that is what you always do with all our systems; you pull down with a single touch; but who will build up what you pull down?” I asked if he was grateful for all the kindness shown to him. “No, he was ungrateful; he had a thousand bad qualities, but I turned my attention from them to his genius and the good he had done mankind.”
La Harpe was visited in his own home:—
He lives in a wretched house, and we went up dirty stairs, through dirty passages, where I wondered how fine ladies’ trains and noses could go; and were received in a dark, small den by the philosopher, or rather dévot, for he spurns the name of philosopher. He was in a dirty, reddish night-gown, and very dirty night-cap bound round the forehead with a superlatively dirty, chocolate-colored ribbon. Madame Récamier, the beautiful, the elegant, robed in white satin, trimmed with white fur, seated herself on the elbow of his arm-chair, and besought him to repeat his verses. Charlotte has drawn a picture of this scene.
An interesting visit was also paid to Madame de Genlis:—
She had previously written to say she would be glad to be personally acquainted with Mr. and Miss Edgeworth. She lives — where do you think? — where Sully used to live, at the Arsenal. Bonaparte has given her apartments there. Now, I do not know what you imagine in reading Sully’s memoirs, but I always imagined that the Arsenal was one large building with a façade to it, like a very large hotel or a palace, and I fancied it was somewhere in the middle of Paris. On the contrary, it is quite in the suburbs. We drove on and on, and at last we came to a heavy archway, like what you see at the entrance to a fortified town. We drove under it for the length of three or four yards in total darkness, and then we found ourselves, as well as we could see by the light of some dim lamps, in a large square court surrounded by buildings: here we thought we were to alight. No such thing: the coachman drove under another thick archway, lighted at the entrance by a single lamp. We found ourselves in another court, and still we went on, archway after archway, court after court, in all which reigned desolate silence. I thought the archways and the courts and the desolate silence would never end. At last the coachman stopped, and asked for the tenth time where the lady lived. It is excessively difficult to find people in Paris; we thought the names of Madame de Genlis and the Arsenal would have been sufficient; but the whole of this congregation of courts and gateways and houses is called the Arsenal; and hundreds and hundreds of people inhabit it who are probably perfect strangers to Madame de Genlis. At the doors where our coachman inquired, some answered that they knew nothing of her; some that she lived in the Faubourg St. Germain; others believed that she might be at Passy; others had heard that she had apartments given to her by the Government somewhere in the Arsenal, but could not tell where. While the coachman thus begged his way, we, anxiously looking out at him from the middle of the great square where we were left, listened for the answers that were given, and which often from the distance escaped our ears. At last a door pretty near to us opened, and our coachman’s head and hat were illuminated by the candle held by the person who opened the door; and as the two figures parted from each other, we could distinctly see the expression of the countenances and their lips move. The result of this parley was successful; we were directed to the house where Madame de Genlis lived, and thought all difficulties ended. No such thing; her apartments were still to be sought for. We saw before us a large, crooked, ruinous stone staircase, lighted by a single bit of candle hanging in a vile tin lantern, in an angle of the bare wall at the turn of the staircase — only just light enough to see that the walls were bare and old, and the stairs immoderately dirty. There were no signs of the place being inhabited except this lamp, which could not have been lighted without hands. I stood still in melancholy astonishment, while my father groped his way into a kind of porter’s lodge or den at the foot of the stairs, where he found a man who was porter to various people who inhabited this house. You know the Parisian houses are inhabited by hordes of different people, and the stairs are in fact streets, and dirty streets, to their dwellings. The porter, who was neither obliging nor intelligent, carelessly said that “Madame de Genlis logeait au seconde à gauche, qu’il faudrait tirer sa sonnette”— he believed she was at home if she was not gone out. Up we went by ourselves, for this porter, though we were strangers and pleaded that we were so, never offered to stir a step to guide or to light us. When we got to the second stage, we finally saw, by the light from the one candle at the first landing-place, two dirty, large folding doors, one set on the right and one on the left, and having on each a bell no larger than what you see in the small parlor of a small English inn. My father pulled one bell and waited some minutes — no answer; pulled the other bell and waited — no answer; thumped at the left door — no answer; pushed and pulled at it — could not open it; pushed open one of the right-hand folding doors — utter darkness; went in as well as we could feel — there was no furniture. After we had been there a few seconds we could discern the bare walls and some strange lumber in one corner. The room was a prodigious height, like an old play-house, and we went down again to the stupid or surly porter. He came up stairs very unwillingly, and pointed to a deep recess between the stairs and the folding doors: “Allez! voilà la porte; tirez la sonnette.” He and his candle went down, and my father had just time to seize the handle of the bell, when we were again in darkness. After ringing this feeble bell, we presently heard doors open and little footsteps approaching nigh. The door was opened by a girl of about Honora’s size, holding an ill-set-up, wavering candle in her hand, the light of which fell full upon her face and figure. Her face was remarkably intelligent, dark, sparkling eyes, dark hair, curled in the most fashionable long corkscrew ringlets over her eyes and cheeks. She parted the ringlets to take a full view of us, and we were equally impatient to take a full view of her. The dress of her figure by no means suited the head and the elegance of her attitude. What her “nether weeds” might be we could not distinctly see, but they seemed to be a coarse, short petticoat, like what Molly Bristow’s children would wear, not on Sundays; a woolen gray spencer above, pinned with a single pin by the lapels tight across the neck under the chin, and open all below. After surveying us and hearing that our name was Edgeworth, she smiled graciously and bid us follow her, saying, “Maman est chez elle.” She led the way with the grace of a young lady who has been taught to dance, across two ante-chambers, miserable-looking, but miserable or not, no house in Paris can be without them. The girl or young lady, for we were still in doubt which to think her, led us into a small room, in which the candles were so well screened by a green tin screen that we could scarcely distinguish the tall form of a lady in black who rose from her arm-chair by the fireside as the door opened; a great puff of smoke came from the huge fireplace at the same moment. She came forward, and we made our way towards her as well as we could through a confusion of tables, chairs and work-baskets, china, writing-desks and inkstands, and bird-cages and a harp. She did not speak, and as her back was now turned to both fire and candle I could not see her face, nor anything but the outline of her form and her attitude. Her form was the remains of a fine form, and her attitude that of a woman used to a better drawing-room. I, being foremost, and she silent, was compelled to speak to the figure in darkness: “Madame de Genlis nous a fait l’honneur de nous mander qu’elle voulait bien nous permettre de lui rendre visite, et de lui offrir nos respects,” said I, or words to that effect; to which she replied by taking my hand, and saying something in which “charmée” was the most intelligible word. Whilst she spoke she looked over my shoulder at my father, whose bow, I presume, told her he was a gentleman, for she spoke to him immediately as if she wished to please, and seated us in fauteuils near the fire. I then had a full view of her face and figure. She looked like the full-length picture of my great-grandmother Edgeworth you may have seen in the garret, very thin and melancholy, but her face not so handsome as my grandmother’s; dark eyes, long sallow cheeks, compressed thin lips, two or three black ringlets on a high forehead, a cap that Mrs. Grier might wear — altogether an appearance of fallen fortunes, worn-out health, and excessive but guarded irritability. To me there was nothing of that engaging, captivating manner which I had been taught to expect by many even of her enemies. She seemed to me to be alive only to literary quarrels and jealousies; the muscles of her face as she spoke, or my father spoke to her, quickly and too easily expressed hatred and anger whenever any not of her own party were mentioned. She is now, you know, dévote acharnée. When I mentioned with some enthusiasm the good Abbé Morellet, who has written so courageously in favor of the French exiled nobility and their children, she answered in a sharp voice: “Oui, c’est un homme de beaucoup d’esprit, à ce qu’on je crois même, mais il faut apprendre qu’il n’est pas des Nôtres.” My father spoke of Pamela, Lady Edward Fitzgerald, and explained how he had defended her in the Irish House of Commons. Instead of being pleased and touched, her mind instantly diverged into an elaborate and artificial exculpation of Lady Edward and herself, proving, or attempting to prove, that she never knew any of her husband’s plans; that she utterly disapproved of them, at least of all she suspected of them.
This defense was quite lost upon us, who never thought of attacking; but Madame de Genlis seems to have been so much used to be attacked that she has defenses and apologies ready prepared, suited to all possible occasions. She spoke of Madame de Staël’s Delphine with detestation; of another new and fashionable novel, Amélie, with abhorrence, and kissed my forehead twice because I had not read it; “Vous autres Anglaises, vous êtes modestes!” Where was Madame de Genlis’ sense of delicacy when she penned and published Les Chevaliers du Cigne? Forgive, my dear Aunt Mary. You begged me to see her with favorable eyes, and I went to see her after seeing her Rosière de Salency, with the most favorable disposition, but I could not like her. There was something of malignity in her countenance and conversation that repelled love, and of hypocrisy which annihilated esteem; and from time to time I saw, or thought I saw, through the gloom of her countenance, a gleam of coquetry.6 But my father judges much more favorably of her than I do. She evidently took pains to please him, and he says he is sure she is a person over whose mind he could gain great ascendancy. He thinks her a woman of violent passions, unbridled imagination and ill-tempered, but not malevolent; one who has been so torn to pieces that she now turns upon her enemies, and longs to tear in her turn. He says she has certainly great powers of pleasing, though I certainly neither saw nor felt them. But you know, my dear aunt, that I am not famous for judging sanely of strangers on a first visit, and I might be prejudiced or mortified by Madame de Genlis assuring me that she had never read anything of mine except Belinda, had heard of Practical Education, and heard it much praised, but had never seen it. She has just published an additional volume of her Petits Romans, in which there are some beautiful stories; but you must not expect another Mademoiselle de Clermont— one such story in an age is as much as one can reasonably expect.
I had almost forgotten to tell you that the little girl who showed us in is a girl whom she is educating. “Elle m’appelle Maman, mais elle n’est pas ma fille.” The manner in which this little girl spoke to Madame de Genlis, and looked at her, appeared to me more in her favor than anything else. She certainly spoke to her with freedom and fondness, and without any affectation. I went to look at what the child was writing. She was translating Darwin’s Zoonomia. I read some of the translation; it was excellent. She was, I think she said, ten years old. It is certain that Madame de Genlis made the present Duke of Orleans7 such an excellent mathematician, that when he was, during his emigration, in distress for bread, he taught mathematics as a professor in one of the German universities. If we could see or converse with one of her pupils, and hear what they think of her, we should be able to form a better judgment than from all that her books and her enemies say for or against her. I say her books, not her friends and enemies, for I fear she has no friends to plead for her except her books. I never met any one of any party who was her friend. This strikes me with real melancholy, to see a woman of the first talents in Europe, who had lived and shone in the gay court of the gayest nation in the world, now deserted and forlorn, living in wretched lodgings, with some of the pictures and finery — the wreck of her fortunes — before her eyes; without society, without a single friend, admired — and despised. She lived literally in spite, not in pity. Her cruelty in drawing a profligate character of the queen, after her execution, in Les Chevaliers du Cigne; her taking her pupils at the beginning of the Revolution to the revolutionary clubs; her connection with the late Duke of Orleans, and her hypocrisy about it; her insisting on being governess to his children when the duchess did not wish it, and its being supposed that it was she who instigated the duke in all his horrible conduct; and, more than all the rest, her own attacks and apologies, have brought her into all this isolated state of reprobation. And now, my dear aunt, I have told you all I know, or have heard or think about her; and perhaps I have tired you, but I fancied that it was a subject particularly interesting to you; and if I have been mistaken you will, with your usual good nature, forgive me and say, “I am sure Maria meant it kindly.”
While at Paris, at the mature age of thirty-six, there happened to Miss Edgeworth what is said to be the most important episode in a woman’s life — she fell in love. The object of her affections was a M. Edelcrantz, a Swede, private secretary to the King, whose strong, spirited character and able conversation attracted her greatly. She had not, however, reasoned concerning her feelings, and never realized either how strong they were, or dreamed that they would be reciprocated. Knowing herself to be plain and, as she deemed, unattractive, and being no longer young, it did not occur to her that any man would wish to marry her. While writing a long, chatty letter to her aunt one day in December, she was suddenly interrupted by his visit and proposal:—
Here, my dear aunt, I was interrupted in a manner that will surprise you as much as it surprised me, by the coming in of Monsieur Edelcrantz, a Swedish gentleman, whom we have mentioned to you, of superior understanding and mild manners; he came to offer me his hand and heart!!
My heart, you may suppose, cannot return his attachment, for I have seen very little of him, and have not had time to form any judgment, except that I think nothing could tempt me to leave my own dear friends and my own country to live in Sweden. My dearest aunt, I write to you the first moment, as, next to my father and mother, no person in the world feels so much interest in all that concerns me. I need not tell you that my father,
“Such in this moment as in all the past,”
is kindness itself — kindness far superior to what I deserve, but I am grateful for it.
A few days later she writes to her cousin:—
I take it for granted, my dear friend, that you have by this time seen a letter I wrote a few days ago to my aunt. To you, as to her, every thought of my mind is open. I persist in refusing to leave my country and friends to live at the court of Stockholm. And he tells me (of course) that there is nothing he would not sacrifice for me except his duty; he has been all his life in the service of the King of Sweden, has places under him, and is actually employed in collecting information for a large political establishment. He thinks himself bound in honor to finish what he has begun. He says he should not fear the ridicule or blame that would be thrown upon him by his countrymen for quitting his country at his age, but that he would despise himself if he abandoned his duty for any passion. This is all very reasonable, but reasonable for him only, not for me, and I have never felt anything for him but esteem and gratitude.
Mrs. Edgeworth supplements these letters in the unpublished memoir of her stepdaughter, which she wrote for her family and nearest friends. She says:—
Even after her return to Edgeworthstown it was long before Maria recovered the elasticity of her mind. She exerted all her powers of self-command, and turned her attention to everything which her father suggested for her to write. But Leonora, which she began immediately after our return home, was written with the hope of pleasing the Chevalier Edelcrantz; it was written in a style which he liked, and the idea of what he would think of it was, I believe, present to her in every page she wrote. She never heard that he had even read it. From the time they parted at Paris there was no sort of communication between them; and beyond the chance which brought us sometimes into company with travellers who had been in Sweden, or the casual mention of M. Edelcrantz in the newspapers or the scientific journals, we never heard more of one who had been of such supreme interest to her, as to us all at Paris, and of whom Maria continued to have all her life the most romantic recollection.
Miss Edgeworth’s self-control was manifested at once. In none of her other letters does the matter recur; they are as chatty and lively as ever; but the incident throws much light both upon her character and the precepts of repression of feelings she loved to inculcate. She had not merely preached, but practiced them.
In January, 1803, Mr. Edgeworth suddenly received a peremptory order from the French Government to quit Paris in twenty-four hours and France in fifteen days. Much amazed, he went to Passy, taking Miss Edgeworth with him, and quietly awaited the solution of the riddle. It proved that Bonaparte believed him to be brother to the Abbé Edgeworth, the devoted friend of Louis XVI., and not till it was explained to him that the relationship was more distant was Mr. Edgeworth allowed to return. The cause for the order, as for its withdrawal, was petty. The Edgeworths’ visit was, however, after all, brought to an abrupt conclusion. Rumors of imminent hostilities began to be heard, and though the reports circulated were most contradictory, Mr. Edgeworth thought it wise to be ready for departure. It was decided that M. Le Breton, who was well informed about Bonaparte’s plans, should, at a certain evening party, give Mr. Edgeworth a hint, and, as he dared neither speak nor write, he was suddenly to put on his hat if war were probable. The hat was put on, and Mr. Edgeworth and his family hurried away from Paris. They were but just in time. Mr. Lovell Edgeworth, who was on his way from Geneva, and never received his father’s warning letter, was stopped on his journey, made prisoner, and remained among the détenus till 1814.
After a short stay in London the family went to Edinburgh to visit Henry Edgeworth, who had shown signs of the family malady. Here they spent an agreeable time, seeing the many men of learning who in those days made Edinburgh a delightful residence. Warm friendships were formed with the Alisons, the Dugald Stewarts, and Professor Playfair.
Returned to Edgeworthstown, Miss Edgeworth set to work industriously to prepare for the press her Popular Tales, and write Leonora and several of the Tales of Fashionable Life. She exerted all her powers of self-command to throw her energy into her writing, and to follow up every suggestion made by her father; but it was clear to those who observed her closely that she had not forgotten the man of whom, all her life, she retained a tender memory. It was long before she thoroughly recovered her elasticity of spirits, and the mental struggle did not pass over without leaving its mark. Early in 1805 Miss Edgeworth fell seriously ill with a low, nervous fever; it was some while before she could leave her room, read, or even speak. As she got better she liked to be read to, though scarcely able to express her thanks. The first day she was really convalescent was destined to mark an era in her life. While she was lying on the library sofa her sister Charlotte read out to her The Lay of the Last Minstrel, then just published. It was the beginning of Miss Edgeworth’s enthusiastic admiration of Scott, which resulted in a warm friendship between the two authors.
From the time of the Edgeworths’ return Ireland had been agitated with the fears of a French invasion, and Mr. Edgeworth once more exerted himself to establish telegraphic communication across the country. As usual, his family joined him in his pursuits, and Miss Edgeworth, with the rest, was kept employed in copying out the vocabularies used in conversations. The year 1804 was almost engrossed by this. Nevertheless she found time to write Griselda at odd moments in her own room. Her father knew nothing either of the plan of the book or of its execution, and she sent it on her own account to her publisher, Johnson, with the request to print the title-page of a single copy without her name, and to send it over to Mr. Edgeworth as a new novel just come out. Miss Sneyd, who was in the secret, led him to peruse it quickly. He read it with surprise and admiration, and feeling convinced that Miss Edgeworth had not had the actual time to write it, and yet seeing it was like her style, he fancied his daughter Anna (Mrs. Beddoes) must have written it to please him. When at last he was told that it was by his favorite daughter, he was amused at the trick, and delighted at having admired the book without knowing its author. This was one of the many little ways in which the Edgeworths loved to please one another. A happier, more united household it would be hard to find among circumstances fraught with elements of domestic discord — the children and relatives of four wives, of the most diverse characters and tastes, living peaceably under one roof. Vitality, unwearying activity free from restlessness, distinguished most of its members, and especially the father and eldest daughter. Nor was there anything prim or starched in the home atmosphere; though ethically severe and maintained at a high level of thought, gaiety, laughter and all the lighter domestic graces prevailed. Miss Edgeworth’s letters reflect a cheerful, united home of the kind she loves to paint. Like many united families, the Edgeworths were strong in a belief in their own relations; they had the clan feeling well developed. Not a member went forth from the paternal nest but was held in constant remembrance, in constant intercourse with home, and it was usually Miss Edgeworth’s ready pen that kept the link well knit. Hence the large number of her family letters extant, many of which have no separate interest for the world, but which, taken as a whole, reflect both her own unselfish personality and the busy life of young and old around her. In her letters she never dwells on troubles; they overflow with spirits, life and hope. As they are apt to be long and diffuse, it is not easy to quote from them; but every one presents a nature that beat in unison with all that is noble and good. She was alive to everything around her, full of generous sympathies, enthusiastic in her admiration of all that had been achieved by others. Her praises came fresh and warm from a warm and eloquent Irish heart. That these utterances are toned down and tamed in her books, is yet another proof how the need to illustrate her father’s ulterior aims cramped her in the expression of her feelings. His mind, though she knew it not, was inferior to hers, and though it was in some respects like her own, it yet hung heavy on the wings of her fancy. In later life she wrote more letters to acquaintances than at this time. In these years she says to a friend who upbraided her for not writing oftener:—
I do not carry on what is called a regular correspondence with anybody except with one or two of my very nearest relations. And it is best to tell you the plain truth, that my father particularly dislikes to see me writing letters; therefore I write as few as I possibly can.
Of herself she speaks least of all, of her writings seldom, and when she does, but incidentally. Without certainly intending it, she painted herself when she writes of Mrs. Emma Granby (“the modern Griselda”):—
All her thoughts were intent upon making her friends happy. She seemed to live in them more than in herself, and from sympathy rose the greatest pleasure and pain of her existence. Her sympathy was not of that useless kind which is called forth only by the elegant fictitious sorrows of a heroine of romance; hers was ready for all the occasions of real life; nor was it to be easily checked by the imperfections of those to whom she could be of service.
It is one of the most delightful features in Miss Edgeworth, that in her the dignity of the author is sustained by the moral worth of the individual — a combination unhappily not common.
Visits to and from neighbors or friends, more or less eminent, visits from nephews and nieces, letters from all quarters of the globe, prevented the life at Edgeworthstown from ever becoming stagnant, even if a home so full of young people could be devoid of life. Then, too, though the Edgeworths kept themselves aloof from politics, the course of public affairs did not always hold aloof from them, and at various times the disturbed state of Ireland caused them discomfort and fears. Sorrows and sickness, too, did not refrain from entering that happy home. There were the usual juvenile illnesses, there were births, there were sicknesses among the elder branches. In 1807 Charlotte, the darling of the family, died after much suffering, a victim to hereditary consumption. In 1809 Mr. Edgeworth himself was seriously ill, and Henry’s health, too, became so precarious that it was needful to send him to Madeira. For a long time it seemed likely that Miss Edgeworth would go out to nurse him, but the project fell to the ground; and a few years later this brother, her especial nursling, also died of pulmonary disease.
The sorrow for Charlotte’s death cast a cloud over all the year 1807. During its course Miss Edgeworth’s greatest pleasure was the planting of a new garden her father had laid out for her near her own room, that had been enlarged and altered, together with some alterations to the main building. She was at all times an enthusiastic gardener, finding pleasure and health in the pursuit. “My garden adds very much to my happiness, especially as Honora and all the children have shares in it.” Then, too, Miss Edgeworth was kept constantly employed attending to the affairs of the tenants; no rapid, easy or routine task in Ireland. Thus she writes on one occasion:—
This being May day, one of the wettest I have ever seen, I have been regaled, not with garlands of May flowers, but with the legal pleasures of the season. I have heard nothing but giving notices to quit, taking possession, ejectments, flittings, etc. What do you think of a tenant who took one of the nice new houses in this town, and left it with every lock torn off the doors, and with a large stone, such as John Langan8 could not lift, driven actually through the boarded floor of the parlor? The brute, however, is rich; and if he does not die of whiskey before the law can get its hand into his pocket, he will pay for this waste.
No wonder she once sighs, “I wish I had time to write some more Early Lessons, or to do half the things I wish to do.” With the calls on her time, domestic, philanthropic and social, it is only amazing that she wrote so much. Her method of working is described by herself in some detail. From its very nature it could not fail to induce a certain stiffness and over-anxious finish. She says:—
Whenever I thought of writing anything I always told my father my first rough plans; and always, with the instinct of a good critic, he used to fix immediately upon that which would best answer the purpose. “Sketch that, and show it to me.” The words, from the experience of his sagacity, never failed to inspire me with hope of success. It was then sketched. Sometimes, when I was fond of a particular part, I used to dilate on it in the sketch; but to this he always objected. “I don’t want any of your painting — none of your drapery! I can imagine all that. Let me see the bare skeleton.”
It seemed to me sometimes impossible that he could understand the very slight sketches I made; when, before I was conscious that I had expressed this doubt in my countenance, he always saw it.
“Now, my dear little daughter, I know, does not believe that I understand her.” Then he would, in his own words, fill up my sketch, paint the description, or represent the character intended, with such life, that I was quite convinced he not only seized the ideas, but that he saw with the prophetic eye of taste the utmost that could be made of them. After a sketch had his approbation, he would not see the filling up till it had been worked upon for a week or fortnight, or till the first thirty or forty pages were written; then they were read to him, and if he thought them going on tolerably well, the pleasure in his eyes, the approving sound of his voice, even without the praise he so warmly bestowed, were sufficient and delightful incitements to “go on and finish.” When he thought that there was spirit in what was written, but that it required, as it often did, great correction, he would say: “Leave that to me; it is my business to cut and correct, yours to write on.” His skill in cutting, his decision in criticism, was peculiarly useful to me. His ready invention and infinite resource, when I had run myself into difficulties, never failed to extricate me at my utmost need. It was the happy experience of this, and my consequent reliance on his ability, decision and perfect honesty, that relieved me from the vacillation and anxiety to which I was so much subject, that I am sure I should not have written or finished anything without his support. He inspired in my mind a degree of hope and confidence, essential in the first instance to the full exertion of the mental powers, and necessary to insure perseverance in any occupation. Such, happily for me, was his power over my mind, that no one thing I ever began to write was ever left unfinished.
That such a process was calculated to check inspiration is obvious. To suffer one hand to chisel and clip the productions of another, to insert into a finished frame-work incongruous episodes intended to work out a pet idea, was as inartistic as it was pernicious. The method could not fail to induce a certain self-consciousness on the part of the writer fatal to spontaneity, a certain complacent, careful laying out of plans, apt to disturb if not to distract the reader by drawing his attention from the fabric to the machinery. It was this that laid Miss Edgeworth open to the charge, so often made, of a mechanical spirit in her writings. For our own part, after reading her letters, with which her father certainly did not meddle, we are inclined to lay most of her faults to the charge of the monitor and guide whose assistance she so much over-rated. He, on the other hand, saw other dangers in their system. Writing to Mrs. Inchbald, he says:—
Maria has one great disadvantage in this house — she has eight or nine auditors who are no contemptible judges of literature, to whom she reads whatever she intends to publish. Now, she reads and acts so admirably well, that she can make what is really dull appear to be lively.
Indeed, everything was done in public in that family. All Miss Edgeworth’s works were written in the common sitting-room, with the noise of playing children about her. Her early habits of abstraction stood her in good stead, and, at her little table by the fire, she would sit for half an hour together, without stirring, with her pen in her hand, or else scribble away very fast in the neat writing that never altered to the end. A certain occasional want of closeness in her reasoning may perhaps, however, have resulted from this habit of writing in public, since the effort of abstraction made by the brain must of necessity absorb some of its power. Considering how large was the family continually around her, it is sufficiently astonishing that she could do it at all. Once when such surprise was expressed, Mrs. Edgeworth said: “Maria was always the same; her mind was so rightly balanced, everything was so honestly weighed, that she suffered no inconvenience from what would disturb or distract any ordinary writer.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54