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Maria Edgeworth, Jane Austen’s forgotten idol

In the first years of the nineteenth century the most prominent, and highly respected, novelist in Britain was a woman. It was not Jane Austen but her contemporary, Maria Edgeworth. Indeed Austen was herself a fan of the woman regarded as “the great Maria.” “I have made up my mind to like no Novels really, but Miss Edgeworth’s, Yours & my own,” Austen  wrote in 1814 to a young niece trying her own hand at fiction.

Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849) was eldest daughter of an Irish landowner, the inventor and scientist Richard Lovell Edgeworth (her mentor throughout her literary life), and the first of his four wives. She was brought up both in an intellectual environment and with a leading role to play in a very extended family. She wrote many widely-read stories for children, and she always claimed that her adult fictions were not novels but moral tales. But her moral purposes rarely swamped her ability to conjure up absorbing plots, engaging characters, and scenes of ordinary contemporary life presented with wisdom, wit, and humour.

Many of her works are set in Ireland and reveal social conditions there as well as celebrate, for the first time in print, the humour and exuberance, often alongside extreme poverty, of the Irish peasants. Others explore the lives and dilemmas of the English gentry and aristocracy.  The most successful of these is Belinda (1801), which Austen singled out in Northanger Abbey as an example of all that was best about the novel as a genre “in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”

For all Jane Austen’s relative obscurity as a novelist in her lifetime, Maria Edgeworth was aware of her novels at least as early as 1814, when she read Mansfield Park shortly after publication, finding it “like real life and very entertaining.” Edgeworth was much less complimentary about Emma. Austen had had a copy sent to her on publication, presumably in hopes that the famous Miss Edgeworth would be impressed, but it is to be hoped she never learned Edgeworth’s opinion of her work. Having read the first of the three volumes Edgeworth had had enough, complaining that:

Maria Edgeworth by John Downman, 1807. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

… there was no story except that Miss Emma found the man whom she designed for Harriet’s lover was an admirer of her own – and he was affronted at being refused by Emma – and Harriet wore the willow – and smooth thin water gruel is according to Emma’s father’s opinion a very good thing & it is very difficult to make a cook understand what you mean by smooth thin water gruel!

She was, alas, equally unimpressed by Northanger Abbey a couple of years later, dismissing it rather disarmingly as “one of the most stupid nonsensical fictions I ever read (excepting always the praises of myself …)” and singling out as “quite outrageously out of nature” the behaviour of General Tilney in abruptly sending Catherine Morland home “without a servant or the common civilities which any bear of a man not to say gentleman would have shown.” But she was full of praise for Persuasion, published alongside Northanger Abbey, which

excepting always the tangled useless histories of the family in the first 50 pages, appears to me in all that relates to poor Anne & her loves to be exceedingly interesting & natural – The love & lover admirably well drawn so that we feel it is quite real – Don’t you see Captain Wentworth or rather in her place, feel him taking the boisterous child off her back as she kneels by the sick boy on the sofa? And is not the first meeting after their long separation admirably well done? And the overheard conversation about the nut? …

And as time passed, though we don’t know that she ever changed her mind about Northanger Abbey, Edgeworth’s views on Emma evidently mellowed. In 1838, when she was entering her 70s and no longer writing fiction, and when Austen herself was long dead, she recorded that one of her relatives was reading aloud to the family group in the evenings “Emma all through & Pride and Prejudice. And I liked them better than ever.”

In her own lifetime, and for many years after her death, Jane Austen’s achievement as a novelist was entirely overshadowed by Maria Edgeworth. As late as 1870, in A Memoir of Jane Austen, Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen Leigh wrote that if the Austen neighbours had known “that we, in our secret thoughts, classed her with … Miss Edgeworth … they would have considered it an amusing instance of family conceit.” It is interesting to find that between the two writers themselves there was, in the end, mutual respect and admiration. And it is one of the ironies of literature that 150 years after the Memoir the reputations of the two writers has completely reversed, and that it is now through Jane Austen that many readers come to rediscover the work of Maria Edgeworth, the author she admired so much.

Featured image Trinity College Dublin by Dmitrij Paskevic via Unsplash

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