The Reading Room

What Irish Enlightenment? The Case of Maria Edgeworth

Pursuing the elusive character of the Irish Enlightenment through its leading figures (so far in this series, John Toland, Jonathan Swift, and George Berkeley), one issue that arises is the historical parameters of the European Enlightenment. Even expansively, the Enlightenment generally is bracketed by 1685 and 1815, stretching it on both ends. But both Toland and Swift are earlier (as is John Locke). But Maria Edgeworth—an Irish novelist more celebrated in her time than Jane Austen or Sir Walter Scott—pushes the Enlightenment’s endpoint to 1850.
Why? Edgeworth, who theorized directly on education, politics, and social conditions as well as addressing them in her fiction, also lived a life as a woman who exemplified Enlightenment philosophy. In other words, she appears not only to have contributed to the ideas and literary expressions of the European Enlightenment but also to have lived a life shaped by Enlightenment ideals by then being adopted by women as well as men.
Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849), like other figures of the Irish Enlightenment, must be categorized as Anglo-Irish. She was born in Oxfordshire, England, second child of Richard Lovell Edgeworth. Her father went on to have nineteen children by four wives, but Maria became his estate manager, student (home schooling), intellectual collaborator, and, by all critical appraisal, vastly his superior in her intellectual and literary attainments.
Young Maria lived in England on a Hertfordshire estate with her mother’s family, but, after her mother died, when Maria was five, and her father married his second wife, Maria accompanied him to his estate in County Longford, Ireland. She attended school there, in Derby, until his second wife died. He married his wife’s sister (then illegal and socially condemned), and Maria was sent to London to Mrs. Dervis’s School. 
At age fourteen, she caught her father’s attention by almost going blind from an infection and her father brought her home to Ireland, where she became the nanny of a growing brood of younger siblings. Many a young woman’s education would have ended, here, with domestic servitude, but these were different times—at least for the Anglo-Irish upper crust. Her father tutored her in law, the economy and politics of Ireland and England, science, and literature. Maria seized upon these ideas not as “book learning” but as the vital product of individual minds, working in her time to advance a living body of thought. At that early age, she began a lifelong active correspondence with literary lights and economists including Sir Walter Scott and David Ricardo. Most were members of the Lunar Society, a supper club of the English Midlands’s Enlightenment figures.
She became assistant to her father in managing his estate, Edgeworthstown, contributing significantly to rehabilitating it after a decade of neglect. It became her lifelong home. At the same time, her father took on Maria as his scholarly collaborator—in which, in time, she excelled him. In the ambit of her extended family, servants, and tenants, Maria began to record her observations of Irish life and mingle with her peers of the Anglo-Irish gentry. Friends introduced her to the pastime of reading the latest novels and encouraged her writing. 
Another pastime of women of her class was European travel, and her father’s third wife, Frances, a year younger than Maria, instigated travel to England and the Continent (during a brief lull in the Napoleonic Wars), where Maria was romanced by a Swedish courtier, who made a marriage proposal.
In the end, nothing came of it, and, with the resumption of the Napoleonic Wars, Maria returned to Ireland with Frances, who remained her lifelong friend and confidante. She took up her writing and now began to publish the novels such as Ormond, The Absentee, and Tales of Fashionable Life that won her a popularity greater than that of her contemporaries, Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott. The novels are political, with social and historical insights partly inspired by Scottish Enlightenment thought and English and French literature. An Irish reviewer comments: “Packed with political and philosophical content, her novels can feel exacting to readers familiar with the easy cadences of her contemporary, Jane Austen.”
For what it is worth, her novels earned more than those of Scott or Austen, which enabled her to help her ever-growing cohort of siblings. From the outset, influenced by economists she read, she dismissed the notion of an aristocratic patron, asserting that “the London booksellers are the best patrons.”
In novels like Castle Rackrent and Harrington, she engaged readers with what we call today “identity politics.” Except that the problems she brought alive in her fiction—how individuals are defined by religion, nationality, race, class, and sex—were urgent realities of people’s lives enforced by law, resort to violence, and social stratification. 
Edgeworth is viewed as an early innovator of the realistic novel. In fact, her novels fall into a movement called “Sentiment”—a transitional period between Enlightenment classicism and Romanticism—that is best exemplified by Jane Austen. But a novel like Belinda (1801) treats with fierce satire and bitterness the theme of women saddled with the paramount goal of a trophy marriage. With the heroine of Belinda, rationality and individual judgment prevail. Belinda Portman ends by almost entering an interracial marriage with a West Indian creole. Reportedly, the “almost” arose from Edgeworth’s father’s objections, and later the entire interracial incident was scuttled. From markedly provincial Longford, Edgeworth did not foresee with what shock it would be received in London. Her intent in the novel was ethical education, particularly a warning to women to ignore social expectations and act on their own judgment. Indeed, she wrote, in a brief preface: “The following work is offered to the public as a Moral Tale–the author not wishing to acknowledge a Novel.” And hoped the decision would be viewed as “laudable, and not fastidious.”  
By age forty-five (1813), she could travel to London as a celebrity, meeting with Lord Byron and Sir Humphry Davy. She began a long correspondence with Sir Walter Scott, who generously saluted her influence in his preface to Waverley. She visited him in Scotland, and he reciprocated the next year with a visit to Edgeworthstown. Edgeworth was taken up by the Edinburgh Review as a serious writer but was not without her critics—one focus of censure being a paucity of references to religion in her work. Her realism in portraying life around her, combined with her often acerbic portraits, drew criticism from critic Sidney Smith in 1814 for violating trust with those in her social circle. 
By this time, Maria had become engaged intellectually with Enlightenment ideas and their implications. What about her father’s management of his estate and his treatment of his Irish tenants? Maria debated that question with David Ricardo and concluded that better management and agriculture science should be the first steps.
On an issue that virtually defines the Irish Enlightenment, overcoming sectarian conflict with religious tolerance, Maria and her father saw eye to eye in favoring Catholic emancipation and their right to vote without property qualification. (Although both viewed it against their immediate economic self-interest.)
Maria promoted educational opportunities for women as one crucial step of Irish tenants and with her earnings provided schools for children of all religious denominations. Again, it was a distinctive concern of the Irish Enlightenment—sectarian tolerance and amelioration of grievances that fed violence in Ireland.
Edgeworth, in her Irish novels, but also in nonfiction such as a guide for parents, held up education as the high road to individual and national progress. She said that “it is the foundation of the well-governed estate and the foundation of the well-governed nation.” In particular, she argued that education over the long haul could introduce a cosmopolitan outlook even as it preserved bonds of local attachment. In this and her other thinking, then, Edgeworth’s ideal was an Ireland participating in the European Enlightenment—but remaining Ireland. She insisted upon culture, not man’s “nature,” as the bedrock of national identity. Thus, Ireland could adopt Enlightenment ideals without forsaking national identity.
Her father died in 1817, but Edgeworth remained an active writer till the very end. When the Great Famine struck (1844-1851), she worked for relief of Irish peasants, making a dramatic international appeal for support. It had its successes, and yet, by her death, she had witnessed in just three years a million deaths and two million forced emigrations. The population of Edgeworthstown fell by half.
Still later, she became an influential advisor to the president of the Royal Academy of Ireland and urged that women be admitted to Academy events. She was made an honorary member of the Academy. (It recently honored the 250th anniversary of her birth with events in Dublin.)
Maria Edgeworth died quite suddenly, at age eighty-nine, in 1849, at her home, Edgeworthstown.