Maria Edgeworth was a novelist admired by Jane Austen. She was born in Oxfordshire in 1768. Her mother was the first of her father’s four wives. When her mother died and her father married again, the family moved to Ireland, where her father had his estate. When his second wife died, Richard Lovell Edgeworth rather shockingly married her sister.
Mr Edgeworth favoured Rousseau’s ideas on education. Rousseau believed that we are born good and that that is our natural state. He espoused the romantic view that paying attention to nature makes us better. He believed that education should be focused on the individual and that the educator should be more of a facilitator. Maria Edgeworth approved of his idea that boys and girls should receive the same education.
For a short time she attended school in England. When she returned to Ireland she mixed with the Anglo-Irish gentry, including Kitty Pakenham, later to marry Wellington. She read the novels of Mrs Radcliffe and William Godwin, who wrote what is considered to be the first mystery novel.
Edgeworth helped her father to manage the estate. He was a member of the Irish parliament and they wrote Practical Education published in 1798 with together. She continued to collaborate with her father on other works about education and also mechanics. She also began writing stories for her many siblings. Her father had twenty-two children, of whom she was the third. Realising that she had a talent for it, and despite her father’s belief that it was frivolous, she concentrated on fiction after 1801, writing stories for children, stories about the Irish character and romances (or courting novels). Her great skill was in the creation of characters. Her best known novels are Castle Rackrent (1801), Belinda (1801), Leonora (1806) and Helen (1834).
Edgeworth’s third stepmother, Frances Beaufort (sister of the creator of the Beaufort Scale, which measures wind force), was a year younger than her and became her trusted friend. In 1802 Maria travelled with her father and stepmother during a pause in the hostilities during the Napoleonic Wars, visiting Belgium and France.
Her novels were very popular and she initially outsold Jane Austen and Walter Scott. She became a friend of the latter, visiting him in Scotland and he visited her in Ireland. He said that her stories about Ireland inspired him to write Waverley. She also knew Wordsworth and his friend Humphrey Davy, as well as Byron, whom she disliked.
Her first novels were about life in Ireland. She also wrote for children. Her most famous novel is Belinda, far racier in its intimations about sexual relations than anything her contemporary Austen wrote. Edgeworth’s novels had a moral purpose that can seem heavy-handed to today’s readers. Helen is about how destructive lies can be in a relationship. Belinda is also about the negative effect of deceit, but its main purpose is to praise rationality. Belinda’s first two editions featured an interracial marriage but Edgeworth’s father made her remove it from the third edition. My copy is the 1857 edition, published after her death, in which the marriage is restored. The novel must have been a lot less entertaining without it.
In 1837 she was made a member of the Royal Irish Academy.
She died of a heart attack in 1849.