A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter IX." by the Hon. Emily Lawless (1845-1913)
From: Maria Edgeworth. by the Hon. Emily Lawless. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1905. pp. 113-126.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 113] 



FROM this time forward the stream of Miss Edgeworth's life seems to have settled down into its fixed and final channels. To her readers the interest of that life is of course mainly a literary one, but to herself literature was only one of a dozen or more streams or streamlets of interest, as has been the case with all but a fraction of the persons calling themselves by the name of Author. The doings of her own family–its joys, sorrows, cares, and concerns generally–were then, as always, the staple of her preoccupations, and next to this her various friendships, of which few wielders of the pen have ever had a greater number, or more satisfactory ones than she had.

To us to-day the most interesting of these numerous friendships will always be her friendship with Sir Walter Scott, one fraught with advantage for both writers, and unflecked by even a passing cloud. Their personal acquaintance did not begin until Miss Edgeworth's second visit to Edinburgh in 1823, for although the whole Edgeworth party visited Edinburgh after their return from Paris in 1803, there is no mention of Scott on that occasion, nor was there any particular reason why there should be. As he himself said long afterwards, in reply to a remark of [Page 114]  Lady Scott's on the subject–"Why, my dear, you forget that Miss Edgeworth was not a lion then, and my mane, you know, had not grown at all !" When the first copy of Waverley reached her in October 1814, she wrote in a strain of enthusiastic admiration to its unknown and unnamed author, but headed her letter–Aut Scotus, aut diabolus; even then the acquaintance between them was evidently only a paper one. The precise date of their meeting is, however, of little importance compared to the effect which they had upon one another as writers, and that the pictures of Irish life and character already given to the world by Miss Edgeworth had a marked effect in determining the direction of Scott's genius, we have his own generous words to prove. Upon her side–as one after the other the miraculous series began to pour forth–delight and admiration verged hard upon idolatry, or what would have been called by that name had it been paid to almost any other author. The first book of Scott's which fell into her hands was, as was natural, a volume of poetry. Two years after her return from Paris, she chanced to be laid up for some time with a rather serious illness, and it was during the convalescence from this illness that The Lay of the Last Minstrel was read aloud to her by one of her sisters; the delight which it inspired going far, so we are told, towards contributing to her recovery.

It was thanks to a remarkably happy combination of circumstances that this was the case, for poetry–quâ poetry–had to pass through an uncommonly dense and discouraging medium before it could hope to reach Miss Edgeworth! Not many contemporary [Page 115]  poets–not many poets of any race, period, or order of composition–were privileged to find favour at Edgeworthstown. The views of its owner with regard to the undesirableness, it is hardly too much to say the pernicious effect, of that class of literature, may be read at large in his works on education, as well as in the prefaces with which he so considerately adorned his daughter's books. Nor was it alone Poetry, but even its more popular half-sister, Romance, that was there placed under a ban, the result being that it would be difficult to point to any novelist approaching the calibre of Miss Edgeworth from whose writings that eternal source of joy has been so carefully, so elaborately excluded. This makes her devotion to the greatest of all romancers only the more interesting, and, moreover, explains the undoubted fact that it was in this case the greater of the two contemporary writers who profited by the example of the lesser one, rather than the other way. For Walter Scott, romance was not so much a possession, as a mere piece of himself. As easily could we conceive him without eyes, feet, or hands, as without it. No master of the craft, ancient or modern, no Homer of them all, could have helped him to come one whit nearer to it. What he may have gained–what in all probability he did gain–from his keen-eyed little Irish sister, was a closer grip upon the homelier side of reality, especially as regards the ways, doings, talk, look, clothes, and relations to life generally of the peasant class, and of the class which comes nearest to it. That Caleb Balderston, Edie Ochiltree, and the rest, owed something–though it is not very easy to define what–to Thady Quirk, and that to this extent the obligation so [Page 116]  generously insisted upon was true, no student of both writers will, I think, be disposed to question. Upon the other hand, neither Scott nor any other magician–nothing in this wide mysterious world–would, I am bound to confess, have in my opinion brought Miss Edgeworth appreciably nearer to that indefinable, but unmistakable quality, which we mean by the word "romance." How far her father's didactic counsels were responsible for this it is hardly worth while to discuss, seeing that over and above his influence, she had his blood, and any one who has had the advantage of studying that distinguished moralist's style of literature, conversation, and correspondence will feel that, until the last minim of the fluid in question had been expunged from the veins, romance and all that the word conveys, could never hope to penetrate!

In the meantime, life continued to go on at Edgeworthstown in the fashion that has already become tolerably familiar to my readers. It was an astonishingly sociable fashion, even for so exceptionally affectionate a family. Mr. Edgeworth had always made it his principle, we are told, "to allow his children to participate in his own occupations, and thereby to profit by his example." Seclusion, whether for the pursuit of literature, or for any other purpose, was naturally therefore discouraged. All Maria Edgeworth's books were written at her own corner of the table in the library–which was the common living room of the house–amid the talk of the family and the lessons of the children. Less sociably disposed authors may pity her for such an excessive amount of domesticity, but it is quite certain that she [Page 117]  did not pity herself. Whether a little more solitude might have suggested a trifle more belief in those romantic and imaginative elements of existence–oftener found in life than in her lively and instructive pages–we cannot know, and need not therefore trouble ourselves to inquire.

In its more directly sentimental aspect romance did, as it happened, in those days come rather near to Edgeworthstown, though in connection with, perhaps, the least sentimental of all the greater heroes, even of English history. The reader will remember that the Longfords of Pakenham Hall were amongst the nearest neighbours of the Edgeworths, and the engagement, in the spring of 1806, of a daughter of that house–"Sweet Kitty Pakenham"–to that hero of heroes, Sir Arthur Wellesley, was a source of intense excitement to their friends on the other side of the rather ugly piece of level country which divided the two houses. So engrossed were they by it that we hear that–"waking or sleeping, the image of Miss Pakenham swims before our eyes." "To make the romance perfect," writes Miss Edgeworth, "we want two material documents: a description of the person of Sir Arthur, and an exact knowledge of the time when the interview after his return took place." As regards the first of these romantic documents their curiosity is soon set at rest, by their learning from an informant that the hero is "handsome, very brown, quite bald, and a hooked nose." Even royalty seems to have shared in the desire for minute information with regard to this interesting couple, since we are told that when Lady Wellesley was presented at Court upon her marriage, the Queen, after various compliments upon [Page 118]  so "shining" an example of constancy, added–"But did you never write one letter to Sir Arthur during his long absence ?" "No, never, Madam." "And did you never think of him ?" "Yes, Madam, very often." Miss Edgeworth–in one of whose letters this valuable fragment of dialogue occurs–glows over the excellent effect likely to accrue from so much interest in this same "shining" quality, exhibited in such an illustrious sphere!

In 1807 there was again serious trouble at Edgeworthstown owing to the family scourge of consumption. This time it was Charlotte, the sister who had shared in all the pleasures and perils of the visit to Paris, who was stricken with it. The "State of the Country"–that most familiar of Irish grievances–was also again making itself felt. In Mrs. Edgeworth's Memoir we read that–"in the midst of our anxiety for Charlotte, we were disturbed by large parties of men who went about attacking houses and seizing arms. They called themselves 'Thrashers,' and we were roused one night by the sergeant of the yeomanry corps, with the intelligence, that the Thrashers were close to the town in great numbers. Lord Longford's agent, Mr. Rennie, when he was called up in the middle of the night, very naturally said this was a strange country, where a man could not sleep one night in peace! The Thrashers did not, however, come to this house, and except having the windows barricaded for some time, and the yeomanry on guard, we had no further disturbance from them, but these alarms, and our anxiety for Charlotte, made this a melancholy spring. Her increasing illness occupied all our thoughts, and although for months we knew how [Page 119]  it must end, the blow overwhelmed us when it came. She died the seventh of April, 1807."

This evidently was at the time a very crushing sorrow, especially to Maria, whose affection for her own family was of that absorbing type, less common than admirers of the domestic virtues would have us to believe. Next to her father–with regard to whom admiration reached a point difficult for any ordinary biographer to follow–the nearest to Miss Edgeworth's heart seem at this time to have been this sister Charlotte and her brother Henry, no longer the "Little Henry" of earlier days, but a promising young medical student, walking the hospitals in Edinburgh, and on the road to a successful career, one which unhappily was cut short by the same scourge which had already so devastated the family. In the letters written to this brother, Miss Edgeworth is at her very best. They are full, not alone of family details, over the reiteration of which monotony becomes inevitable, but of a variety of other subjects, such as she considered likely to be of interest to him. Space will not permit here of more than the briefest of extracts, despite the fact that several of these letters are still unpublished. After her first visit to Edinburgh, Henry wrote to tell her of the various Scotch notabilities, including the Lord Buchan of that day, who had been eager to see his distinguished sister.–

"I am really very sorry," she writes in reply, "that poor Lord Buchan rose from his sick-bed to see what was so little worth seeing. I wish I had known at the time how much I ought to have been flattered, and I would have conducted myself with becoming propriety. I hope he will never do so any more. If he will come [Page 120]  here, and if I have the headache, I will get up to receive him:–mortal woman cannot do more!–Yes, if I were Madame Récamier, with her pretty bed, etc., etc., I would receive him in my bed-chamber, but at present Fanny's bed, as you very well know, would prevent that!"

In another letter, of about the same date, she promises to pay all possible attentions to a certain "Zoonomia Brown's brother" in whom Henry Edgeworth had expressed an interest: "People of the literary corps are, I think, bound to be kind to one another in all parts of the world; and we, who have received so much advantage from this species of freemasonry, certainly should not neglect the return of good for good." "Upon my word," she exclaims in a third letter, "it is a fine thing to be an Edinburgh Reviewer! Two hundred pounds a year and ten guineas a sheet! Poor authors must hide their diminished heads ! But it is always better diversion to tear, than to be torn in pieces. I should not however like to be one of the tearers, except it was the person who wrote the review 'Dumont and Bentham.' I envy that man, whoever he is, but you will never tell me who he is. I assure you my envy would not prompt me to murder him !" "What book do you think Buonaparte was reading at the siege of Acre ?" she asks soon afterwards. "Madame de Staël's Sur l'influence des Passions! His opinion of her and of her works has wonderfully changed since then. He does not follow Mazarin's wise maxim, 'Let them talk, provided they let me act.' He may yet find the recoil of that press, with which he meddles so incautiously, more dangerous than those cannon, of which he well knows the management."

These extracts must suffice, nor do any further events of very vital interest seem to have occurred during the ten years that elapsed between the return of the Edgeworths from Paris in 1803 and their visit to London in the year 1813. A variety of details is recorded in the course of them with regard to Mr. Edgeworth's telegraphic inventions. Also about his patent "wheel carriages," a subject upon which Maria was commanded, we learn, to write a long essay at his dictation. "The subject being actually before a Committee of the House of Commons," she tells her cousin Sophy Ruxton, "and Mr. Cummins and all the great engineers and all the great waggoners disputing, 'à outrance' and 'à gorge déployée,' about the comparative merits of cylindrical and conical wheels. So my father, being appealed to, was desirous to state the merits of the said wheels impartially, and he dictated to me, as he walked up and down the library for two hours, nine pages: and the nine pages had to be copied, and nine and nine you are sensible make eighteen, and it was the day I wrote those eighteen pages that I contrived to scrawl that letter to my aunt about Jack Langan."

Devoted daughter, and hardly less devoted niece ! A year later the thrilling subject of the moment is a church spire, specially invented and constructed by Mr. Edgeworth, for the embellishment of their parish church, the most striking peculiarity of which seems to have been that it was able to rise from the ground at the sound of a bugle, played by some member of the Edgeworth family, and to take its place, when requested to do so, upon the church tower!–"Walk with me to the spire," Miss Edgeworth writes to her aunt, "and see William standing on the scaffold- [Page 122]  ing round the top of the church tower, which looks like the manned mast of a man-of-war. He gives the signal, and the four men at the corner capstans work the windlasses, and in a few moments, with a slow, majestic motion, the spire begins to ascend. Its gilt ball and arrow glitter higher and higher in the sun, and its iron skeleton rises by beautiful degrees, till, in twelve minutes and a half, its whole transparent form is high in air, and stands composed and sublime in its destined situation."

No wonder that the family were proud! From Mrs. Edgeworth's Memoir of her stepdaughter we learn that at about the same date–"Mr. Edgeworth made an addition to Maria's very small room, adding a projecting window, which gives a few feet in space, with great additional light and cheerfulness, and much did she enjoy its advantages, and still more her father's kindness." Here the historian is divided between envy for a daughter who possessed so attentive a father, and for a father who was able to awaken such eager demonstration of gratitude upon such slender provocations! That he occasionally bemoaned the multiplicity of his daughter's domestic duties is also ascertainable, not without satisfaction, from another letter:–"I have been wondrous busy packing books to be bound," she says, in one written about this date, "and have lived upon the ladder, my father deploring the waste of time and the fatigue I underwent. And now the shelves, books and all, are in the most distinguished order !"

In the year 1812 the family are again excited over a marriage, that of their friend Sir Humphry Davy, to Mrs. Apreece, a society personage of some note, and [Page 123]  a giver of good dinners. The wits had amused themselves over this engagement, and much doggerel had been perpetrated, amongst which the following is perhaps the least bad–

"To the famed widow vainly bow
Church, Army, Bar, and Navy,
Says she, 'I dare not take a vow,
But I will take my Davy.'"

This brings us to 1813, in which year Mr., Mrs., and Miss Edgeworth went to England, and, after a few preliminary visits, arrived in London towards the end of April. It was the first stay of any length that Maria had made there, and the enthusiasm which her appearance aroused is something so foreign to our less impressionable, or possibly less literary, ways, that it would be difficult to credit it, but for the number and unimpeachableness of the witnesses upon the subject. In a note by Sir James Mackintosh, for instance, written in the month of May 1813, we find the following account:–

"Mr., Mrs., and Miss Edgeworth have just come over from Ireland. I passed some hours with them yesterday forenoon, under pretence of visiting the new Mint, which was a great object to them, as they are all proficients in mechanics. Miss Edgeworth is a singularly agreeable person, very natural, clever, and well-informed, without the least pretensions of authorship. She has never been in a large society before, and she was followed and courted by all persons of distinction in London with an avidity that was almost without example."

Byron, in an entry of his diary written a few years later, recalls his meeting with, and his impressions of, the whole Edgeworth party. He met them, he tells us–"first at a breakfast of Sir Humphry and Lady Davy, [Page 124]  to which I was invited for the nonce." "I had been," he goes on to remark, "the lion of 1812, Miss Edgeworth and Madame de Staël–with the 'Cossack' towards the end of 1813–were the exhibitions of the succeeding year." Of Mr. Edgeworth his report begins more favourably than it concludes.–"I thought Edgeworth a fine old fellow, of a clarety, elderly, red complexion, but active, brisk, and endless. He was seventy, but did not look fifty." Half a page later this is followed by a less flattering notice: "The fact was, every one cared more about her. She was a nice unassuming 'Jeanie-Deans'-looking body–and, if not handsome, certainly not ill-looking. Her conversation was as quiet as herself; no one would have guessed she could write her name. Whereas her father talked, not as if he could write nothing else, but as if nothing else were worth writing."

Hardly less lively is the account of the same party to be found in a letter of Joanna Baillie to Sir Walter Scott:–

"If you would give a silver sixpence, as you say, to see us together, each of us would, I am sure, have given a silver crown (no small part, now, of the real cash contained in anybody's purse) to have seen you a third in our party. I have found Miss Edgeworth a frank, animated, sensible, and amusing woman, entirely free from affectation of any kind, and of a confiding and affectionate, and friendly disposition that has gained upon my heart. We met a good many times, and when we parted she was in tears, like one who takes leave of an old friend. She has been received by everybody, the first in literature and the first in rank, with the most gratifying eagerness and respect, and has delighted them all. She is cheerful, and talks easily and fluently, and tells her little story (when her father did not take it out of her mouth) very pleasantly. However, in regard to her father, she is not [Page 125]  so much hampered as she must have been in Edinburgh, where I was told she could not get leave to speak to anybody, and therefore kept in the background wherever she went. When they take up the same thing now they have a fair wrangle (tho' a good-humoured one) for it, and she as often gets the better as he. He is, to be sure, a strange mortal, with no great 'tact,' and some conceit. Yet his daughter is so strongly attached to him that I am sure he must have some good in him; and, convinced of this, I have taken a good will to him in spite of fashion. You would have been amused if you had seen with what eagerness people crowded to get a sight of Miss Edgeworth–who is very short–peeping over shoulders and between curled têtes to get but one look. She said herself, at a party where I met her, that the crowd closed over her."

If she said so, it was, we may be sure, in no bragging spirit! Never lion or lioness took his or her social glory more completely at its proper value than did Maria Edgeworth. From her own letters written at this time, it would puzzle any one to extract a word with regard to this excitement over herself, about which the letters of her contemporaries almost audibly buzz. She tells the correspondents left behind in Ireland a good deal about Mr. Edgeworth's success as one of the speakers at a meeting of the Lancastrian schools, where his speech was "the next best to Lord Lansdowne's." Also about the inevitable "wheel carriages," and about the regrets of the whole party at missing both Madame D'Arblay and Madame de Staël, but of her own literary and social triumphs not a word. That she enjoyed everything to the full; that she came and went; laughed, talked, breakfasted, dined, supped; listened, and was listened to, all alike with zest and entertainment, is at least clear. Dull would be the biographer who failed to feel a certain reflected glow over the thought of such enjoyment! Not the least regrettable amongst the world's many mischances is the failure of those in whom we take an interest to enjoy–or to have enjoyed–that meed of praise and admiration, not alone their due, but which the world was actually ready and eager to offer them. Who can read, for instance, without a pang of how, day after day, and for many weary months, Charlotte Bronte sat alone in melancholy Haworth–her sisters dead, her father preferring his own company, herself eating her poor meals uncheered by even the companionship of that least sympathetic of parents–while all the time, not very far away, fame, friends, admiration, sympathy, were waiting for her to come and to accept them ? Let us rate all such opportunities as low as ever we like, still, when we have proved our superiority by rating them at the lowest possible point, something remains; something which, while the world spins, and man continues to be the arbiter–in such matters the sole arbiter–of his fellow-man, can never be without some value.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom