Maria Edgeworth

IN Miss Lawless’s monograph on Maria Edgeworth,1 literary appreciation or criticism has a smaller part than in most of the volumes of the series to which it belongs. But as a biography the book is exceedingly attractive. The author has not depended solely on the Memoir of Richard Lovell Edgeworth and the charming letters of his daughter, rather carelessly edited by Mr. Hare. We get new and welcome glimpses of Mrs. Edgeworth’s privately printed memoirs — will that book always be withheld from the public ? — and also letters now for the first time published, and all of them well worth publication. The personality of the writer is agreeably felt throughout the work, which we are sure was done with love, and so wins the gratitude of other lovers of its subject. She chooses to consider Miss Edgeworth especially as an Irish novelist, regretting that as such her early associations should have been English. Miss Lawless is right beyond cavil in thinking Castle Rackrent the most perfect of the Edgeworth novels, — would it have been so good had its author not been able to look at that house and its history somewhat from the outside? Perhaps to an American, to whom Hibernian and Celtic are usually synonymous terms, an Anglo-Irish family like the Edgeworths seems English — with perhaps a difference.

With reason Miss Lawless bemoans the supervision which the benevolent autocrat of Edgeworthstown exercised over his daughter’s work, holding him largely responsible for the didactic strain too aggressively evident in some of her best tales. But we find the real Maria in her letters, impulsive, warm-hearted, keeneyed, humorous; which qualities, united to good sense and high principles, must have been potent factors in the making of that astonishingly happy and harmonious family life which causes the record of the Edgeworth household to seem almost Utopian. Indeed the master thereof might well regard his educational system with complacency, when he could say of his big, hospitable house with its succession of “mothers" and its score of children, “I do not think one tear per month is shed here, nor the voice of reproof heard.’ But, alas, to extend that incomparable system to the outer world, his admonitory voice is too often heard in his daughter’s works. If an unappreciative world resents his attitude as mentor to an infinitely better writer than himself, it must be owned that he exercised a fascination, as well as an authority, which we can hardly understand. Why did the lovely Honora Sneyd, reports of whose beauty and charm still move us after more than a century, love the just widowed young philosopher rather than Major André? And her successors, only less charming, and the troop of clever, adoring children, what spell held them all ? No one has suggested better answers to these questions than this latest biographer. Her traditional as well as present knowledge of Ireland makes her criticisms of the Irish tales especially valuable. As for the others, she expresses with delightful candor her likes and dislikes, doing partial — not quite full — justice to the children’s stories, which still have so much vitality in them, and noting the excellent sketches from fashionable life in one and another novel. In a rather summary manner she dismisses the comments of Mrs. Edgeworth on the feelings of Maria towards her Swedish suitor, M. Edelcrantz, though frankly owning that the writer was unquestionably in a position to know the actual facts, — and we may venture to add, was likely to report them accurately. Nothing could be more sympathetic than the account of the intercourse of Miss Edgeworth and Scott, an account vivified by letters heretofore unpublished, as is the animated sketch of the closing years of a long, happy, beneficent life.

It seems that the only authentic portrait of Miss Edgeworth is in the drawing by Adam Buck, in which she is one of the principal figures in a large family group. An imaginary picture, “made in America” long ago, reappears from time to time, — a fictitious portrait apparently having the persistent vitality of other printed falsehoods. Has not an equally fanciful picture of Jane Austen been produced more than once of late in American periodicals? one bearing no resemblance whatever to her true portrait, and dressed in the mode of 1835, which it need not be said differs in every detail from anything worn by mortal woman in Miss Austen’s lifetime. The artist who drew the “portrait” of Miss Edgeworth did not go so far astray as this.

  1. Maria Edgeworth. By the Hon. EMILY LAWLESS. English Men of Letters Series. New York : The Macmillan Co. 1904.