Maria Edgeworth’s Letters from Ireland
Lilliput Press, hardback, 420 pages, €39.43
The Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth lived in Co Longford for almost all of her long life. Born in England in 1768 to Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Anna Maria Elers, she moved with her widowed father to Edgeworthstown in 1782.
In an early letter, Edgeworth writes to an English school friend that the Irish are “the laziest civilised nation on the face of the earth” while also being “remarkably hospitable to strangers, friendly and charitable to each other”. Such superficial comments deepened into a real love of Longford and its environs, and soon cousins were to laugh at her description of “perfect felicity” as a trip “on the Foxhall or Mullingar Road”. In a letter written to a brother in India in 1834, she confesses that she no longer feels able to write about Ireland — “realities are too strong, party passion too violent” — but avows her intention to “think of it continually & LISTEN & LOOK & LEARN”.
From 1800, Edgeworth wrote about Ireland in books that earned her a reputation as the most successful and serious novelist of her day. Generations of readers have admired her ironic treatment of the lives of the Anglo-Irish in Castle Rackrent, a wickedly funny account of successive generations of landlords as seen through the eyes of their steward, Thady Quirke.
The editor of an invaluable selection of Edgeworth’s correspondence, Valerie Pakenham, tells us that when she married Thomas Pakenham (the present Lord Longford), “several friends had already pressed on me copies of Castle Rackrent (perhaps as a warning!)”.
Maria Edgeworth’s Letters from Ireland gives us many reasons to be grateful that this early interest in Edgeworth’s writing flourished. In selecting, transcribing and annotating these letters, Pakenham has undertaken heroic labours.
Deciphering Edgeworth’s handwriting is no easy matter, nor can it have been straightforward to sort through the tangle of step-siblings, relatives, nephews and nieces, friends and connections in order to give us a much-needed map of the social world of the Edgeworth family.
With a light touch, Pakenham guides readers through Maria’s life story. The volume is chiefly made up of the letters themselves, accompanied by an introduction, brief linking paragraphs, helpful short notes and information about the Edgeworth family and wider circle. Black and white illustrations evoke the people and places discussed, and many drawings done by members of the Edgeworth family are reproduced.
The book presents Maria Edgeworth as a “domestic being”, happy at home eldest daughter of Daniel O’Connell and herself a poet, described Edgeworth’s first novel Castle Rackrent as a book of “revolting unpleasantness”. Edgeworth and O’Connell had little time for each other: he suspected that she had based a flashy scoundrel in one of her novels on him, and she thought that he was a dangerous man who incited the Irish to violence.
Yet they shared an intimate knowledge of and deep absorption in the divided social worlds of 19th-century Ireland. As these letters show, she cared passionately about the cause of Catholic Emancipation and wrote constantly to friends in London seeking news of the latest debates in Parliament.
It took the emergence of feminist criticism and an appetite for the recovery of earlier women’s writing in the 1970s to create the conditions for a new appreciation of Maria Edgeworth. Marilyn Butler’s 1972 biography
Valerie Pakenham has compiled a sparkling collection of correspondence from Maria Edgeworth, giving a fascinating insight on the great and the good visiting the Longford family pile, writes Edgeworth wrote to her aunt of the difficulty of entertaining a guest who never forgets that ‘he is Mr Wordsworth — the author’