Maria Edge­worth’s Let­ters from Ire­land

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Ded­i­cated fol­lower: Maria had a fas­ci­na­tion with fash­ion

Valerie Pak­en­ham

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’

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