PRO­FES­SOR CLAIRE CON­NOLLY

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

in Long­ford. She chats in let­ters about matches and mar­riages, in­clud­ing those made with only “brooches and coaches” in view. She writes to sib­lings and friends in Dublin, Bris­tol and Lon­don with or­ders for gowns, coats and hats for her­self and her step­mother and step­sis­ters. Al­ways alert to changes in fash­ion, we see Edge­worth’s early de­light with a “pretty brown net… with all its com­ple­ment of bows’”. By the 1820s, she is writ­ing to her sis­ter Fanny, in­struct­ing her to “shell out some money” on the pur­chase of de­cent skirts and white silk shoes.

The focus on the de­tails of ev­ery­day life is highly re­ward­ing and of­ten funny. Read­ing of a coach jour­ney to Ar­magh in 1831, who would not share Edge­worth’s hor­ror at hav­ing to share a seat with a “huge bang-up-coated self-suf­fi­cient bear of an English agent”: “Down flopped the gen­tle­man with­out the least pre­tence of care for the fe­male and it was well he did not ex­tin­guish me — I shrunk and was saved”. Edge­worth iden­ti­fies manspread­ing!

In a let­ter writ­ten from Dublin in April 1799, Edge­worth de­clares her­self “obliged to the whole Com­mit­tee of Ed­u­ca­tion and Crit­i­cism at Edge­worth­stown” for cor­rec­tions to her most re­cent books. Nov­els and other books were read aloud in the fam­ily cir­cle and sub­ject to de­tailed dis­cus­sion.

Sci­en­tists who vis­ited Edge­worth­stown in­cluded the chemist Humphry Davy, the as­tronomist John Her­schel, math­e­ma­ti­cian Wil­liam Rowan Hamil­ton and Charles Bab­bage, whose “dif­fer­ence en­gine” pi­o­neered mod­ern com­put­ing. Wil­liam Wordsworth vis­ited in 1829 and Edge­worth wrote to her aunt of the dif­fi­culty of en­ter­tain­ing a guest who never forgets that “he is MR WORDSWORTH — the au­thor”. His con­ver­sa­tion did not live up to the stan­dards ex­pected at Edge­worth­stown House and she de­spairs of Wordsworth’s “slow slimy cir­cum­spect length­i­ness”.

On her death in 1849, Edge­worth left sketches for lit­er­ary projects she wished mem­bers of her fam­ily to com­plete, in­clud­ing notes based on her ex­ten­sive cor­re­spon­dence. At 81, her in­ter­ests were as di­verse and lively as ever. Sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions, how­ever, have not al­ways been ready to recog­nise the achieve­ment of a priv­i­leged mem­ber of the An­glo-Ir­ish as­cen­dancy.

In 1863, Ellen O’Con­nell FitzSi­mon, re­mains a landmark and will soon be joined by Su­san Manly’s new study of the life. 2018 marks the 250th an­niver­sary of Edge­worth’s birth and sees aca­demic gath­er­ings to mark her achieve­ments in Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin and the Uni­ver­sity of York. Pak­en­ham’s se­lec­tion of the Let­ters from Ire­land brings Edge­worth to the wider au­di­ence she de­serves and will be of in­ter­est to any­one cu­ri­ous about 19th-cen­tury fash­ions in clothes, in­te­ri­ors and recipes as well such fads as bal­loon­ing and the cir­cus.

Most of all, this is a book for read­ers cu­ri­ous about a writer in her home en­vi­ron­ment: a sin­gle woman, sur­rounded by a small fam­ily cir­cle but living a large in­tel­lec­tual life in her books and let­ters. Sit­ting, as she tells us in one let­ter, “on a soft arm­chair at a de­cent dis­tance from the fire writ­ing on a lit­tle green desk on my knee”, Edge­worth brought worlds into be­ing with her pen.

As Edge­worth’s fame as an au­thor grew, it seems that her fam­ily be­gan to show and dis­play her let­ters. Edge­worth did not like the idea of hav­ing to tailor her cor­re­spon­dence to the tastes of “Miss This and That”. She wrote to her cousin in 1805 that “the habit of shew­ing let­ters is a vile prac­tice”. No mat­ter what she her­self might have thought of such an act, we are for­tu­nate to be able to hold this hand­some book in our hands and to be the 21st cen­tury re­cip­i­ents of Maria Edge­worth’s frank and en­gag­ing let­ters.

Claire Con­nolly is Pro­fes­sor of Mod­ern English at Uni­ver­sity Col­lege Cork

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