PROFESSOR CLAIRE CONNOLLY
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