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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Maria Edgeworth (1768–1849)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE FAMOUS author of Irish novels and didactic tales was the daughter of Richard Lovell Edgeworth and his first wife Anna Ehrs, and was born at Black Bourton, Oxfordshire, January 1st, 1768. When she was twelve years old the family settled on the estate at Edgeworth’s-town, County Longford, Ireland, which was her home during the remainder of her long life. It was a singularly happy family circle, of which Maria was the center. Her father married four times, and had twenty-two children, on whom he exercised his peculiar educational ideas. He devoted himself most particularly to Maria’s training, and made her his most confidential companion. Several of her works were written in conjunction with her father, and over almost all he exercised a supervision which doubtless hindered the free expression of her genius. Her first publication, ‘Letters to Literary Ladies,’ on the education of women, appeared in 1795. This was followed by educational and juvenile works illustrating the theories of Mr. Edgeworth: ‘The Parent’s Assistant,’ ‘Practical Education’ (a joint production), supplemented later by ‘Early Lessons’; ‘Rosamond,’ ‘Harry and Lucy,’ and a sequel to the ‘Parent’s Assistant.’ In 1800 appeared ‘Castle Rackrent,’ the first of her novels of Irish life, and her best-known work; soon followed by ‘Belinda,’ and the well-known ‘Essay on Irish Bulls,’ by her father and herself. Miss Edgeworth’s reputation was now established, and on a visit to Paris at this time she received much attention. Here occurred the one recorded romance of her life, the proposal of marriage from Count Edelcrantz, a Swedish gentleman. On her return she wrote ‘Leonora.’ In 1804 she published ‘Popular Tales’; in 1809 the first series of ‘Fashionable Tales.’ These tales include ‘Almeria’ and ‘The Absentee,’ considered by many critics her masterpiece. ‘Patronage’ was begun years before as ‘The Freeman Family.’ In 1817 she published ‘Harrington’ and ‘Ormond,’ which rank among her best works. In the same year her father died, leaving to her the completion of his ‘Memoirs,’ which appeared in 1820. Her last novel, ‘Helen,’ published in 1834, shows no diminution of her charm and grace. With occasional visits to Paris and London, and a memorable trip to Scotland in 1823, when she was entertained at Abbotsford, she lived serene and happy at Edgeworth’s-town until her sudden death, May 21st, 1849.  1
  Miss Edgeworth was extremely small, not beautiful; but a brilliant talker and a great favorite in the exclusive society to which she everywhere had access. Her greatest success was in the new field opened in her Irish stories, full of racy, rollicking Irish humor, and valuable pictures of bygone conditions,—for the genial peasant of her pages is now rarely found. Not the least we owe her is the influence which her national tales had on Sir Walter Scott, who declared that her success led him to do the same for his own country in the Waverley Novels. Miss Edgeworth’s style is easy and animated. Her tales show her extraordinary power of observation, her good sense, and remarkable skill in dialogue, though they are biased by the didactic purpose which permeates all her writings. As Madame de Staël remarked, she was “lost in dreary utility.” And doubtless this is why she just missed greatness, and has been consigned to the ranks of “standard” authors who are respectfully alluded to but seldom read. The lack of tenderness and imagination was perhaps the result of her unusual self-control, shown in her custom of writing in the family sitting-room, and so concentrating her mind on her work that she was deaf to all that went on about her. Surely some of the creative power of her mind must have been lost in that strenuous effort. Her noble character, as well as her talents, won for her the friendship of many distinguished people of her day. With Scott she was intimate, Byron found her charming, and Macaulay was an enthusiastic admirer. In her recently edited letters are found many interesting and valuable accounts of the people she met in the course of her long life.  2
  Miss Edgeworth’s life has been written by Helen Zimmern and Grace A. Oliver; her ‘Life and Letters,’ edited by Augustus J. C. Hare, appeared in 1895. ‘Pen Portraits of Literary Women,’ by Helen Gray Cone and Jeannette L. Gilder, contains a sketch of her. ‘Maria Edgeworth’ (1904) by the Hon. Emily Lawless, in the English Men of Letters series, should also be mentioned; and a delightful preface by Lady Thackeray Ritchie to Macmillan’s edition of her novels (1895).  3
 
 
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