N4, Edgeworthstown, Longford, Ireland
It’s perhaps fair to say most people these days have never read one of Maria Edgeworth’s novels. But Jane Austen did. So did William Makepeace Thackeray, Ivan Turgenev and Walter Scott. She was popular in her time. And in some respects, a game-changer. Her novels have a social realism quite new at the time of their publication. In fact, Jane Austen said of her 1801 novel, Belinda, that it proved the worth of novel writing as an art form. And six years before that, Maria had published an essay called Letters for Literary Ladies – a passionate plea for reform in women’s education. She was born in Oxfordshire in 1768 into a well-to-do family of Anglo-Irish politicians, scientists and thinkers. When Maria was 14, the family moved to their estate in Edgeworthstown, County Longford. It’s there that Maria Edgeworth started writing. Her experiences in Ireland informed her writing – her 1800 novella Castle Rackrent satirises the mismanagement of the vast estates owned in Ireland by Anglo-Irish landlords. Maria was in favour of Catholic Emancipation and worked hard to improve the education and living standards of the poor living around her in Edgeworthstown. And much later in her life during the Famine of the 1840s, she worked hard to alleviate the suffering of the poor, even donating the money made from sales of her novel Orlandino to the Relief Fund. But her charity had limits. She only wanted to provide relief to tenants who’d paid their rent in full. Maria Edgeworth died suddenly of a heart attack in 1849. She was 81. The many novels she wrote during her long life are now largely forgotten. As is much of her other literary output. The estate that bore her family name is now part of a small town, Edgeworthstown. People come and go, visit the shops and pubs…and most of them don’t spare a thought for Maria Edgeworth. A woman of great talent. But a woman for whom charity had caveats.