Maria Edgeworth

Produced by Chuck Greif, the University of Michigan
Libraries and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at

Famous Women.



The next volumes in the Famous Women Series will be:

Sarah and Angelina Grimke. By Mrs. Birney.
Anne Bradstreet. By Helen Campbell.
Already published:
George Eliot. By Miss Blind.
Emily Brontë. By Miss Robinson.
George Sand. By Miss Thomas.
Mary Lamb. By Mrs. Gilchrist
Margaret Fuller. By Julia Ward Howe.
Maria Edgeworth. By Miss Zimmern.

decorative bar: Famous Women





Copyright, 1883,
University Press: John Wilson and Son, Cambridge.



Though many notices of Miss Edgeworth have appeared from time to time, nothing approaching to a Life of her has been published in this country. As I have had the good fortune to have access to an unpublished memoir of her, written by her stepmother, as well as to a large number of her private letters, I am enabled to place what I hope is at least an authentic biography before the reader. Besides much kindness received from the members of Miss Edgeworth’s family, I have also to acknowledge my obligations for help afforded in the preparation of this little book to Mrs. George Ticknor and Miss Ticknor of Boston, U. S. A., Mrs. Le Breton, Sir Henry Holland, Bart., the Rev. Canon Holland, the Rev. Dr. Sadler and Mr. F. Y. Edgeworth.

H. Z.

London, August, 1883.



Early Years17
“Practical Education”—Children’s Books52
Irish and Moral Tales73
In France and at Home88
Fashionable and Popular Tales116
Visit to London—Mr. Edgeworth’s Death144
later Novels—General Estimate161
Visits Abroad and at Home193
Mr. Edgeworth’s Memoirs Published—1821 To 1825     214
1826 TO 1834237
Last Years269





Too many memoirs begin with tradition; to trace a subject ab ovo seems to have a fatal attraction for the human mind. It is not needful to retrace so far in speaking of Miss Edgeworth; but, for a right understanding of her life and social position, it is necessary to say some words about her ancestry. Of her family and descent she might well be proud, if ancestry alone, apart from the question whether those ancestors of themselves merit the admiration of their descendants, be a legitimate source of pride. The Edgeworths, originally established, it is believed, at Edgeworth, now Edgeware, in Middlesex, would appear to have settled in Ireland in the sixteenth century. The earliest of whom we have historical record is Roger Edgeworth, a monk, who followed in the footsteps of his sovereign, Henry VIII., both by being a defender of the faith and by succumbing to the bright eyes of beauty, for whose sake he finally renounced Catholicism and married. His sons, Edward and Francis; went to Ireland. The elder brother, Edward, became Bishop of Down and Connor, and died without issue. It was the younger, Francis, who founded the house of Edgeworth of Edgeworthstown; and ever since Edgeworthstown, in the county of Longford, Ireland, has remained in the possession of the family whence it derived its name. The Edgeworths soon became one of the most powerful families in the district, and experienced their full share of the perils and vicissitudes of the stormy period that apparently ended with the victories of William III. Most members of the family seem to have been gay and extravagant, living in alternate affluence and distress, and several of Maria Edgeworth’s characters of Irish squires are derived from her ancestors. The family continued Protestant—the famous Abbé Edgeworth was a convert—and Maria Edgeworth’s great-grandfather was so zealous in the reformed cause as to earn for himself the sobriquet of “Protestant Frank.” His son married a Welsh lady, who became the mother of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, a man who will always be remembered as the father of his daughter. He was, however, something more than this; and as the lives of the father and daughter were throughout so intimately interwoven, a brief account of his career is needful for a comprehension of hers.

Richard Lovell Edgeworth was born at Bath in 1744, and spent his early years partly in England, partly in Ireland, receiving a careful education. In his youth he was known as “a gay philosopher,” in the days when the word philosopher was still used in its true sense of a lover of wisdom. Light-hearted and gay, good-humored and self-complacent; possessed of an active and cultivated mind, just and fearless, but troubled with neither loftiness nor depth of feeling, Richard Lovell Edgeworth was nevertheless a remarkable personage, when the time at which he lived is taken into account. He foresaw much of the progress our own century has made, clearly indicated some of its features, and actually achieved for agriculture and industry a multitude of inventions, modest as far as the glory of the world attaches to them, but none the less useful for the services they render. Many of his ideas, rejected as visionary and impracticable when he first promulgated them, have now become the common property of mankind. He was no mere theorist; when he had established a theory he loved to put it into practice, and as his theories ranged over many and wide fields, so did his experiments. Even in late life, when most persons care only to cultivate repose, he threw himself, with all the ardor of youth, into schemes of improvement for the good of Ireland; for he was sincerely devoted to her true welfare, and held in contempt the mock patriotism that looks only to popularity. In early life he sowed a certain quantity of wild oats, the result of the super-abundant animal spirits that distinguished him, and at the age of sixteen contracted a mock-marriage, which his father found needful to have annulled by a process of law. After this escapade he was entered at Corpus Christi, Oxford, as a gentleman commoner. During his residence he became intimate with the family of Mr. Elers, a gentleman of German descent, who resided at Black Bourton, and was father to several pretty girls. Mr. Elers had previously warned the elder Edgeworth against introducing into his home circle the gay and gallant Richard, remarking that he could give his daughters no fortunes that would make them suitable matches for this young gentleman. Mr. Edgeworth, however, turned a deaf ear to the warning, and the result was that the collegian became so intimate at the house, and in time so entangled by the court he had paid to one of the daughters, that, although he had meanwhile seen women he liked better, he could not honorably extricate himself. In later life he playfully said: “Nothing but a lady ever did turn me aside from my duty.” He certainly was all his days peculiarly susceptible to female charms, and, had opportunity been afforded him, might have rivalled Henry VIII. in the number of his wives. This second marriage gave as little satisfaction to his father as the first, but the elder Edgeworth wisely recognized the fact that he was himself not wholly blameless in the matter. He, therefore, a few months after the ceremony had been performed at Gretna Green, gave his consent to a formal re-marriage by license. Thus, before he was twenty, Richard Lovell Edgeworth was a husband and a father. The marriage entered upon so hastily proved unfortunate; the pair were totally unsuited to one another; and though Mrs. Edgeworth appears to have been a worthy woman, to judge from the few and somewhat ungenerous allusions her husband makes to her in his biography, they did not sympathize intellectually—a point he might have discovered before marriage. The consequence was that he sought sympathy and pleasure elsewhere. He divided his time between Ireland, London and Lichfield. The latter city was the centre of a somewhat prim, self-conscious, exclusive literary coterie, in which Dr. Darwin, the singer of the Botanic Garden, Miss Anna Seward, the “Swan of Lichfield,” and the eccentric wife-trainer, Thomas Day, the author of Sanford and Merton, were conspicuous figures. They were most of them still in their youthful hey-day, unknown to fame, and, as yet, scarcely aspiring towards it. Here, in this, to him, congenial circle of eager and ardent young spirits, Richard Lovell Edgeworth loved to disport himself; now finding a sympathetic observer of his mechanical inventions in Mr. Watt, Dr. Darwin or Mr. Wedgwood; now flirting with the fair Anna. He must have posed as a bachelor, for he relates how, on one occasion, when paying compliments to Miss Seward, Mrs. Darwin took the opportunity of drinking “Mrs. Edgeworth’s health,” a name that caused manifest surprise to the object of his affections. Here, too, he became imbued with the educational theories of Rousseau, which clung to him, in a modified degree, throughout his life, and according to which, in their most pronounced form, he educated his eldest son. Here, further, at the age of twenty-six, he met the woman he was to love most deeply. From the moment he saw Miss Honora Sneyd, Mr. Edgeworth became enamored, and in his attentions to her he does not seem to have borne in mind the fact that he was a married man.

“I am not a man of prejudices,” he complacently wrote in later life; “I have had four wives.[1] The second and third were sisters, and I was in love with the second in the life-time of the first.”

The man who could make this public statement, and who could, moreover, leave to his daughter the task of publishing the record of his ill-assorted union with the woman who was her mother, was certainly one in whom good taste and good feeling were not preëminent. The birth of this daughter, who was destined to be his companion and friend, is an event he does not even note in his memoirs, which are more occupied with his affection for Miss Sneyd, from whose fascinations he at last felt it would be prudent to break away. He left England for a lengthened stay in France, taking with him his son, whose Rousseau education was to be continued, and accompanied by Mr. Day, who, to please Miss Elizabeth Sneyd, was about to put himself through a course of dancing and deportment, with a view to winning her consent to a marriage if he could succeed in taming his savage limbs and ideas into proper social decorum. The death of his wife recalled Mr. Edgeworth to England. With all possible speed he hastened to Lichfield, proposed to Honora Sneyd, was accepted, and married her within four months of his wife’s demise. Mr. Edgeworth, the elder, had died some time previously; the son was now, therefore, master of Edgeworthstown. Immediately after his marriage he set out for Ireland, taking with him his bride and four little children. From that date forward a new era in his life commenced. It was not to run any longer in a separate course from that of his family.



Maria Edgeworth was born january 1st, 1767, in the house of her grandfather, Mr. Elers. Thus this distinguished authoress was an Englishwoman by birth, though Irish and German by race. At Black Bourton her earliest years were spent. Her father, who had taken in hand his little son to train according to the principles enunciated in Emile, took little notice of her, leaving her to the care of a fond, soft-hearted mother and doting aunts. The result was that the vivacity of her early wit was encouraged and the sallies of her quick temper unrepressed. Of her mother she retained little remembrance beyond her death, and how she was taken into the room to receive her last kiss. Mrs. Edgeworth had died in London at the house of some aunts in Great Russell street, and there Maria remained until her father’s second marriage. Of her new mother Maria at first felt great awe, which soon gave place to sincere regard and admiration. Her father had been to her from babyhood the embodiment of perfection, and the mere fact that he required love from her for his new wife was sufficient to insure it. But she also learnt to love her for her own sake, and, indeed, if the statement of so partial a witness as Mr. Edgeworth can be accepted, she must have been a woman of uncommon power and charm.

Of her first visit to Ireland Maria recollected little except that she was a mischievous child. One day, when no one heeded her, she amused herself with cutting out the squares in a checked sofa-cover. Another day she trampled through a number of hot-bed frames that had just been glazed and laid on the grass. She could recall her delight at the crashing of the glass; but most immorally, and in direct opposition to her later doctrines, did not remember either cutting her feet or being punished for this freak. It was probably her exuberant spirits, added to the fact that Mrs. Honora Edgeworth’s health began to fail after her removal to the damp climate of Ireland, that caused Maria to be sent to school. In 1775 she was placed at Derby with a Mrs. Latffiere, of whom she always spoke with gratitude and affection. Though eight years old, she would seem to have known very little, for she was wont to record that on the first day of her entrance into the school she felt more admiration at a child younger than herself repeating the nine parts of speech, than she ever felt afterwards for any effort of human genius. The first letter extant from her pen is dated thence, and though of no intrinsic merit, but rather the ordinary formal letter of a child under such circumstances, it deserves quotation because it is the first.