Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
Maria Edgeworth (17681849)
[Maria Edgeworth was the daughter of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, the representative of an old family of Irish proprietors, and was born in Oxfordshire in 1768. Her education was obtained chiefly in England; and through her fathers connections she became early imbued with what were held to be enlightened views on practical education. These influenced her earliest writings, which began with the Parents Assistant in 1796, and Practical Education in 1798. Her knowledge of literature was large; her opportunities for intellectual intercourse abundant; and her acquaintance with foreign languages very considerable. The most valuable part of her work was due to her acuteness of observation, her ready perception of national characteristics, especially those of the Irish, amongst whom she spent the largest part of her life, and her liveliness of description. The first book in which these powers were shown was Castle Rackrent (1800) and this was followed by a long list of tales, classified by her fathers advice and influence, under various headingsPopular, Moral, Fashionable, etc. Her most active period of work closed in 1817, when Harrington and Ormond were published; only one other novel, Helen, followed in 1834; but it did not attain the popularity of its predecessors. In later life she enjoyed the warm friendship of Scott, and was an important figure in the literary society of the day. She died in 1849.]
MARIA EDGEWORTH is one of those authors of whom it is difficult to say whether the reputation transcends or falls below the merits. Her name is familiar to all, many of her books are read habitually, and retain their hold on a large audience, some of her characters are household words, and on the whole we of the present generation are fairly well acquainted with her methods and her aims, which were clear and definite. But, on the other hand, those books which are most read are not the books in which she allowed her talents most of free play. She is best known as a writer of childrens books, of which the popularity does not show much sign of failing; and in these her common sense and healthy didacticism rouse no opposition. The audience for whom she wrote them is fortunately not supercilious enough, unless it has been nurtured under morbid conditions, to object to any obtrusiveness of moral teaching; and in spite of all the caprices of fashion, Miss Edgeworth retains a perennial hold upon their sympathy. It may be questioned, indeed, whether that preference will not become stronger, in the reaction against a fashion which strives to please children, and captivate their attention, by books which have some flavour of humour more readily perceived by grown-up people than by healthy-minded children.
On the other hand, it may be doubted whether the books which she wrote for older readers, and in which she must stand comparison with other writers of fiction, have not been injured by the didacticism of her childrens books. The influence of her early associations, the impression of her fathers theories, and those of his friends, the undue consciousness of a moral purpose which impresses us so strongly, did undoubtedly tend to limit her freedom of fancy, and to give a certain air of formality to most of her pictures of life. The literary partnership between father and daughter is not unpleasing, but the little descriptive prefaces which W. Edgeworth wrote to most of his daughters works do certainly give them an air of artificiality which his influence constantly impressed upon her. The very superficial views as to what he and his friends called practical educationwhich even so friendly a critic as Scott shatters in one or two sentences of sound common sensemarred all her views of human nature and of society, and gave to her world too much of the atmosphere of the schoolroom. She harps too much on one string; the moral is unnaturally obtrusive; her characters range themselves too distinctly as bad or good, and their fates are too uniformly regulated upon the principles of retributive justice to be quite true to nature.
It would be absurd, however, to deny to her the merits of brightness and facility in constructing her stories, the power of life-like description and of vivid portrayal of character, and an observation which grasped with truth and accuracy the salient features of Irish life. Her Castle Rackrent has little of connected story, but it is the most distinctively classical of all her books, and its vitality as a picture of Irish manners is assured. She is never at a loss for incident. If she fails in painting any sustained passion or feeling, she nevertheless gives us true pictures of quick and varied impulses, superficial perhaps, but real so far as they go. Her imagination is limited, and she seems often to throw away opportunities for showing strong passion or pathos. She has none of the consummate delicacy of workmanship that is the chief glory of Jane Austens genius. She has just as little of the poetry and romance that have given to Scott his sovereignty. She lacks even discrimination of feeling, and sometimes jars upon us by the bluntness with which she slurs over its finer subtleties. But so far as her limit reaches, she is a truthful delineator; sound in her methods, never deviating into absurdity, guided uniformly by good sense, and catching with accuracy and readiness all salient features of character.
Her style is easy, pliant, and vigorous; timid, perhaps, in its avoidance of all eccentricities, and somewhat overburdened by imitation of accredited literary models, but always correct, and free from tawdriness and exaggeration. Like the other attributes of her work, it shows earnestness and thoroughness of care and attention: and we are not surprised, when we watch the result, to read in one of her fathers prefaces, that every page of her printed writings represents twice as many pages as were written; and yet not the least convincing proof of this care is that she has been able to avoid any obtrusive evidence of toil: and that if she spent much labor limæ she has given no sign of it in cumbrousness or pedantry of style.
The specimens given below are selected with a view of giving typical instances of Miss Edgeworths style. But perhaps the reader will forgive the selector for the remark which, after a very full perusal of her works, he feels compelled to make, that the passage headed The Hibernian Mendicant represents that style at its bestand that in it she rises almost above herself, every phrase and every word in it showing, almost without a flaw, how raciness and homeliness of description may be made to fit the sentiment as exactly and as perfectly as a glove.