Tuesday 21 November 2017

A lady of letters

Non-fiction: Maria Edgeworth's Letters from Ireland, Valerie Pakenham, Lilliput Press, hardback, 420 pages, €39.43

Dedicated follower: Maria Edgeworth had a fascination with fashion
Dedicated follower: Maria Edgeworth had a fascination with fashion
Maria Edgeworth's Letters from Ireland

Valerie Pakenham has compiled a sparkling collection of correspondence from Maria Edgeworth, giving a fascinating insight on the great and the good visiting the Longford family pile, writes Professor Claire Connolly.

The Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth lived in Co Longford for almost all of her long life. Born in England in 1768 to Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Anna Maria Elers, she moved with her widowed father to Edgeworthstown in 1782.

In an early letter, Edgeworth writes to an English school friend that the Irish are "the laziest civilised nation on the face of the earth" while also being "remarkably hospitable to strangers, friendly and charitable to each other".Such superficial comments deepened into a real love of Longford and its environs, and soon cousins were to laugh at her description of "perfect felicity" as a trip "on the Foxhall or Mullingar Road". In a letter written to a brother in India in 1834, she confesses that she no longer feels able to write about Ireland - "realities are too strong, party passion too violent" - but avows her intention to "think of it continually & LISTEN & LOOK & LEARN".

From 1800, Edgeworth wrote about Ireland in books that earned her a reputation as the most successful and serious novelist of her day. Generations of readers have admired her ironic treatment of the lives of the Anglo-Irish in Castle Rackrent, a wickedly funny account of successive generations of landlords as seen through the eyes of their steward, Thady Quirke.

The editor of an invaluable selection of Edgeworth's correspondence, Valerie Pakenham, tells us that when she married Thomas Pakenham (the present Lord Longford), "several friends had already pressed on me copies of Castle Rackrent (perhaps as a warning!)".

Maria Edgeworth's Letters from Ireland gives us many reasons to be grateful that this early interest in Edgeworth's writing flourished. In selecting, transcribing and annotating these letters, Pakenham has undertaken heroic labours.

Deciphering Edgeworth's handwriting is no easy matter, nor can it have been straightforward to sort through the tangle of step-siblings, relatives, nephews and nieces, friends and connections in order to give us a much-needed map of the social world of the Edgeworth family.

With a light touch, Pakenham guides readers through Maria's life story. The volume is chiefly made up of the letters themselves, accompanied by an introduction, brief linking paragraphs, helpful short notes and information about the Edgeworth family and wider circle. Black and white illustrations evoke the people and places discussed, and many drawings done by members of the Edgeworth family are reproduced.

The book presents Maria Edgeworth as a "domestic being", happy at home 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, eldest daughter of Daniel O'Connell and herself a poet, described Edgeworth's first novel Castle Rackrent as a book of "revolting unpleasantness". Edgeworth and O'Connell had little time for each other: he suspected that she had based a flashy scoundrel in one of her novels on him, and she thought that he was a dangerous man who incited the Irish to violence.

Yet they shared an intimate knowledge of and deep absorption in the divided social worlds of 19th-century Ireland. As these letters show, she cared passionately about the cause of Catholic Emancipation and wrote constantly to friends in London seeking news of the latest debates in Parliament.

It took the emergence of feminist criticism and an appetite for the recovery of earlier women's writing in the 1970s to create the conditions for a new appreciation of Maria Edgeworth. Marilyn Butler's 1972 biography 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

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