Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Maria Edgeworth (1768–1849)
Maria Edgeworth (1768–1849) edit
Maria Edgeworth was a famous female author and pioneer of female education reform, who was believed to be born in 1767 or 1768, in Oxon, England. Maria was born into a well-known family, her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, was a respected educator and inventor. Mother, Anna Maria Elers, was also very interested and involved in the progression of female education. Maria’s father was raised among a wealthy group of Protestant landlords, inheriting a large family estate in Ireland, to which Maria had visited throughout her youth and into adulthood. This became a source of inspiration for several of her pieces writings.
Her father’s inventions even reached the notoriety of Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. “Erasmus invited Richard to join the Lunar Society, a gathering of the most progressive scientists and philosophers in England at the time.”(Encyclopedia.com). There's no doubt Edgeworth was raised in a household that encouraged her to ambitiously pursue her intellectual endeavours, one of which was her particular interest in education and new “pedagogical theories". In collaboration with her father, she conducted research and recorded findings of various educational theories, noting these collective findings in their 1789 work: 'Practical Education'. Edgeworth’s father was even noted as giving her “one of her younger brothers to supervise as her own special project, granting her the chance to test the educational ideas they were developing.”(Encyclopedia.com).
Edgeworth rose to success and 'celebrity' in 1813, her books becoming a norm in households. Unfortunately, this came with criticism. One critic at the time, Sydney Smith, claimed "if she put in her novels people who fed her and her odious father she is not trustworthy". (Connolly.) Edgeworth was also often criticised for her use of "unladylike" language, despite her careful and creative way with prose. As Claire Connolly pointed out in her Irish Times article, "A contradiction was now becoming apparent: as the novel rose in prestige, due in no small part to the works of Edgeworth, the reputation of women novelists declined."
Over the course of her lifetime, Edgeworth contributed a collection of works across several genres from 1795 through to 1848. Focusing specifically on children’s literature, regional and rural tales, and instructional, educational texts.
This selection of published works contributed largely to the educational reform of 18th century, as it challenged the preconceived notion that women should not be educated like men. Pushing the radical ideology for women and girls to be included in every aspect of education. As a result, Edgeworth’s works have also contributed largely to the development of women writers as a whole, as her own publications not only pushed for reform but inspired younger girls to peruse and engage with intellectual endeavours. These contributions “rightly earned (her) a reputation as one of the greatest novelists that Ireland has ever produced” (Classic Irish Plays).
Maria’s writings, particularly her children’s literature, and education writings were “avidly read and discussed by parents and educational institutes all across Britain and Europe, and soon made the Edgeworth’s the most widely respected authorities on education in the early 19th century"(Classic Irish Plays). Through her research and writing, Edgeworth also contributed to a greater progression of education, advocating strongly for a future in which finally recognised the achievements and contributions of the women by involved them in engaging and interesting intellectual conversations.
List of Works: edit
- 'Letters for Literary Ladies', 1795
- 'Practical Education', 1798
- 'Castle Rackrent', 1800
- 'Leonora', 1806
- 'Tales of Fashionable Life', 1809,1812
- 'Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth', 1820
- 'Helen', 1834
- 'Orlandino', 1848
Edgeworth's legacy depicts her as a strong, intellectual, and progressive feminist all the way from her childhood, throughout her early publications such as 'Letters for Literary Ladies' (1795) and well into the end of her career as an author and eventual death on May 22, 1849. Her life is a reflection of her unwavering commitment to education, writing, and the advocation for women in all domains of life.
Edgeworth’s legacy during her life was one of admiration, respect, and appreciation for her countless contributions. Particularly in her educational texts and children’s literature, as she was recognized for her ability to instruct children “without sacrificing the art of storytelling”(Encyclopedia.com). Her ability to write so eloquently whilst always capturing the mind and heart of the child, held her in high esteem, both within the writing domain and outside of it. It was believed she did so by maintaining very traditional approaches to storytelling, through crafting stories for her younger siblings which she continued to refine well. Many said her legacy remains as “one of the first adults to write stories that truly appealed to the mental world of children, teaching them by enchanting them.”(Encyclopedia.com)
Moreover, her contributions to children’s literature extended beyond just an “author of six plays for children… Edgeworth was also a pioneering figure in the field of Theatre of Young Audiences”(Classic Irish Plays). Also similar to her moralistic children’s literature, she also continued informing all people the importance of showing “greater civic responsibility”, highlighting her depth as an author and moral standing (Classic Irish Plays).
It is therefore undeniable that Edgeworth made important and beneficial contributions to the educational bodies of thought, particularly through advocating for educational reform to include women and young girls in receiving a proper education and perusing their own individual intellectual curiosities. Therefore, I believe people’s opinions of Edgeworth only deeper with time as her contributions inspire many young women regardless, making her legacy both then and now one that speaks for itself.
There are concerted efforts in her birthplace to properly mark and preserve her important legacy. (Connolly.)
Further Reading edit
To understand more fully the contribution Edgeworth has had in the pioneering of women’s writing and education at large it is advisable to look more into her own publications.
These publications include:
- Letters for Literary Ladies, 1795
- Practical Education, 1798
- Castle Rackrent, 1800
- Leonora, 1806
- Tales of Fashionable Life, 1809,1812
- Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, 1820
- Helen, 1834
Interest in the reformation of education in England began in the late 18th and 19th centuries. The desire for the improvement of both men and women’s formal education allowed for a broadening of women’s knowledge that had previously been highly restricted. This was due to the growth pf industry, improved transportation and advances in medical knowledge and practice, that made the extension of education to all citizens seen as obvious to continue to improve society.
Miller, P. J. “Women's Education, 'Self-Improvement' and Social Mobility-A Late Eighteenth Century Debate.” British Journal of Educational Studies, vol. 20, no. 3, 1972, pp. 302–314. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3120775. Accessed 4 June 2021.
- Miller, P. J. “Women's Education, 'Self-Improvement' and Social Mobility-A Late Eighteenth Century Debate.” British Journal of Educational Studies, vol. 20, no. 3, 1972, pp. 302–314. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3120775. Accessed 4 June 2021.