Playwright, novelist and women’s advocate
1767 - 1849
Born on New Year’s day 1767 in Oxfordshire England, Maria Edgeworth moved to Ireland in 1782, and went on to be one of the greatest intellectuals in Ireland and beyond for more than half a century.
Maria’s childhood was spent in Edgeworthstown, County Longford where she worked alongside her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth in the running of his large estate as his secretary and assistant. Her mother, Anna Maria Elers died when Maria was just six years old and Maria’s father remarried three times.
While working with her father, Maria acquired the knowledge and insight into the lives of Irish landlords and tenants, a knowledge which formed the background for her many Irish novels including Castlerackrent published in 1800. It was an immediate literary success and became the most famous of her Irish works.
Apart from her publications on Irish life, Maria was a committed advocate of reform of women’s education and in 1795, aged 28, she published ‘Letters for Literary Ladies,’ it was her first publication. She was consistent in her work and ‘focused her talent on the moral improvement of her contemporaries, young and old’.
Maria Edgeworth was a woman who influenced a host of young writers of her day including Jane Austen, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Turgenev. Walter Scott and Maria had a sincere friendship with both ‘united in their love of nature’ and Maria has been credited with influencing many of his novels. While she never married, Maria had many friendships including a lasting friendship with the chief justice of Ireland, Judge Lefroy whom - it was alleged - was the only lover of Jane Austen.
Maria’s extensive and strenuous work as a public benefactor during the Irish famine when she was in her eighties, and shortly before her own death in 1849, is evident in her many letters which still survive.
Remembered as a ‘moralist who has elevated the heart and understanding of countless readers’ Maria Edgeworth’s obituary elucidated the life of a woman who sadly today is too often forgotten. Her obituary noted that she was a ‘venerable lady who died peacefully in the calm of her domestic retirement’ in Edgeworthstown on 22 May 1849. She was remembered for encouraging younger people to embrace literature and as a respected author on the topics of gender, class, and identity. The closing lines of her obituary read ‘A storied urn, or animated bust would be inadequate to perpetuate her merits. Genius, true genius, requires no such memorial’.
Maria Edgeworth is interred in her family vault at St. John's Church, Edgeworthstown, County Longford.
Thanks to herstorian Damien Duffy for this week’s Herstory.