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Reading and Selecting from Maria Edgeworth’s Letters by Valerie Pakenham

Valerie Pakenham © 20 November 2017.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Interviews · Memoir · Non-Fiction ).

I first came across Maria Edgeworth when I married in 1964 and came to live in Co. Westmeath, 15 miles from Edgeworthstown. Pakenhams and Edgeworths had intermarried in the early 18th century and there was a handsome copy of Richard Lovell Edgeworth’s Memoirs in our library recounting their visits to each other across a ‘vast Serbonian bog’. There was a charming illustrated set of Maria Edgeworth’s novels in an upstairs bedroom, but even more interesting were three discreet clothbound volumes with no titles. These turned out to be A Memoir of Maria Edgeworth, by her stepmother Frances Edgeworth and consisted largely of extracts from Maria’s own letters, privately printed eighteen years after her death. Several extracts described the house I now lived in when it was being transformed in the early 1800s into a gothic revival castle, complete with a heating system designed by Richard Lovell Edgeworth himself.

Forty years later, my interest in Maria received another boost: my daughter was working on a family biography of early 19th century Pakenhams (including the unfortunate Kitty who had married the great Duke of Wellington). Her research included photocopying many of Maria’s original letters, now available to read in two large collections. I was struck immediately by their raciness. Compared with the bland extracts in the Memoir, these were funny, irreverent and full of gossip. After further investigation, I discovered that those in the Memoir had been heavily sanitized by Maria’s half-sisters so as not to offend the living. Maria’s great-great-niece, Christina Colvin had since catalogued all the original family letters, and had edited two fat volumes of Maria Edgeworth’s Letters from England (OUP, 1971) and from France and Switzerland (OUP, 1979). But she had dismissed Maria’s letters from home as of mainly ‘domestic interest’. Here was a gap that surely cried out to be filled. Nearly all Maria’s adult life had been spent in Ireland. She had been brought to Edgeworthstown aged 14 in 1782 and died there in 1849 and had always described it as her beloved home.

My first stop was to check out Maria’s manuscript letters in the National Library in Dublin. It immediately became apparent there was plenty of unpublished material. A kind librarian directed me first to Maria’s teenage letters, written to a friend from her London boarding school, Fanny Robinson. Prim and serious, she reported her first attempt at writing a novel, and her impressions of Ireland, and lectured Fanny on the thrilling state of Irish politics – 1783 saw the Volunteers parading on College Green and her father was acting as Lord Charlemont’s aide de camp.
From these, I moved on to the main file of Edgeworth letters, running from the 1770s until 1817. Maria’s letters began again in the late 1780s, written mainly to her cousins and favourite aunt, who lived at Navan. They show her early attempts at writing stories for children – and report alarming news of so-called Defender attacks. Ireland was now seething with agrarian unrest, fanned by the revolutionary ideas from France. And in 1798, the Edgeworths found themselves in the direct path of the French army who had landed at Killala and defeated the local militia at Castlebar. Maria’s letters relate the family’s hurried flight to Longford town – and their return with relief to find the house untouched.

From 1800 until 1817, her letters are a goldmine for students of Irish or English fiction. After the success of Castle Rackrent (published in 1800) she was turning out a stream of novels and short stories, encouraged by her father. By 1813, she was probably the highest paid novelist of her time . But just as interesting to me was the underlying family story – her developing affection for her third stepmother, Frances Beaufort (two years younger than herself) and the latest batch of Edgeworth children, six in all. Frances consciously shared her children with her, to make up for the children Maria would never have.

The second collection of Edgeworth family letters, deposited in the Bodleian in Oxford turned out to be vastly larger. These run from 1818 until her death in 1849. As most of her novels were written earlier, these had hitherto attracted little attention from literary scholars. But to me they were even more exciting : Maria’s father had died in June 1817, and released from discipline as his “literary partner”, she wrote even more and longer letters than before. Some of them run to 20 closely written pages, necessitating fierce pruning to keep them within my book.

The Edgeworth estate had now passed to her eldest brother, Lovell who had spent 11 miserable years as a prisoner of war in France. Kind and idealistic, he set up a model school in Edgeworthstown, designed to bridge sectarian divides. But he was also a secret alcoholic and late in 1825, he confessed to having run up enormous debts – nearly £3,000,000 in today’s money.

It fell to Maria to rescue the estate; and she rose magnificently to the challenge, persuading her assorted siblings to pool their money to pay off the most urgent debtors, then scraping and saving where she could. By the early 1830s the estate was almost solvent again, though the unfortunate Lovell had been banished to Liverpool and his model school was closed down. It is fascinating to see Maria’s metamorphosis from celebrated author to practical estate manager; her letters become full of repairing roads and digging out drains: most of which she undertook with huge enjoyment.

After her father’s death, she completed only one novel, Helen (published in 1834). It was set in England. ‘It is impossible to draw Ireland as she is at present in any book of fiction,’ she wrote to her brother in India, ‘party passions (are) too violent to bear to see…’. By the 1830s her letters were reporting the electoral triumphs of O’Connell with alarm: tenants, as she saw it, being “driven like beasts” to vote against their landlords. O’Connell died just at the onset of the Great Famine. Maria, aged 80, roused herself to help organise local relief with her beloved stepmother. She wrote her last children’s story to raise funds in America two years before her death and even chose to hope that ‘the cry against Irish landlords’ would be put down by ‘their active exertions during the distress.’ How mistaken she was.

Nearly all Maria’s letters brim with optimism and affection for Ireland, though she was too intelligent not to realise that her class was under threat. That is the real Maria I hope these letters will show.

(c) Valerie Pakenham

About Maria Edgeworth’s Letters From Ireland:

January 1 2018 will be the 250th anniversary of Maria Edgeworth’s birth. Valerie Pakenham’s sparkling new selection of over four hundred letters, many hitherto unpublished, will help to celebrate her memory. Born in England, she was brought to live in Ireland at the age of fourteen and spent most of the rest of her life at the family home at Edgeworthstown, Co. Longford. Encouraged by her remarkable father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, whose memoirs she edited, she became, in turn, famous for her children’s stories, her practical guides to education and her novels – or, as she preferred to call them, ‘Moral Tales’. By 1813, when visiting London, she was, as Byron testified, as great a literary lion as he had been the season before, and she was hugely admired by fellow novelists Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen.

Maria Edgeworth’s posthumous fame has dwindled and only her first novel, Castle Rackrent (1800), a brilliant burlesque account of the Irish squirearchy, is still widely read. She was, however, a prolific and fascinating letter writer. She insisted that her letters were for private consumption only, but after her death, her stepmother and half-sisters produced a private memoir for friends using carefully selected extracts. Their literary quality was spotted by Augustus Hare, whose shortened version, The Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth, appeared in 1894.

In the 1970s Maria’s great great niece, Christina Colvin edited Maria Edgeworth’s Letters from England and Maria Edgeworth in France & Switzerland. No one, however, has revisited fully Maria’s original letters from the place she loved and knew best: Ireland. From 1825, Maria’s letters reflect sixty years of Irish history, from the heady days of Grattan’s Parliament, through the perils of the 1798 Rebellion to the rise of O’Connell and the struggle for Catholic Emancipation. In old age, she worked actively to alleviate the Great Famine and wrote her last story to raise money aged 82. A treasure trove of stories, humour, local and high-level gossip, her letters show the extraordinary range of her interests: history, politics, literature and science.

Maria almost single-handedly took over the management of her family estate and restored it to solvency. Her later letters brim with delight at these practical undertakings and her affection for the local people she worked with. Two of her half-sisters and her stepmother were gifted artists, and Valerie Pakenham has been able to use many of their unpublished drawings and sketches to illustrate this book.

Order your copy online here.


Valerie Pakenham worked as a journalist in London at Condé Nast and the Daily Mail before her marriage to the writer Thomas Pakenham. Her most recent book is The Big House in Ireland, an anthology published in 2001. She has lived in Westmeath, fourteen miles from Maria Edgeworth’s old family home in Edgeworthstown, for over fifty years and is familiar with many of the places described in these letters. The Pakenham and Edgeworth families intermarried in the early eighteenth century and were close friends across several generations.
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