Since our last post, the days have got shorter, colder, and wetter. Winter has arrived in Oxford, and as frosts begin to form, thoughts turn to Christmas. When we last encountered the Edgeworths in our November Blog, Maria was busy devouring an eclectic assortment of literature with her newly-rested eyes. Little seems to have changed when she writes to her beloved sister Fanny on 22nd December 1819 (MS. Eng. lett. c.706, fols.17-18).
Here, she recounts the ‘curious facts’ and inventions she had gleaned from the latest issue of William T. Brande’s periodical publication, Journal of Science and Arts. Much like her hero Lewis in the moral tale A Sequel to Frank (1822), Maria Edgeworth appears to have spent the long winter evenings leading up to Christmas reading and talking to her family about books.
As for many of us today, Christmas was for the Edgeworths a time for family. Writing to Henry and Sneyd Edgeworth on Christmas Day 1807, Maria lamented the absence of her two brothers from the festivities of ‘the most agreeable family […] I ever was in’. That family would have ensured their ‘merry Christmas’ had they been present (1).
We don’t know how the Edgeworths spent Christmas Day in 1819. Unlike in 1807, there are no letters known to survive from Christmas Day 1819. Perhaps, like the titular character of Maria’s earlier novel Ormond (1817), it was spent feasting on a ‘festive dainty’ of goose and turkey. But the letters in the Bodleian do give us a tantalising insight into the Edgeworths’ activities in the weeks leading up to the big day.
As we discussed in our June blog post, the Edgeworth Papers are full of literary and epistolary fragments. Despite their incomplete status, these fragmentary forms provide touching, and at times comedic, insights into the everyday lives of the extended Edgeworth family. This is particularly evident in the letter fragment by Maria to her sister Fanny dated 19th December 1819 (MS. Eng. lett. c. 706 fol.16).
Here, Maria slips once more into the voice of the aspirant playwright heard in her plays Whim for Whim (1795) and Comic Dramas (1817), dramatizing one particularly unfortunate incident involving her seven-year-old half-brother Michael Pakenham and an unwelcome visitor to Edgeworthstown House:
Enter Pakenham ^one corner of^ handkerchief at eye
– & in great rage – those impertinent
Sheep! – What do you think Maria – Just
now I went to drive them away from
Honora’s plot & bed & the moment I
had driven ‘em off when I turned my back
one came up & set his great head against
My – behind & knocked me down
I never saw such a sheep in
my life – and he ran after
me to the steps
Among the Edgeworth papers, there is an attractive line drawing of Pakenham in April 1818 attentively listening to his older brother Francis read by his sister Honora, who gave the drawing to Maria in 1836 (MS. Eng. misc. c. 901, fol.32)
The Edgeworths’ walled kitchen garden at their home in County Longford is now carefully maintained by the Edgeworth Society. Back in 1819, the young Pakenham appears to have taken it on himself to defend the honour of the flowerbed tended by his sister Honora from the attentions of one of County Longford’s more rowdy woollen residents. Despite his valiant efforts, Pakenham’s heroic quest ended in tears, a bruised ego, and a sore behind. Maria is famed for her emphasis on a moral point to her tales. Here, perhaps, the take away is simply, ‘pick on someone your own size’.
Entertainments were commonly written and performed by large households like the Edgeworths during the festive period. Here in Oxford, we’ve been honouring this tradition of domestic entertainments by bringing one of Maria’s dramatic fragments to life. MS. Eng. misc. c. 897, fols.3-8 was written in c.1811, and is made up of a series of fragmentary scenes of downstairs and upstairs life as a group of young women prepare to visit the seaside resort of Brighton. Here is the first page of the manuscript and our transcription in which the conniving maid Miss Lapell plans to sweet talk the housekeeper Mrs Wright into putting in a word for her to take employment with young Lady Flora so as to ensure she joins the jaunt to Brighton.
Thanks to the inspired dramatic treatment of director Ellen Brewster, and a wonderful cast of student actors (Jemima Hubberstey, Olivia Krauze and Eugenie Nevin), Maria’s untitled and incomplete scenes were performed under the title Brighton Ambitious for a group of Edgeworth scholars from around the world as part of a workshop held at the University of Oxford this month. Maria had little success as a professional dramatist, and never realised her ambition of having a play staged professionally. But the vibrancy of her wit can been seen in this short fragment, of which we only wish we had more. The performance was filmed, and we hope to share this sparkling example of Maria’s dramatic talent online with you soon.
Almost as exciting as the run up to Christmas for our project team has been the preparation and recent opening of our exhibition in the Proscholium of the Old Bodleian Library. ‘Meet the Edgeworths’ focuses on the family’s lives at home and abroad, as well as Maria’s literary fame. Entry is free, and the exhibition is open 9am-5pm daily until 26th January 2020.
This will be followed on Wednesday February 5th 2020 by the Marilyn Butler Memorial Lecture at the Weston Lecture Theatre, Bodleian Library, Oxford. This year, Dr Clíona Ó Gallchoir (Faculty of English, Cork University) will open up the topic of Maria Edgeworth’s engagement with the dramatic and the theatre. Her lecture is entitled ‘Trap doors in private houses: Drama and Theatricality in the Work of Maria Edgeworth’. The event is free and open to the public. Do please join us for the lecture and drinks thereafter in the Rector’s Drawing Room of Exeter College, Oxford, where the distinguished Edgeworth scholar, Professor Marilyn Butler, herself served as Rector from 1993 to 2004.
As we begin to look forward to the next stages of our project, we wish you all a Merry Christmas, and look forward to sharing more stories from the Edgeworth Papers with you in the New Year.
– Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull
1. Frances Beaufort Edgeworth and Maria Edgeworth, A Memoir of Maria Edgeworth: With a Selection from Her Letters (London, 1867), 3 volumes, volume I, p.205.