In 1745, 53-year-old Englishwoman Lady Elizabeth Cathcart married for the fourth time. Her new husband, 35-year-old Colonel Hugh Maguire, was an Irishman from County Fermanagh. Shortly after their marriage, Maguire discovered the true extent of Lady Cathcart’s wealth and, when she would not hand over her jewellery and property, he took her to Ireland and imprisoned her at his home, Tempo House. The story went that it was not until his death, 22 years later, that Lady Cathcart was released. Freedom suited Lady Cathcart: she lived for a further 22 years, dying in 1789. She did not remarry. You can find out more about her story on the BBC website.
Writing in the late 1790s, Maria Edgeworth used Lady Cathcart, her villainous husband and her imprisonment as a model in Castle Rackrent (1800), in which Sir Kit locks up his English Jewish wife for seven years. Like her real-life counterpart, Lady Kit flees her gaol only when her husband dies. Maria recalls Lady Cathcart in a letter to her Aunt Ruxton, written on 21 January 1820, having recently ‘luncheoned’ with Mr Nugent, ‘the son of old Nugent of Kisolla’, who had attended Lady Cathcart back to England following her release:
I fell into discourse with
him concerning olden times & Lady
Cathcart, her jewels &c. I asked if I had
understood his father rightly that she
was very avaricious. “Yes Ma’am but she
“could send very odd presents. She
“sent my father Ma’am some time
“after she returned to England a
“present of a bed side carpet and of
“an old dress which she had worn
“when she was Lady Mayoress she
“said, and which she said was very
“valuable. I remember seeing it &
“fingering it when I was a boy it was
“some shift silk that stood an end with
“silver flowers tarnished, but we thought
“it mighty odd”.
It is an odd story, not least because Maria does not provide any further commentary beyond repeating Nugent’s account. As in Castle Rackrent, the story is left to speak for itself, without a framing narrative perspective. Are we to see Lady Cathcart as an object of ridicule (a miser who overvalues the most tawdry of her possessions) or an object of pity (a victim of trauma trapped in that past where she was confined to an attic room with a prayer book and an old newspaper for company)?
Maria’s continued interest in Lady Cathcart speaks to her particular interest in incidents from real-life; her novels frequently include sketches of ‘real’ happenings or persons that were known to Maria and her circle. People on the side-lines might rarely make history themselves, but the (younger) Nugent here acts as a kind of informant, from whom Maria can piece together more material. Sometimes, however, marginal figures do get cast centre stage. It should be remembered that Castle Rackrent is narrated by Thady Quirk, the estate’s steward, rather than the landowners themselves. In this same letter, Maria tells her Aunt that ‘In the next Farmers Journal you will see a short tribute to our excellent faithful Mrs Bellamore’. Though by no means as newsworthy as Lady Cathcart (whose obituary, preserving her story for posterity, appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine, August 1789, pp.766-7 among the ‘Obituaries of Considerable Persons, with biographical anecdotes’), Kitty Bellamore had been the family’s longstanding housekeeper. You can see a picture of her in our October blog. The presence of both Lady Cathcart and Mrs Bellamore in this letter reflect Maria’s wide-ranging interests and concerns; in her letters she frequently juxtaposes the tales of women of rank with more domestic and quotidian news about the Edgeworth family – servants and all. And she concludes this letter with a brief enquiry about the health of her aunt’s servant, Molly Coffey.
It is perhaps Maria’s amplifying of all kinds of person and voice that makes Castle Rackrent foundational to the development of both ‘National Tale’ and ‘Historical’ novels. In the ‘deep snow’ and ‘cold frosty weather’ at Edgeworthstown in January 1820, we find Maria, her sisters and aunts reading another novel by an author praised for his development of the ‘National Tale’, Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, which had just been published on 20 December 1819. Maria and Scott had been in correspondence since the publication of Waverley in 1814, and he acknowledged her influence on his writing. Ivanhoe may have triggered a reminiscence of the Cathcart tale and her reworking of it in Castle Rackrent: Scott’s Saxon hero, Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, recovers from his wounds in a tournament due to the tender ministrations of a Jewish healer, Rebecca. He in turn rushes to fight for Rebecca when she claims the right to be tried for witchcraft by combat. English, Jewish and Irish onomastic variants seem to meet and mingle in the author’s imagination in this letter: Anglo-Saxon brewer’s daughter Lady Cath(cart), the fictional Jewess Lady Kit and the Irish Kitty Bellamore.
Eugène Delacroix, Rebecca and the Wounded Ivanhoe, 1823, Oil on Canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The letter tells us a little about reading at Edgeworthstown House, as the volumes of Ivanhoe moved among the Edgeworth family members prompting imaginative engagements and correspondence beyond their bedchambers:
We have all been reading Ivanhoe, at different times of the day and night each of the three volumes has been in requisition in the different rooms of the invalids & most thankful have we been to the
enchanter wizard Walter Scott who with his magic spell and charmed book can banish painful realities & ‘snatch us from ourselves away’.
Here Maria offers an intriguing insight into Edgeworth family reading habits. Thanks to Abigail William’s perceptive book, The Social Life of Reading (2017) we know much about the practices of shared reading in the eighteenth century. Maria details an activity at once shared and separated – voracious appetites for reading shared by all family members who are nonetheless separated from each other due to ill health, meaning that the inhabitants of Edgeworthstown House were reading at different paces and in different places. Maria’s letter does not reveal the nature of the illness of Aunt Charlotte Sneyd (1754-1822), who lived at Edgeworthstown house with her older sister, Mary (the surviving sisters of Richard Lovell Edgeworth’s first two wives, Honora and Elizabeth). Maria’s teenage stepsisters were also bedridden: Lucy (born 1805) was still recovering from back surgery and Sophy (born 1803) was seeing some relief from jaundice through treatment by the ‘blue pill’. Family members stay connected nonetheless through reading. Communal activity continues as volumes are transported around the house from invalid to invalid enabling everyone to participate, albeit in their own time. And each to be transported in imagination by the wizardry of Scott’s writing to distant pasts in England.
Through this letter, Maria extends that community to her Aunt Margaret Ruxton. Concerns about the health of the family extend to a query about the health of her cousin, another Sophy (1776-1839); Maria expresses her relief that her dearest friend and confidante has not ventured out to visit in such inclement weather. She also wants to know whether Margaret has read Ivanhoe too and how far she has got, fearful of revealing too much and spoiling it; she offers her own copy if her Aunt has yet to obtain it. Though she encloses an opinion of Ivanhoe from her acquaintance Sir James Mackintosh (1765-1832), a Scottish Whig MP, Maria’s uncertainty as to whether her Aunt has read it leads her to caution, ‘If you are afraid of forestalling you can miss it in the 3rd page’. Maria’s warning here reminds us that epistolary exchanges could be complex: there are parts to skip over, sections marked private, cross-writing that can make the letter hard to follow, and additions, crossings out, and other incidentals that can interrupt the expected ‘flow’ of the letter. So too, authorship is not always straightforward. Though this letter was penned by Maria, she reports tasking Fanny with writing out a note to Sir James. We have seen similar examples of ‘shared authorship’ over the past year; sometimes this has suggested a ‘co-written’ letter by multiple persons, at other times – owing largely to Maria’s weak eyesight – we find her commissioning another (usually Fanny) to act as scribe.
The note written by Fanny to Sir James recalls another episode that we have encountered this year: the seditious meeting bill. The bill was one of a number of bills introduced to the House of Commons following the Peterloo riots, which we wrote about in our August blog. On the day of the first reading of the bill in December 1819, a poem (purportedly written by Maria) was circulated in the House and subsequently printed in The Times. Sir James gave a speech that day in which he referred to ‘an honorable gentleman who had written made the English laws his particular study & who had written the history of a modern great republic’. Maria, clearly following the news closely, wrote – albeit via Fanny– to Sir James to ask to whom he was referring. His answer, not quoted in the letter, also contained his thoughts on Ivanhoe. This letter ripples with the familial, political, local, and literary connections that Maria maintained through her correspondence.
Please join us for the Marilyn Butler Memorial Lecture 2020 on Wednesday 5 February at 5:30pm in the Weston Library, Oxford. Professor Clíona Ó Gallchoir (University College Cork) will be delivering this year’s lecture ‘Trap doors in private houses’: Drama and Theatricality in the Work of Maria Edgeworth. All welcome, free entry, and no booking required.
Our final blog will be published next month when we have completed our full planned year of punctual blogging. Watch our twitter account for news of our plans for the future.
If you missed our ‘Meet the Edgeworths’ exhibition which ran until 26 January at the Proscholium, Old Bodleian Library, do check out this review. And do come and meet our team by signing up for our masterclass at the Bodleian Library, Oxford on 29th March 2020.
– Anna Louise Senkiw
– Ros Ballaster
W. A. Maguire, ‘Castle Nugent and Castle Rackrent: fact and fiction in Maria Edgeworth’, Eighteenth-century Ireland/Iris an dá chultúr, Vol. 11 (1996), pp.146-159.
Abigail Williams, The Social Life of Books: Reading Together in the Eighteenth-Century Home (Yale University Press, 2017).