All posts by rachaelmarsay

‘jumping of thoughts’: reading curiosity among the Edgeworths

…how wonderful that little black marks made on paper can make thoughts jump & hearts jump too at ever, or never so great a distance

Despite our 200 year distance from the Edgeworth papers, we have the same experience reading this letter from Maria Edgeworth to her cousin Sophy Ruxton of 5 November 1819 as Maria herself describes. Maria was an expert in making thoughts and hearts jump and she understood the curiosity that drives all readers from the earliest age to acquire knowledge and immerse themselves in strange experiences. Maria, you may remember, had been instructed to rest her eyes for some time and her sister Fanny was writing letters on her behalf, but she records now that she is now ready to read again:

Now that I have a little time & eyes to read again I find it delightful — And I have a voracious appetite and a relish for food good bad & indifferent I am afraid like a half famished ship – wrecked wretch, an appetite quite unknown <to> those who eat their daily literary meals and go to their regular monthly feasts and festivals & grow nice & fastidious & eat the best bits turning up their nose & vowing they can’t touch a bit more.

Evidently invigorated and hungry for all kinds of literature, she writes about her extensive and eclectic recent reading. She mentions her plans to send The Poems of Mr. Hunter and the Letters of Lady Russell to Sophie’s home at Black Castle; that she has been reading the 4th volume of Frederick Lillin de Chateauvieux’s 6 volume New Voyages and Travels, Marshal de Bassompierre’s Memoirs of the Embassy (first published in 1626 and translated by John Wilson Croker in 1819), and November’s Quarterly Review. Besides her reading, she also casually mentions in the opening passage a letter from fellow writer Joanna Baillie, which she will send on (a reminder that familiar correspondence was not ‘private’ as we would understand it today). Maria does not only share her reading, but offers to share the texts themselves, an indication of the level of literary traffic between Edgeworthstown House and Black Castle.

First page of MS. Eng. Lett. c.718 fol. 183r

Transcription of MS. Eng. Lett. c. 718, fol.183r

The ‘little black marks’ that dart across the page do more than record Maria’s voracious reading habits; they also demonstrate Maria’s curiosity about a range of topics. We have written in previous blogs about her global outlook; her interconnectedness with the rest of the world forged through travel, friendship and the publication (and translation) of her works around the world. Her reading too gave access to a world beyond Edgeworthstown, particularly the reading of periodicals. The Quarterly Review ran from 1809 until 1967, was published by John Murray (who also published works by Austen, Byron and Scott amongst others) and was set up to rival the Edinburgh Review taking a liberal-conservative position conducive to Maria’s own politics.

Maria is not overexaggerating when she describes the ‘farrago of strange facts and strange thoughts [that] are dragged together in the quarterly rev[ie]w’. The issue she was reading (from April 1819, Vol. 21, No. 42) includes wide-ranging reviews (not all mentioned by Maria in the letter) from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Revolt of Islam, Lieutenant General Baron Pamphile de Lacroix’s Memoires pour server a l’Histoire de la Revolution de Saint Domingue, and E. Hawkin’s Dissertation on the Use and Importance of Unauthoritative Tradition and Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent the years 1799-1804 by Alexander de Humbolt and Aime Bonpland. Maria clearly delights in the array of knowledge to collect, contemplate and share with her family.

We see from Maria’s comments her appetite for curiosities. She mentions, for example, the lengthy review of a new book on the cemeteries and catacombs of Paris which describes unusual ways of memorialising and imagining the dead. She draws attention in particular to a description of the luz – a ‘bone in shape of an almond’ at the base of the spine traditionally believed by Jewish people to be the bone from which the body will be resurrected. Maria might have been drawn to this particular excerpt from the review because of recent events in Europe, the Hep-Hep riots in the region of the German Confederation that took place between August and October 1819; these were pogroms against Ashkenazi Jews in the period of growing Jewish emancipation, many of whom died or had property damaged. Her comments in the letter do not refer to these riots but, as they were reported in the newspapers (and we can assume that she did read the newspapers), she would have been aware of these troubling events.

Maria was no stranger to anti-Semitic sentiment herself. Her 1812 novel The Absentee featured an unpleasant portrayal of a Jewish figure called Mr. Mordicai, drawn in the manner of Shakespeare’s vengeful and villainous Shylock. One American admirer, Jewish schoolteacher Rachel Mordecai (later Lazarus) (1788-1838), who was a fan of her educational writings, wrote directly to Maria on 7 August 1815 to complain about the ‘illiberality’ of her representations of members of the Jewish nation. Remarkably, the correspondence continued until Mordecai’s death (in fact descendants of both families continued to write to each other for another 100 years). The effect of Mordecai’s writing was significant: in 1817 Edgeworth published Harrington, which tackled the problem of inculcating anti-Semitic feeling in children, and can be seen as reparation for her earlier unsympathetic portrayal of Jewish people. The hero Harrington’s growing recognition of the errors of the anti-Semitic thinking a nurse impressed on him when a child even involves an encounter with the actor most famous for playing Shylock of the eighteenth century: Charles Macklin, who transformed the role from pantomime stock antagonist to a more psychologically ‘real’ figure than stereotypical villain.

Johann Zoffany, Charles Macklin as Shylock in Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’, Covent Garden, 1767/1768, The Holburne Museum (Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

As we have shown, however, Edgeworth’s politics and social criticism is not always straightforwardly unambiguous; for modern readers, Edgeworth’s revised representations of Jewish people remain underwhelming. As Rachel Schulkins has suggested, ‘Edgeworth attempts to “overturn” the traditional Jewish stereotypes… by portraying the Jew as essentially a good Christian’: Harrington’s love interest, the beautiful Jewess, Berenice, turns out to be a Christian after all (though she has a Jewish father, she has a Christian mother in whose faith she was raised). That said, Maria’s exchange with Rachel Mordecai and subsequent writings do show her willingness to rethink her ideas, and the reading discussed in this letter bespeaks a broad interest in ‘curiosities’ and ideas that surely influenced her beyond her immediate circle.

Indeed the letter also shows that Maria did sympathise with and listen to those caught in dramatic scenes of conflict on a smaller stage. At the close of the letter she describes a domestic incident: ‘a horrible scene of lying and counter lying as cannot be spoken of in jest. It ended in Lovell and Mrs E’s dismissing the cook upon the spot’. The night before, described by Maria as ‘black Saturday’, the cook and the kitchen maid had both claimed ‘certain blankets & sheets stolen betwix’ them’. On the Sunday afternoon, matters came to a head and an argument ensued – for three hours – before Mrs. Edgeworth ‘magnanimously parted’ with the cook, ‘regardless of her own convenience’. Truth, for the Edgeworths at least, was always more important than convenience.

If you’re in Oxford, you can find out more about the Edgeworths and their shared endeavours (as well as their travels and Maria’s fame) at our new exhibition, Meet the Edgeworths, which runs from 30 November 2019-1 February 2020 in the Proscholium of the Old Bodleian Libray. Do also keep an eye on Twitter (@EdgeworthPapers) and look out for our final blog of this year next month!

Anna Louise Senkiw

 

References

Rachel Schulkins, ‘Imagining the Other: The Jew in Maria Edgeworth’s Harrington’, European Romantic Review, 22:4, 2011, pp.477-499.

‘Stray Bits of Scandal’ in the Edgeworth Papers

When we last encountered the Edgeworths, Maria and her half-sister Fanny were busy discussing transcultural literary exchanges between Ireland and France with their sister-in-law, Henrica. Writing jointly once again to their cousin Sophy Ruxton in October 1819, the sisters communicate snippets of domestic and society news (MS. Eng. lett. c. 718, fols.179-82). They comment on the health of family members (see our April blog). They compliment the good behaviour of Maria’s beloved doggo Foster (subject of our June blog) who has won the affections of their housekeeper Kitty Bellamore (see the water-colour drawing in the family papers, MS. Eng. Misc. c. 901, fol.5). They return at several points to report on the live events as their brother Lovell attempts to counter bullying in a local election campaign over which he was presiding as sheriff. Maria refers to the poem she wrote for her aunt to accompany a violet vase (see our April blog) and to a drawing Fanny made of their two younger brothers, Francis and Pakenham, possibly the one dated 1818 in the collection of family pictures (Francis reading to his brother Pakenham, Ms. Eng. Misc. c. 901, fol.32). But the most distinctive feature of the letter, and the focus of this blog, is that the sisters endeavour to bring their cousin up to speed on the latest society gossip — from substantial anecdotes included in the body of the letter, to a short list of ‘stray bits of scandal’ notes on the back to save paper.

Letter from Maria and Fanny Edgeworth to Sophy Ruxton (14 October 1819, MS. Eng. lett. c. 718, fols.181v-82r)

Transcription MS. Eng. Lett. c. 718, f.179-182

Kitty Bellamore, housekeeper at Edgeworthstown house (MS. Eng. Misc. c. 901, fol.5)

Maria lived in a society that was filled with scandalmongers; gossip circulated through correspondence and newspapers as well as speech, and it is the subject of many plays and novels. In her final novel Helen (1834), Maria describes Lady Katherine Hawksby and her set of high society London ladies as so addicted to scandal that they consume more gossip than they drink tea. Throughout her published oeuvre, Maria condemns this habit of reputation-damaging scandalmongering. In her short stories “Angelina” and “The “Catastrophe” from Moral Tales (1801), for example, Edgeworth argues that gossiping about scandals was for idle individuals ‘who have nothing [more] to do or say’ than to cause people misery—a ‘buzz’ to temporarily occupy their attention for a few moments, before a new object of their spiteful entertainment attracted their attention. Away from her instructional fiction, however, Maria tows a more blurred line on the subject. Writing to the Scottish poet and playwright Joanna Baillie in 1825, Maria begrudgingly admitted to the necessity of scandal: ‘I hate scandal but truth is truth.’(1)

Yet in this letter, the Edgeworth sisters seem to be as ravenous to be simply entertained by gossip as Lady Katherine Hawksby and her set in Helen. Writing to their cousin, the sisters delight in revealing that ‘they can tell you more than you know’ about the morals of the Byron-reading John Wolfe, Viscount Kilwarden, and remark how they ‘long to be sitting on the sofa – and to hear what I am sure will be an entertaining chapter of Saints & Sinners’. There is a distinction between the private exchange of interesting news between family members and the circulation of information that put at risk public reputation.

One of the most scandalous chapters in the life of a rich married couple in the early nineteenth century was divorce. Prior to 1857, the only way by which a couple could get divorced was through a Private Act of Parliament introduced in 1700. This was an expensive and highly public process and was only granted as a last resort on the grounds of adultery and extreme cruelty. Indeed, between 1700 and 1857, only 314 divorces were granted by parliament, though of course many more did separate without pursuing divorce. Despite divorce’s scandalous connotations, Maria was sympathetic in her treatment of Lord and Lady’s Glenthorn’s mutual desire for a divorce in her earlier novel Ennui (1809). Yet in this letter, the Edgeworth sisters revel in the scandal associated with marital separation:

2 <a> stray bits of scandal – to[o] good to be lost
Lord & Lady Charlemont [Anne Caulfeild, Countess of Charlemont (1780-1876) and Francis Caulfield, 2nd Earl of Charlemont (1775-1863)] are to be separated
— cause his gallantisms & her Ladyships
want of temper –
Lord & Lady Lismore [Cornelius O’Callaghan, 1st Viscount Lismore and Lady Eleanor Butler ] to be separated
cause unknown to me

Here, Maria and Fanny treat the latest separations of society couples as delicious pieces of gossip to be shared and consumed with their cousin. With divorce such a rare occurrence, any instances of separation for ‘gallantism’ (adultery), ‘want of temper’ (patience), and even unknown causes are deemed ‘to[o] good to be lost’. Yet the sisters choice to wedge their ‘stray bits’ onto the reverse of letter suggests an attempt to chirographically preserve their gossipy gleanings from being lost.

The sisters contrast the ‘want of temper’ of a contemporary society wife, Ann Caulfield, with their admiration for the virtue and patience of another woman they have been reading about, Rachel Wriothesley, Lady Russell (1636–1723), in Some Account of the Life of Rachael Wriothesley Lady Russell (1819) by Mary Berry:

We have been much interested in the life &
letters of that most excellent and amiable & un
-pretending of creatures – Lady Russell – There
are touches in these letters which paint domestic
happiness & the character of a mother & a wife
with beautiful simplicity – I like even Miss Berry
much the better for the manner in which she has
edited this book

The wife of William, Lord Russell (1636-83), Rachel was greatly admired for her piety, matrimonial devotional, and stoicism in the face of adversity after the execution of her husband for his involvement in a Whiggish plot against King Charles II. Indeed, in Maria’s educational tale Rosamond (1821), the titular heroine goes as far to claim that Russell remained the most celebrated woman in all of Europe: “Who is there in our own Country, or France, or Italy, or Spain—in any country; what celebrated woman can you name, who can stand comparison with Lady Russell?”.

Rachel Russell (née Wriothesley), Lady Russell, by Henry Meyer, after Samuel Cooper, stipple engraving, published 1853. NPG D5859 © National Portrait Gallery, London (Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

The letter remains diplomatically silent about the reputation of the author of this biography, Mary Berry (1762-1853). A companion of Horace Walpole, Berry’s career as an author begin with the failure of her scandalous comedy of manners. Despite its stellar cast of prominent actors, and its success as a private theatrical, The Fashionable Friends (1801) was withdrawn from the Drury Lane theatre after two performances, its content being apparently too risqué for further performance: it included reference to secret extra-marital affairs and an excessive display of romantic attachment between two women (Mary Berry herself and her friend the celebrated sculptress, Anne Damer). The lack of comments on Berry’s scandalous literary beginnings may be due to the fact that the Edgeworth family were acquaintances of the Berry sisters (Mary and Agnes), with whom Maria corresponded from 1813 onwards.

Mary Berry, by William Greatbach, drawn by George Perfect Harding, published by Richard Bentley, after Anne Seymour Damer (née Conway) mixed-method engraving and etching, published 1840 NPG D42589 © National Portrait Gallery, London (Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Fanny and Maria tell Sophy Ruxton that they are enclosing ‘two or three agreeable letters for your amusement’. Letters were often read by individuals other than their intended recipients for entertainment. But they were also read for moral improvement: as Mrs Egerton remarks of Lady Russell’s letters in Rosamond, ‘looking up in early youth to a high character exalts the mind, and gives the best promise of future excellence’. Rather than condemn Berry for her scandalous beginnings, much like contemporary reviews in the periodical press, the author and editor is praised by the sisters for the careful editing and circulation of Russell’s previously unpublished letters. The Edgeworths knew about and valued the importance of careful editing. In this same letter, Maria makes reference to her own patient editorial endeavours tracking down material to include in her ill-fated Memoirs (1820) of her father Richard Lovell: ‘I must beg of you my dear friend to look among my letters […] I am now come to the last of what I am writing and want to be certain of the accurate recollection of some <words> expressions of his’. Viewing Berry not as the salacious author of Fashionable Friends, but as an editorial comrade-in-arms, Maria demonstrates how stray bits of scandal could be conveniently lost and forgotten if it suited a writer— as well as countering the tendency to see women as the vehicles of idle gossip and dangerous scandal by celebrating women’s contribution to the promotion of scholarship through editing and memorializing significant figures of the past.

Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull

Footnotes

(1) See Christina Colvin, “Maria Edgeworth’s Tours in Ireland”, in Studia Neophilologica 43.1 (1971), pp.252-56.

References

Lewis Melville (ed.), The Berry Papers: Being the Correspondence Hitherto Unpublished of Mary and Agnes Berry (1763-1852) (London: J. Lane, 1914).

Susanne Schmid, “Mary Berry’s Fashionable Friends (1801) on Stage”, in Wordsworth Circle 43.3 (2012), pp.172-82.

Maria Goes Global: Pleasure and Business Abroad

In last month’s blog, we discussed Maria Edgeworth’s response to Peterloo and her concern for political reform (rather than revolution) in Ireland and in the West Indies. This month we take a look at the Edgeworth family’s global – particularly European – outlook, which went beyond politics.

A letter dated 15 September 1819 (MS. Eng. Lett. c. 704 fol. 6-7), to Henrica “Harriette” Edgeworth (née Broadhurst), wife of Maria’s brother Charles Sneyd Edgeworth, highlights in particular the cross-channel friendships and acquaintances enjoyed by the Edgeworth family. The letter was written and signed by Fanny Edgeworth, but with contributions from Maria.

It begins by responding to Harriette’s recent letter detailing her visit with her husband to Paris, which the family had clearly received with delight. Frances tells her that ‘Your visit to Madme Recamier amused us much’, but lightly berates her for the lack of details about ‘Extravagant’ Parisian life:

I wish you would enter into some particulars for my sake – tell me whether you drive your own carriage – I thought that was impossible in the streets of Paris – Tell me how much a good Voiture de service [hired carriage] costs per month –

Maria had visited Paris in 1802 with her father and would have been eager to see whether costs and customs had changed: the following year, she and Fanny would travel to France again for two months from April 1820. The letter also sees the Edgeworth sisters introducing visitors to different national customs and identities at their home in Ireland. Fanny describes a visit from some English friends, Mrs and Miss Carr.

The letter treads familiar ground too; they report (once again) on the state of their sister Lucy’s bad back as well as other domestic concerns such as the cost of postage. The closing lines of the letter are written down the side of the front page – a common feature of letters written during a period in which postage cost by the page and paper was not a cheap commodity.

First page of MS. Eng. lett. c. 704 fol.6-7

Transcription of MS. Eng. Lett. c. 704 fol.6-7

Back on the continent, another French acquaintance, Madame Gautier, had written to describe meeting Harriette and Charles during their visit, which Frances shares in the letter:

Je retournerai vers la fin d’Aout â Paris – ou plutôt â Passy et c’est alors que j’espère jouir encore de la societé de’ M – & Mde Sneyd – J’aime beaucoup Mde Sneyd –Elle a de la gaièté et de la grace dans l’esprit – Elle parait bonne et sensible – ce qui est deux attributs essentials aux femmes – il que les dames Edgeworth qui j’ai eû le plaisir de connaitre possedent <uniquement> (1)

In this passage, Madame Gautier writes about meeting Harriette and Charles in Paris. It was not only Harriette’s journey that occupied the Edgeworth circle, however. Frances tells her that ‘Mrs Tuite has been very entertaining in all her accounts of Paris & Italy’. Despite the comparative difficulties in travel in comparison with today, this letter evinces the international outlook of Maria and her circle.

Portrait of Juliette Récamier (1777-1849) by François Pascal Simon Gérard (Musée du Louvre) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Maria Edgeworth was no stranger to Paris. Indeed she was herself an acquaintance of French socialite Juliette Récamier (1777-1849) (mentioned in this letter), who led a celebrated salon in Paris frequented by leading literary and political figures. The pair met during Maria’s first visit to Paris in 1802, during which Récamier took them to theatre, and where Maria’s love interest Abraham Niclas Edelcrantz (1754–1821), whom she would subsequently refuse an offer of marriage, was sitting next to Napoleon Bonaparte.

Maria corresponded with other European writers and thinkers: from 1805, for example, she corresponded with and befriended Etienne Dumont (1759–1829), later the translator of the works of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (c. 1747/8–1832) into French – though unfortunately only a copy of a single letter Dumont wrote to Maria in 1820 exists in the Bodleian’s Edgeworth Papers (MS. Eng. lett. c. 720, fols. 56-7).

The Edgeworths’ November 1802 visit to France (the party consisted of Maria, her father and step-mother Frances, and her oldest half-sister Charlotte) came just before outbreak of war, which restricted travel between the two counties, as fellow novelist Frances Burney (1752–1840) famously discovered during her effective exile in France between 1802 and 1814.

Despite the physical constraints of journeying to France during this period, Maria was part of a cross-channel literary community. The increasingly global literary marketplace had several implications for Maria’s literary works. As Frances tells Harriette in this letter, for instance, Popular Tales (which featured ‘The Grateful Negro’, as discussed in August’s blog) had been translated into French: ‘once by Madme de Roissy & once by some name-less person’. Another of Maria Edgeworth’s French translators included her friend and sometimes collaborator, Louise Swanton Belloc, a Frenchwoman of Irish descent.

Maria’s writings were translated not only into French, but also into other European languages too: Dutch, German, Irish, Italian, Swedish, and Spanish versions of her works were published in her lifetime. A Bengali edition of her tale, Murad the Unlucky, entitled Hatbagyo Murad, was published in India in 1861, translated by Judu Gopaul Chatterjea (a copy of which exists in the British Library).

The (multiple) translations of Popular Tales speak to her status as an international literary figure. But it was actually a translation of Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis’s (1746–1830) Adèle et Théodore that was Maria’s earliest effort prepared for publication.(2) Though it remained unpublished due to a rival translation being published first, it remains a testament to Maria’s early engagement – encouraged by her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth – with a wider European literary scene. Maria was not alone: Gillian Dow’s edited collection, Translators, Interpreters, Mediators: Women Writers 1700-1900, showcases the rich traffic between English and other European texts and the role women played in circulating, translating and producing these works in their own languages.

Translation was also a vital means of disseminating the progressive educational ideals the Edgeworth family sought to promote, ideals always in dialogue with that of French thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) and de Genlis. Maria recommends a text for the niece of Juliette Récamier to translate which also promises to educate the young woman in the thinking of an English ‘genius’ who was an important member of Robert Lovell Edgeworth’s circle of scientific speculators. Humphry Davy (1778-1829), Cornish chemist and inventor, wrote his poem ‘The Sons of Genius’, when he was just 17. Published in Robert Southey’s The Annual Anthology in 1799, it honours the contribution of natural philosophers, the ‘sons of Genius’, to the flourishing of culture and humanity.

Translation is only one aspect of viewing Maria as a European writer who participated in pan-European literary networks. Her epistolary novel, Leonora (1807), for example, was written in response to Madame de Staël’s (1766-1817) literary sensation Delphine which appeared in print while Maria was staying in Paris in 1802. You may recall from our July blog, that Byron counted both Maria and de Staël amongst the ‘literary lions’ of the age. Their cross-channel, contemporary success is integral rather than incidental to this description. Unlike Jane Austen (today the most famous novelist of the early nineteenth century) whose novels are set in England, Maria used locations across Ireland, England and France, the latter being the (partial) setting for both Leonora (1807) and Ormond (1817), as well as further afield – ‘The Grateful Negro’ is set in the West Indies. Several of her near-contemporaries, including Helen Maria Williams (1759–1827), Charlotte Smith (1749–1806), and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) also depicted scenes abroad in their writing.

As we have seen on numerous occasions throughout this blog series, the Edgeworth family were a ministry of all the talents. Maria’s literary depictions of France were therefore not the only representations of abroad. There are several drawings of Irish, French and Swiss views in the Edgeworth papers collection, drawn by various members of the family (MS. Eng. misc. c. 901 fols. 90-136). The family travelled further still: during Michael Packenham’s journey to India in 1831-1832 he produced a series of pencil and ink drawings of India in the ‘No. 1 Madras Sketchbook’ (MS. Eng. misc. g. 356) and five poems (MS. Eng. misc. c. 898 fols. 31-5). These drawings and writings are a testament not only to their artistic endeavours but also to the family’s travels.

Image from No. 1 Madras Sketchbook (MS. Eng. misc. g. 356)

Whilst the letter of September 1819 speaks of the family’s friendship and literary connections in France, Maria’s popularity in France and the influence of French writers (especially female) on her own work, it also demonstrates the Edgeworths’ attachment to the cultural pleasures of the Irish Catholic tenants to which they lived in such close proximity. On the way back from a drive in their landau with Mrs and Miss Carr (visiting acquaintances from England whom we encountered in our April blog), they stop to join an appreciative audience in the sunshine as a fiddler plays for dancers in ‘all the vivacity & graces of an Irish gig’. The scene reminded Maria of her sister’s Charlotte’s drawings of similar scenes, which had been engraved for inclusion in the forthcoming memoir of their father that Maria had written, Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1820). It was a scene that the Edgeworths were particular fond of – here is another similar drawing in the Edgeworth papers of an Irish dance, drawn for Maria by a female acquaintance in 1836.

Irish Scene, drawing in pen and ink, MS. Eng. misc. c. 901 fol. 111

Fragment of MS. Eng. lett. c. 704 fol. 7v

In this month of September 2019, as Great Britain is on the cusp of separation from these two European countries of Ireland and France, a family letter of two hundred years ago reminds us of a long history of artistic and intellectual exchange. Of course, historically, relationships between France, England and Ireland have often been troubled by conflict, claims and counterclaims of sovereignty and autonomy. But we hear in Frances and Maria Edgeworth’s collaborative letter a desire for connection, a sense that there is much to be learnt and enjoyed in acts of translation not just of languages but also of cultures.

Anna Louise Senkiw

 


Footnotes:

(1) “I will return near the end of August to Paris – or maybe to Passy and that is why I hope to enjoy again the society of Mr and Mrs Sneyd. I like Mrs Sneyd very much. She seems kind and sensitive – the two attributes that are essential to women – and which the Edgeworth women I have had the pleasure to know possess especially” [translated by Ros Ballaster].

(2) See Gillian Dow (ed.), Translators, Interpreters, Mediators: Women Writers 1700-1900 and Marilyn Butler, Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography.


References:

Marilyn Butler, Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography (Clarendon Press, 1972).

Gillian Dow (ed.), Translators, Interpreters, Mediators: Women Writers 1700-1900 (Peter Lang, 2007).

Susan Manly, Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849), available at: https://chawtonhouse.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Maria-Edgeworth.pdf

Clíona Ó Gallchoir, Maria Edgeworth: Women, Enlightenment and Nation (University College Dublin Press, 2005).

An Intern and the Third Inkling: cataloguing the Charles Williams collection

Guest post by Tilly Guthrie
Summer intern at Bodleian Libraries Archives & Modern Manuscripts


As part of the Oxford University Summer Internship Programme, three interns were given the opportunity in the summer of 2019 to experience the working environment of an archivist in the Bodleian Library’s Archives and Modern Manuscripts team, during which time they were allocated a collection, or a number of small collections, to catalogue independently. After spending a few university holidays volunteering in small archives and museums, I was delighted to be offered a place as an intern, to not only see, but also participate in the process of cataloguing from beginning to end. Being allowed to slot myself into this well-oiled machine, I am full of admiration for how archiving is managed on such a large professional scale as at the Bodleian. I have just finished my second year studying History here at the University, and so this opportunity has come at the perfect time to consolidate my interest in archiving, and show me what my next steps should be after I finish the degree (though I will miss being able to sneak behind the scenes at the Weston next term!)

The collection assigned to me was the papers of Charles Williams (1886-1945) – author, theologian, lecturer, and member of the Inklings alongside C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (interactions with whom appear in the collection). The acquaintance with Lewis began in a suitably literary manner, as the two authors coincidentally sent letters to the other simultaneously in 1936, praising their most recent work. Williams stood as the odd one out in this literary set, however, as he did not benefit from an Oxford education to hone the writing style that earned him a place in the Inklings. Instead, he developed his craft as a hobby alongside working for the Oxford University Press; he took up a post in 1908 as a reader at Amen House in London, after failing to fund the third year of his degree at the University of London, and spent his spare time constructing novels and poetry, inspired by his interest in Arthurian legends and theology. This period also saw him write a series of plays for his colleagues based on the world of book publication, in which he blends amusingly mundane titles (‘The Masque of the Manuscript’, ‘The Masque of the Termination of Copyright’ and ‘The Masque of Perusal’) with the language of epic poetry and biblical allusions.

Williams also found the time to write a series of plays to be performed by the Chelmsford Diocesan Drama Society, directed by Phyllis M. Potter, extensive correspondence with whom is preserved in the collection. Their increasingly close friendship over the years is mirrored in these letters, donated to the library by Potter in 1957, and they thus offer insight into Williams’ personal life and sense of humour. It is here that the collection provides the most information on Charles’ relationship with his wife Florence Sarah (Michal) nee Conway, and their son Michael, born in 1922. Michal is also the subject of a series of poems that appears in the collection, and more generally it can be said that Williams’ writing is coloured by his interest in the idea of romantic love as a passage to God.

Charles Walter Stansby Williams, lithograph by Anne Spalding, 1942 © National Portrait Gallery, London (Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

The diverse range of media penned by Charles Williams continued throughout his life, as his repertoire of novels, plays and poetry expanded to include biography, theology, and literary criticism. Consequently, Williams was well qualified to begin a lectureship with the Oxford English Faculty (despite having never graduated himself) when the University Press was forced to move all its operations to the city on the outbreak of the Second World War. It was also at this point that Williams began attending Inklings meetings, though letters with his old thespian friend Phyllis Potter reveal that he largely resented the move to Oxford.

As it happened, Charles Williams would remain in Oxford until his death in 1945, having been awarded an honorary MA with the University two years previously. Obituaries included in the collection reveal a general admiration for the scale of Williams’ literary output, though with the reservation that his speed of writing (often to deadlines) damaged the quality of his work. It is perhaps for this reason, or simply that his sweeping Arthurian allusions no longer have traction with the reading public, that Charles Williams has been so much neglected in our collective historical memory of early twentieth century authors.

Tilly Guthrie, The Queen’s College

Oxford University Careers Service Summer Internship Programme

Our Distant View: Peterloo, Rebellion and Reform

Over the past few months we have opened up the Edgeworth Papers to share tales of the Edgeworths’ domestic concerns, love affairs, and literary lives. We now turn to consider how the public political world also impacted upon the Edgeworth circle. News of one event in Manchester two hundred years ago – and widely commemorated this month of August 2019 – reached the Edgeworth family at the comparative distance of their home in County Longford.

On 16 August 1819, a large crowd gathered in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, to urge for greater parliamentary representation and listen to radical speakers including ‘Orator’ Henry Hunt (1773-1835). Following the orders of magistrate William Hulton to arrest Hunt, the cavalry of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry charged into the amassed crowd (modern estimates are there were up to 80,000). The charge resulted in the deaths of approximately 18 people (including a two-year-old boy) and the injury of an estimated 400-700 more people. The Peterloo Massacre, as it became known, was a defining moment in nineteenth-century class history. It was widely reported in the newspapers and the graphic satires of the day.

The Manchester Heroes, 1819, Hand-coloured etching by George Cruikshank on paper, 250 × 350mm, © Trustees of the British Museum

Maria mentions Peterloo in her letter to Peter Holland (1766-1855), who lived close to Manchester in Knutsford, on 27 August (MS 16087/1). The Bodleian has recently acquired this fascinating (and as yet uncatalogued) collection, comprising 145 largely unpublished letters. The collection includes 37 letters written by Maria to Holland and c.80 letters to her from his son, Sir Henry Holland (1788-1873), apparently on behalf of and in collaboration with his father. The archive also includes letters written by Henry to his father and to the writer Lucy Aikin (1781-1864). In this particular letter, Maria informs Peter Holland that she has dictated the letter to Fanny in order to save Maria’s eyesight and for his ease of reading. The letter is urgent though as she needs to know if Peter Holland is ‘dead or alive’ and his family safe following the ‘riots of mob & military’ in Manchester. We provide a transcription of the first paragraphs of the letter that relate to Peterloo.

Images of the first two pages of Maria’s Letter to Peter Holland (27 August 1819, MS 16087/1)

Transcription of first two paragraphs of Maria’s Letter to Peter Holland 27 August 1819, MS 160871

From her ‘distant view’, Maria shares her opinion on events, which she declares ‘perhaps on these occasion may chance to be the truest because the most impartial’. Maria does not support the reformist cause as it is proposed by Hunt (indeed she refers to his ‘evil designs’), and she praises the yeomanry’s ‘good intentions’, but censures their actions:

‘…their imprudent conduct they have made notorious to all the world—What an opportunity of showing that just vigor necessary to restore order they have lost by rashness – why did they not let Hunt and his followers proceed to some overt act before they began cutting and slashing? – I hope Government will forbid yeomanry to act again in any such cases – from their local feelings & from their want of discipline they are of all others the most improper to be employed.’

Maria’s concern for Holland was not only personal, but also evinces her active interest in the politics of the day. Though Maria was ‘distant’ from Peterloo, she was no stranger to political uprisings, such as the Irish Rebellion of 1798, a retaliation against British rule that resulted in the deaths of 10-30,000, which helped shape her ideas about the acceptable and proper limits of rebellion, though her progressive leanings were toward reform rather than regime change.

We should not overstate her interest in the events at Peterloo: in her letter to her Aunt Ruxton, written on 18 August (MS. Eng. lett. c. 717, fol.56) she does not mention Peterloo at all [though perhaps the news had not reached the Edgeworths]. Yet, in several letters we find Maria and her family commenting on political stories in the newspaper whilst her sister Fanny’s (almost indecipherable) diary from our May blog, evidences the almost daily reading of parliamentary debates.

But the Edgeworth archive and Maria’s novels reveal more than just passing epistolary musings and fictional depictions of revolt and reform. Amongst the papers in the Bodleian, we find a manuscript copy of a poem entitled ‘Lines inspired by the Lord Chancellor’s Speech on the second reading [of] the Libel prevention Bill’ (MS. Eng. misc. c. 898, fols.25-6), apparently a ‘surplus copy’ of those circulated to members in Parliament. The Libel prevention bill was one of a series of measures (known as the Six Acts) Parliament passed in response to Peterloo, which hindered rather than furthered reform and focussed on curbing the rights of people, rather than – as Maria hoped – reforming the Yeomanry.

The ‘Lines…’ comment on the irony of Parliament attempting to curb the freedom of the press whilst benefitting from parliamentary privilege – that is, the legal immunity from prosecution offered to members of parliament which enabled them to speak freely in order to fulfil their duties. One consequence, however, was that they might make libellous claims without fear of legal challenge, whilst ordinary citizens were subject to increased scrutiny:

‘For still a British Senator we find
May speak (not print) the dictates of his mind,
Men in two honored houses at their ease
May talk what nonsense, or what sense they please,
Sedition there, and Libel, lose their name
There Truth & eloquence may lead to Fame!’

‘Lines inspired by the Lord Chancellor’s Speech on the second reading [of] the Libel prevention Bill’ (MS. Eng. misc. c. 898, fols.25-6)

Transcription of MS. Eng. misc. c. 898 fols.25r-26v

Parliamentary privilege was an ancient custom. But, by the nineteenth century it had taken on a new dimension. Parliamentary speech had become subject to increasing coverage and scrutiny in the newspapers although the newspapers could not (and still cannot) print anything potentially libellous said in the chamber. Nevertheless, parliamentary speeches had been turned into theatre by great orators such as Edmund Burke (1729-1727) and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) in the previous century, with newspapers the platform for parliamentarians to achieve new kinds of ‘Fame’ – even if that ‘Fame’ was built on shaky foundations.

Maria Edgeworth’s politics are reformist rather than revolutionary and she consistently represented reform as a means of averting the suffering and violence attendant on outright rebellion. Edgeworth’s story ‘The Grateful Negro’ (written 1802 and published 1804 – one of 11 in Popular Tales) was a reformist take on the abolition debates. A fictional account of the 1760 slave rebellion in Jamaica, the story makes the case that sympathy and care for slaves would prevent violent rebellion and hence be to the economic and ethical advantage of the colonial system. While Maria was critical of abusive and neglectful landlordism, as we see in the satire in Castle Rackrent (1800) and the sentiment of The Absentee (1812) concerning Anglo-Irish rule, she did not criticise the (colonial) system itself. So too, she takes a reformist approach to the issue of slavery – the Jamaican planter Mr Edwards concludes a benevolent exercise of slavery is the best way to sustain the system which supports his livelihood and reconciles his conscience. ‘The Grateful Negro’ was also as Elizabeth S. Kim explains, a vehicle for debating the rights and wrongs of a rebellion nearer to home – the Irish rebellion of 1798.

Our investigation of the letters has uncovered a reference hitherto undiscussed to an encounter with a black woman on Irish soil. While she makes no direct reference to Peterloo in her letter composed the day after the massacre of 18 August to her Aunt Ruxton, Maria provides a short note smuggled into the top right hand corner of a scrappy one page sheet; here she describes a meeting with one Mrs Blackall. Despite interest in Maria’s literary depictions of race, there has been little or no attention to this brief mention of her encountering a mixed-race woman on Irish soil. Maria records that:

‘We dined yesterday at Mrs Whitman where we met Captn & Mrs Blackall — who is 3/4th a negress—Black all indeed. Pray when does the Bishop arrive’

In the third edition of her novel Belinda (1810), Maria erased the suggestion found in the first two editions to a mixed-race marriage, such as the one she described in this letter. Edgeworth changed the name and the reference to the skin colour of Belinda’s white West Indian suitor, Mr Vincent, in her novel: Juba, the African servant who marries the white daughter of a tenant farmer, Lucy, becomes plain James Jackson. But as her encounter with the Blackalls demonstrates, interracial couples would later feature in the Edgeworths’ daily lives.

Maria consistently argued for reform to avert the violence and cruelty she thought resulted from both sides in systems of oppression, whether in Manchester, Jamaica or Ireland. However, there is some cruelty to modern ears in the laboured pun she elaborates in this brief sentence concerning Mrs Blackall, a woman of African descent.

Maria’s Letter to Aunt Ruxton (18 August 1819, MS. Eng. lett. c. 717, fol.56)

Transcription of Maria’s Letter to Aunt Ruxton 18 August 1819 MS. Eng. lett. c. 717, fol.56

The Edgeworth papers are full of such interpretive cruxes. They reveal to us not only strangeness and distance but surprising connections and unexpected moments of encounter.

Looking beyond the Edgeworth papers there are a number of events this year in and around Greater Manchester to commemorate Peterloo including ‘Making the News: Reading between the lines, from Peterloo to Meskel Square’ at the Portico Library, ‘From Waterloo to Peterloo’ at Gallery Oldham, and a public re-enactment in St Peter’s Square on 16 August 2019.

Ros Ballaster and Anna Louise Senkiw

 

References

Elizabeth S. Kim, ‘Maria Edgeworth’s The Grateful Negro: A Site for Rewriting Rebellion’, in
Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Volume 16, Number 1, October 2003, pp.103-126.

 

Exhibiting Maria Edgeworth and Her Fellow Literary Lions

July 1819 was a quiet month for Maria. Writing to her favourite aunt, Margaret Ruxton, on 7th July 1819 from Edgeworthstown (MS. Eng. lett. c. 717, fols.52-3), Maria remarked that although the perpetual scribbler within her couldn’t ‘be happy without writing a few lines’, she had ‘nothing new, remarkable or entertaining’ to relate. Her half-brother Lovell (1775-1842) remained housebound in Dublin with festering leech bites, whilst her half-sister Lucy Jane (1805-1897) was kept ‘constantly horizontal’ to hasten her recovery from treatment for a back problem. Nevertheless, Maria ‘endeavoured to amuse’ the female company at Edgeworthstown by attending different local churches to listen to sermons. She admires a debut performance and has contempt for the bombast of a more famous preacher, one Mr Burgh. She complains that some auditors do ‘not know the difference between fine sounding sentences & sense’.

Letter from Maria Edgeworth to her paternal Aunt Margaret Ruxton, 7th July 1819, MS. Eng. lett. c. 717, fol.52r

 

Letter from Maria Edgeworth to her paternal Aunt Margaret Ruxton, 7th July 1819, MS. Eng. lett. c. 717, fols.52v-53r

 

Letter from Maria Edgeworth to her paternal Aunt Margaret Ruxton, 7th July 1819, MS. Eng. lett. c. 717, fol.53v

Transcript of MS. Eng. lett. c. 717, fols.52-3

In the same letter, two male contemporaries of her own who had been much lionised in the press also attracted wry comment from her in similarly contrasting terms. In this blog we explore the judgements Maria and her contemporaries cast on each other’s work: not only the contrast between ‘fine sounding sentences’ and the solid virtues of ‘sense’, but also the different value placed on the ‘power’ of rendering ‘character’ and ‘story’. And we turn to consider the secret presence of Maria Edgeworth in our contemporary literary world.

As early as 23 October 1814, Maria had written to Sir Walter Scott, her fellow ‘national tale’ teller, to express her admiration for Waverley and the two shared a mutually appreciative correspondence (the Bodleian holds copies of letters from Scott to Maria at MS. Eng. lett. c. 720, fols. 147, 149-50). The other author mentioned in this letter, Lord Byron, she had also met but no ongoing connection was established.

Maria reports a comment in a note to her from Lord Lansdowne that Bryon’s historical narrative poem Mazeppa (1819) had disappointed readers due to its lack of satirical and licentious content. It is not clear that she herself had yet read this rip-roaring poem which draws on a Ukrainian folk tale of the punishment of the page Mazeppa for an adulterous affair with a Polish countess: Mazeppa is strapped to a wild horse and the poem ingeniously captures the relentless rhythm of the horse’s hoofs. The parallels with the circumstances of the poet perhaps did not require spelling out: Byron, afflicted by a club foot but a genius with the poetic foot, was notorious for his separation from his wife in 1816 and adulterous affair with an Italian Contessa he met in Ravenna while in exile in 1818.

The one meeting between Byron and Edgeworth took place when Byron was at the height of his fame and before his exile abroad. Maria and her father Richard met him at the London home of the chemist and inventor Sir Humphry Davy. Writing in his diary in 1813, Bryon admitted Richard, despite his ‘clarety, elderly, red complexion’, was ‘a fine old fellow’. But it was Maria who ‘every one cared more about’ and was the real literary talent of the Edgeworth family: ‘Whereas her father talked, not as if he could write nothing else, but as if nothing else were worth writing’. So impressed by her literary output, Byron admitted that Maria had managed to overshadow his reputation and popularity amongst readers: ‘I was the [literary] lion of 1812 Miss Edgeworth and Madame de Staël […] were the exhibitions’, the literary marvels, ‘of the succeeding year’. Maria by contrast comments wryly in a letter to her cousin Sophy Ruxton of May 1813: ‘Of Lord Byron I can tell you only that his appearance is nothing that you would remark’.

Bryon’s laudatory evaluation of Edgeworth’s literary prowess is fairly typical of her contemporary readers. Scott nicknamed her ‘the great Maria’. In this letter we see Maria beginning to mitigate her enthusiasm for Scott’s works, again through the vehicle of the report of another male correspondent. She is awaiting a copy of the third series (1819) of Scott’s Tales of My Landlord which comprised ‘The Bride of Lammermoor’ (now considered one of his finest achievements) and ‘A Legend of Montrose’. ‘Dr H’ (possibly Dr Peter Holland (1766-1855), a regular correspondent although his letters to Maria have not yet been found), she reports, says they ‘are interesting but inferior in power of character to the preceding tales’.

Maria may have preferred Scott’s ability to generate exciting and involving plot to the ‘power of character’ now recognised as the main achievement of another contemporary who placed her alongside Scott and Byron in a pantheon of literary greats. Despite her marginalised position in the modern literary cannon, Maria was once the UK’s most commercially successful novelist, as evidenced by the enthusiasm of other writers such as Byron to meet with her and the extraordinary record of income Maria Edgeworth meticulously recorded in September 1842: £11,062, 8s and 10 pennies (conversion to income now is some £668,332.85) . Compare the modest lifetime earnings for her fiction of £630 by Jane Austen (1775-1817).

Like Byron, Austen held Maria’s works in high regard. Writing to her niece Anna in 1814, herself an aspiring author, Austen went as far as to remark that ‘I have made up my mind to like no novels really but Miss Edgeworth’s, yours, and my own’. Austen continued to praise Edgeworth in her fiction. In Northanger Abbey (1818), she lauded Edgeworth’s controversial novel Belinda (1801) – along with Frances Burney’s Camilla and Cecilia – as works ‘in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language’.

Although an attentive reader of Austen’s works, Edgeworth’s opinion of Austen was mixed. In a letter to her cousin, Sophy Ruxton, of 26 December 1814, Maria comments that the family had been ‘much entertained’ by Austen’s previous work, Mansfield Park (1814). But much like Sir Water Scott, Edgeworth found Emma (1815) lacking in substance and gave up on it after one volume. Writing to Aunt Ruxton on 10th January 1816, Maria relates how she was grateful to receive a copy of the novel from the ‘authoress of Pride and Prejudice’ herself. Edgeworth was probably flattered by the kind gift—it was after all the only copy of Emma to presented by Austen to another author. But in a cutting review in a letter written later that year to her half-brother, Charles Sneyd Edgeworth, Maria complained that the novel lacked plot: ‘There is no story in it, except that Miss Emma found that the man whom she designed for Harriet’s lover was an admirer of her own—& he was affronted at being refused by Emma & Harriet wore the willow—and smooth, thin water-gruel is according to Emma’s father’s opinion a very good thing & it is very difficult to make a cook understand what you mean by smooth, thin water-gruel.’

Jane Austen’s Emma: a novel. In three volumes (1816) Bodleian Library 12 Theta 411-413

Nonetheless, Maria choose to keep her copy of Emma amongst the books housed in the family library at Edgeworthstown— a savvy decision, given that just two of the three original volumes Maria owned of Emma sold at auction in 2010 for £79,250. The new owner is in good company in owning only a partial set. A letter from Maria and Richard’s publisher in the Bodleian evidences, Maria’s gift text of Emma was not the only copy housed in the Edgeworth’s library (MS Eng. Lett. c. 722, fols.29-30). On 4th September 1816, Rowland Hunter wrote to Richard to inform him that he had just sent ‘a brown paper parcel’ filled with books to Ireland via Liverpool. Amongst the latest multi-volume memoirs (John Harriott’s Struggles Through Life (1807) and Memoirs of the Somerville Family (1815)), scholarly reference works (William Nicholson’s A Dictionary of Practical and Theoretical Chemistry (1808)), and writing supplies (18 pencils) was bundled a single novel— the first volume of Austen’s Emma. Whilst Edgeworth had despaired at the first volume, nearly a year later, Richard appears to have gone out of his way to order his own personal copy of the very same volume from his London bookseller.

Letter from Rowland Hunter to Richard Lovell Edgeworth, 4th September 1816, MS. Eng. lett. c. 722 fol 29r

 

Letter from Rowland Hunter to Richard Lovell Edgeworth, 4th September 1816, MS. Eng. lett. c. 722 fol 29v-30r

Transcript of MS. Eng. lett. c. 722

Austen’s reputation would eventually out-shadow that of both Richard and Maria Edgeworth as well as Maria’s fellow lioness, Germaine de Staël. The growth of Irish nationalism, coupled with less enthusiasm for female authors and characters outspoken in their political opinions in the popular form of the novel, caused Maria’s literary popularity to decline from the 1830s onwards. By 1909, Virginia Woolf found herself asking ‘whether people now read Miss Edgeworth’s novels’.

Despite her declining appeal to readers, Maria’s work has continued to inspire important works produced by subsequent generations of literary lions and exhibitors. Castle Rackrent (1800) remains a touchstone, albeit an ambiguous one, with secrets hard to disclose. An apparently slight reference to Castle Rackrent in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) unfolds a wealth of potential meanings. Daisy asks the narrator Nick Carraway
‘Are you in love with me,’ she said in my ear, ‘Or why did I have to come alone?’, to which he answers ‘That is the secret of Castle Rackrent’ (chapter 5). Of Irish descent, Fitzgerald may simply have been invoking an affinity between his own unreliable narrator, Nick and the famously unreliable narrator of Edgeworth’s novel, Thady Quirk. Thady is steward to four generations of variously ineffectual Anglo-Irish landlords of the Rackrent estate: see the sketch by Maria’s half-sister Honora Edgeworth (1791-1858) of Thady with his favourite master, Sir Condy, a child at his knee (MS Eng 901, fol.108). The ‘secret’ revealed at the end of the novel is that the improvident Sir Condy has entailed a jointure of £500 each year on his wife. Jason Quirk, the aspirant son of Thady and manager of the estate, is poised to seize the whole and is enraged but nonetheless forces Sir Condy to sign over his estate in a deed while Thady looks on and weeps. Thady’s loyalties, like Nick’s, are always murky: we cannot tell whether they are to the ruling classes, the women abused or pursued by those men, or the outsiders/bootleggers who aspire to take their place. The ‘secret’ of such stories, the famous ambivalence of the ‘Irish bull’, stays with these never-fully-revelatory narrators.

Sketch of Thady and Sir Condy by Honora Edgeworth, MS. Eng. 901. fol.145

A modern equivalent of this ambivalent exposure of abuse of power and resistance to it first captured in Castle Rackrent can be found in the bookish heroine of Anna Burn’s 2018 Booker prize-winning Milkman. ‘Middle sister’ decides not to take Castle Rackrent with her on her evening walk when she is ‘too buzzy to read’. She ponders instead ‘teacher’s’ words about sunsets every day and the imperative to ‘uncover what we’ve kept hidden, what we think we might have lost’.

Maria’s other works are secret pleasures for many writers in the know. Antony Trollope used the plot of The Absentee (1812) in his Hibernian novel The Kellys and the O’Kellys (1848). Poems by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin (‘Maria Edgeworth in 1847’) and Vona Groarke (‘Patronage’ 1994) invoke the labour of the woman writer and the threads of influence and affinity across Irish and English kin and cultures her work generates. Mark, the callow hero of Belinda McKeown’s Solace (2011) is writing a thesis on Maria Edgeworth at Trinity College, Dublin. Over two-hundred and fifty years after her birth, despite her decline in mainstream popularity, Byron’s great if reluctant literary exhibitionist continues to inspire writers and delight readers through her displays of authorial prowess.

Ros Ballaster and Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull

How much is that Doggie in the Archive?: The Value of Dogs in the Edgeworth Papers

As we struggle through yet another rainy June in Oxford, we cast our gaze back to the more sunny events in Ireland described by Maria Edgeworth in a letter from 17th June 1819 to her paternal Aunt Margaret Ruxton (1746-1830) (MS. Eng. lett. c. 717, fol.50-51)—written in cross style on the last page and writing around the sides to save paper. In past posts, we’ve considered some of the smaller objects that make up the Edgeworth papers—scraps and fragments that were treasured not for their intrinsic worth, but for their sentimental value. The focus of this post, Maria’s beloved dog Foster, is thankfully not housed in the Bodleian. But as Maria’s letter demonstrates, despite his diminutive size, Foster was a highly-valued member of the extended Edgeworth family.

Letter from Maria Edgeworth to her paternal Aunt Margaret Ruxton, 17th June 1819 (MS. Eng. lett. c. 717, fol.50r)

Letter from Maria Edgeworth to her paternal Aunt Margaret Ruxton, 17th June 1819 (MS. Eng. lett. c. 717, fol.50v)

Letter from Maria Edgeworth to her paternal Aunt Margaret Ruxton, 17th June 1819 (MS. Eng. lett. c. 717, fol.51r)

Letter from Maria Edgeworth to her paternal Aunt Margaret Ruxton, 17th June 1819 (MS. Eng. lett. c. 717, fol.51v)

Transcription of MS. Eng. Lett. 717, fols.50-1

Like any good boy, Foster comes with his own backstory. Prior to leaving Ireland for England with her sisters late in 1818, Maria visited the family home of John Foster, latterly Baron Oriel (1740-1828)— a good friend of her recently deceased father Richard Lovell Edgeworth, and the last speaker of the Irish House of Commons prior to its dissolution by the Act of Union in 1800. On this particular visit, Maria was so taken by Foster’s King Charles spaniel that he promised her one of its puppies. When Maria returned to Ireland in June 1819, her Aunt Ruxton presented her with a new addition to the family that fulfilled Foster’s promise—a beautiful spaniel puppy, whom she named after her father’s friend.

Writing excitedly to her Aunt shortly after Foster’s arrival at Edgeworthstown, Maria recalls in her letter the superlative devotion of her ‘dearest, most amiable bestbred’ dog to his mistress. Among the Edgeworth papers, there is a pencil portrait by Colonel Stevens of a regally-posed Foster reclining in front of Edgeworthstown House (MS Eng Misc c.901, fol.90) , Maria’s description of her new puppy evidences his valued position as the family’s model pet— one who never ‘stirs til I open my eyes’, is as ‘clean as a silken muff’, is friendly enough to withstand the playful grasp of Maria’s seven-year old half-brother Michael Packenham, and entertains the whole family through his comedic reaction to tasting the snuff intended to relieve his ‘Démangeaison’ (itching). Much like Lady Frances Arlington’s dog in Maria’s novel Patronage (1814), who distracts the audience when he performs tricks during a private theatrical performance, Foster clearly succeeded in stealing the hearts of the entire extended Edgeworth family.

Pencil portrait by Colonel Stevens of Foster in front of Edgeworthstown House (MS Eng Misc c.901, fol.90)

Maria clearly valued Foster for his companionship. She could, after all, ‘speak forever’ on ‘the subject’ of her puppy. Yet there is some comedic value in the fact that Foster was a King Charles spaniel. This ‘royal breed’, as Maria refers to it, of toy spaniel has been associated with the English Monarch since Lucas de Heere painted a pair curled at the feet of Queen Mary I in 1558. In her letter, Maria takes great pride in telling her aunt how ‘My Fosters [black] mouth proved his noble descent’ from the rare, prized breed owned by English aristocrats. Indeed, Maria shockingly recalls how King Charles Spaniels were valued so much by ‘Late the Duke of Norfolk’ that he reportedly fed their puppies to his ‘German owl’, and deceived Queen Charlotte with a worthless ‘cur’, mongrel, to ‘to preserve [his] […] exclusive possession’ of the breed. Yet Foster was the gift of, and named after, an Irish politician who had stalwartly fought – from within William Pitt’s government— for Irish economic prosperity and peace during the long years of struggle over the Union of Great Britain and Ireland.

Whilst Maria’s references to Foster’s aristocratic breed may be ironic, his name choice demonstrates the value Maria placed in his namesake as an individual. In Maria’s fictional works, dogs are often named after the characters with whom they share personality traits. In Maria’s earlier novel, Belinda (1801), for example, West Indian white creole Mr Vincent names his dog after his black servant Juba in recognition of their shared loyalty to their master (‘Well, Juba, the man, is the best man – and Juba, the dog, is the best dog, in the universe’). Similarly, in her moral tale for children, The Little Dog Trusty (1801), the story’s blameless titular canine is renamed Frank after the narrative’s equally well-behaved child (‘Trusty is to be called Frank [to] […] let them know the difference between a liar and a boy of truth’) (MS Eng Misc c.901, fol.140). By naming her dog after John Foster, Maria can be seen as complimenting the former speaker for his amiable qualities and loyal character. Indeed, Maria was writing her Father’s memoir with her new dog Foster by her side, and she may well have been thinking of two independent-minded landowning men important in her life—men who had sought to provide the kind of guidance and care to the poor and neglected local Irish tenants described in the second part of this letter, and painted by her half-sister Charlotte (MS Eng Misc c.901, fols.58-60).

‘Vignette for Dog Trusty’ by F.M.W., 1842 (MS Eng Misc c.901, fol.140)

Sketch by Maria’s half-sister Charlotte, ‘After dinner at a Bog’ (MS Eng Misc c.901, fol.58)

Sketch by Maria’s half-sister Charlotte, ‘Irish laborers from the life’ (MS Eng Misc c.901, fol.60)

Early in her letter, in a compliment to her aunt who had raised Foster from a puppy, Maria remarks on his amiability, observing that she is ‘pledged to believe that education does more than nature’. Her belief in the benefits of a good education is evidenced in the scenes of rural labour and education among ‘troops’ of young children with which she furnishes her aunt at the end of the letter and which are also found frequently in her fiction. Virtue is something that must be ‘fostered’ in the young. And we see that in the story of Lovell’s (foster) care for a fatherless Irish boy in his school at Edgworthstown who is described working happily alongside his fellows haymaking in the closing (densely crossed) paragraphs at the end of Maria’s letter.1 The boy’s father has been executed having gone to the bad and fallen among thieves. Maria reports the neighbourhood view that his son, brought up to virtue in his mother’s family, might have influenced him against such criminality. Lovell prompts the boy’s schoolfellows to undertake small amounts of labour so that they can club together and provide him with a suit of clothes in place of the rags he has to stand in. Poverty, insurgency, discontent, were on the doorstep of Edgworthstown House. Maria concludes her letter by remarking that her father would have been proud to see the family applying the principles of generosity, care and educational improvement he took seriously as his duty of landowning care. Maria may in fact be gently mocking ‘proofs’ of value in external marks of ‘breeding’ and the tendency to translate them from the animal kingdom to the human. Certainly the particular brand of benevolent patriarchalism the Edgeworths wielded over their tenants as Anglo-Irish landowners feels uncomfortable and condescending to modern readers. But Maria is sharp and funny enough often to see those contradictions and make room for them in her letters. And in the end, her beloved doggo, bred by a man whom she greatly admired, was naturally the best pupperino in all of Ireland.

– Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull

 

Footnotes

1. Lovell established a remarkable co-educational school for one hundred and twenty Protestant and Catholic boys in Edgeworthstown based on his father’s theories of education in 1816. Before closing in 1833, the school attracted notable literary visitors including William Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott. For more, see Brian W. Taylor, ‘Richard Lovell Edgeworth’, The Irish Journal of Education (1986) XX: 1, pp.27-50.