A prolific Anglo-Irish writer of adult and children’s literature, Maria Edgeworth was instrumental in the evolution of the novel in Europe. Many of her works featured the plight of the Irish, women’s issues, politics, and education. A contemporary of Jane Austen, she was also a friend and correspondent of famed literary and economic writers Sir Walter Scott and David Ricardo.
In her early childhood years, Maria spent most of her time with her mother and her mother’s family in Oxfordshire, England. When her mother passed away when she was five, Maria’s father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth married her aunt, (her mother’s sister) and the family moved to Edgeworth’s estate, Edgeworthstown in County Longford, Ireland.
While attending school in London, Maria, at 14 years old, became afflicted with an eye infection. Her father sent for her to return to Ireland, and Maria engaged in helping her father and step-mother with the raising of her younger siblings.
Home-tutored by her father in the study of law, Irish economics and politics, science, and literature, Maria showed much promise as an intellect. She also assisted her father in managing the estate where she would live and write for the rest of her life. Observing the details of daily Irish life, and collaborating academically with her father, Maria procured extensive material for her future novels. Her aunt on her father’s side, Margaret Ruxton of Black Castle encouraged Maria’s writings and supplied her with inspirational material such as the works of Anne Radcliffe and William Godwin.
After the death of his third wife, Richard married Frances Beaufort, a woman one year younger than 30-year-old Maria, and the two women became life-long friends. The family took to extensive traveling, and Maria began her writing in earnest. Her novels celebrated Irish culture and also highlighted the gradual anglicanization of feudal Irish society. In her novels, Maria also articulated education as the key to both individual and national improvement. She believed boy and girls should be educated equally and together, and that women should only marry whom they choose, or not at all.
Maria was also passionate about Catholic Emancipation, agricultural reform, and improving the living standards of the poor. During the Irish Potato Famine she worked for the relief of the Irish peasants. Her efforts became well-known, and she even procured help and gifts for the poor of Ireland from America.
After her father’s death in 1817, Maria edited his memoirs and then added to them her biographical comments. She wrote until her own death in her eighties.
Even though her works were often criticized for being too moralistic, Maria soldiered on, becoming a prolific author, a defender of women and children, and an early innovator of the literary novel.