The Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth

1787 - 1793


The great love which Miss Edgeworth always felt for children was tried and developed out to its fullest extent in the ever-increasing family circle. Mrs. Elizabeth Edgeworth added nine more brothers and sisters to the group of six which already existed; the eldest of them, Henry, born in 1782, was intrusted to Maria's especial care.

MARIA TO MISS CHARLOTTE SNEYD.

EDGEWORTHSTOWN, December 9, 1787.

I think, my dear Aunt Charlotte, I did not know till Henry returned to us after his six weeks' absence, how very agreeable even a child of his age can make himself, but I am sure that his journey has been productive of so much pleasure to me from the kindness and approbation you have shown, and has left on my mind so full a conviction of your skill in the art of education, that I should part with Henry again to-morrow with infinitely more security and satisfaction than I did two months ago. I was really surprised to see with what ease and alacrity little Henry returned to all his former habits and occupations, and the very slight change that appeared in his manner or mind; nothing seemed strange to him in anything, or anybody about him. When he spoke of you to us he seemed to think that we were all necessarily connected in all our commands and wishes, that we were all one whole - one great polypus soul. I hope my father will tell you himself how much he liked your letter, "the overflowings of a full mind, not the froth of an empty one."

In 1790 the family group was first broken by the death from consumption, at fifteen, of Honora, the beautiful only daughter of Mrs. Honora Edgeworth.

TO MRS. RUXTON.

EDGEWORTHSTOWN, February 11, 1790.

Your friendship, my dear Aunt Ruxton, has, I am sure, considerably alleviated the anguish of mind my father has had to feet and your letter and well-deserved praise of my dear mother's fortitude and exertion were a real pleasure to her. She has indeed had a great deal to bear, and I think her health has suffered, but I hope not materially. In my father's absence, she ordered everything, did everything, felt everything herself. Unless, my dear aunt, you had been present during the last week of dear Honora's sufferings, I think you could not form an idea of anythbg so terrible or so touching. Such extreme fortitude, such affection, such attention to the smallest feelings of others, as she showed on her deathbed!

My father has carefully kept his mind occupied ever since his return, but we cannot help seeing his feelings at intervals. He has not slept for two or three nights, and is, I think, far from well to-day.

He said the other day, speaking of Honora, "My dear daughters, I promise you one thing, I never will reproach any of you with Honora. I will never reproach you with any of her virtues." There could not be a kinder or more generous promise, but I could not help fearing that my father should refrain from speaking of her too much, and that it would hurt his mind. He used to say it was a great relief to him to talk of my mother Honora.

In the summer of 1791 Mr. and Mrs. Edgeworth went to England, leaving Maria in sole charge of the large family at home. She used to amuse her young sisters at this time by stories, which she would write on a slate during the leisure moments which her many occupations permitted, and which she would read aloud to them in the evening. By their interest or questions she estimated the stories, which became the foundation of "The Parent's Assistant." When her father was with her she always wrote a sketch of an intended story, and submitted it to his approval, being invariably guided by his advice. In October Maria was desired to follow her parents to Clifton, bringing nearly all the children with her, a formidable undertaking for a young girl in those days of difficult traveling.

TO MRS. RUXTON.

EDGEWORTHSTOWN, October, 1791.

My dear mother is safe and well, and a fine new sister, I suppose you have heard. My very dear aunt, since the moment I came home till this instant my hands have trembled, and my head whirled with business; but the delightful hope of seeing my dear father and mother at Bristol is in fine perspective at the end. My father has just written the kindest letter possible, and Emmeline is transcribing his directions about our journey. We are to set off as soon as we can - on Tuesday morning next, I believe, for my father is extremely impatient for us to come over. I write by this night's post to Mr. Hanna, to take lodgings for us in Dublin, and we are, as you will see, to go by Holyhead.

As to coming round by Black Castle, it is out of the question. For everybody's sake but my own, I regret this for my own I do not, the few hours I should have to spend in your company would not, my dearest aunt, balance the pain of parting with you all again, which I did feel thoroughly, and if I had not had the kindest friends and the fullest occupation the moment I came home, I should have been in the lamentables a long time. Tell my dear uncle I never shall forget the kindness of his manner towards me during the whole of my stay at Black Castle, and the belief that he thinks well of his little niece adds much to her happiness, perhaps to her vanity, which he will say there was no occasion to increase. And now, dear Sophy, for your roaring blade, Thomas Day, Esq., he is in readiness to wait upon you whenever you can; will you have the charity to receive him? Name the day, my dear aunt, which will be the least inconvenient if you can, and Molly or John Langan shall bring him in the old or new chaise to your door, where I hope he will not salute you with a cry, but if he does, do not be surprised.

You see, my dear aunt, that I am in a great hurry by my writing, but no hurry, believe me, can drive out of my mind the remembrance of all the kindness I received at Black Castle. Oh, continue to love your niece; you cannot imagine the pleasure she felt when you kissed her, and said you loved her a thousand times better than ever you did before.

MR. SMITH'S, HOLYHEAD, Friday Morning.

We are this instant arrived, my dear aunt, after a thirty-three hours' passage; all the children safe and well, but desperately sick; poor little Sneyd especially. The packet is just returning, and my head is so giddy that I scarcely know what I write, but you will only expect a few shabby lines to say we are not drowned. Mr. Ussher Edgeworth and my Aunt Fox's servant saw us on board, and Mr. E. was so very good to come in the wherry with us and see us into the ship. We had the whole cabin to ourselves; no passenger, except one gentleman, son-in-law to Mr. Dawson, of Ardee; he was very civil to us, and assisted us much in landing, etc. I felt, besides, very glad to see one who knew anything even of the name of Ruxton. Adieu, my dear aunt; all the sick pale figures around me with faint voices send their love to you and my uncle.

TO MR. RUXTON.

PRINCE'S BUILDINGS, CLIFTON,
December 29, 1791.

MY DEAR UNCLE, - If you are going to the canal put this letter in your pocket, and do not be troubled in your conscience about reading it, but keep it till you are perfectly at leisure: for I have nothing strange or new to tell you. We live just the same kind of life that we used to do at Edgeworthstown; and, though we move amongst numbers, are not moved by them, but feel independent of them for our daily amusement. All the phantasmas I had conjured up to frighten myself vanished after I had been here a week, for I found that they were but phantoms of my imagination, as you very truly told me. We live very near the Downs, where we have almost every day charming walks, and all the children go bounding about over hill and dale along with us. My aunt told me that once when you were at Clifton, when full dressed to go to a ball at Bath, you suddenly changed your mind, and undressed again, to go out a walking with her, and now that I see the walks, I am not surprised, even if you were not to have had the pleasure of my aunt's company. My father has got a transfer of a ticket for the Bristol library, which is an extremely fine one; and what makes it appear ten times finer is, that it is very difficult for strangers to get into. From thence he can get almost any book for us he pleases, except a few of the most scarce, which are by the laws of the library immovable. No ladies go to the library, but Mr. Johns, the librarian, is very civil, and my mother went to his rooms and saw the beautiful prints in Boydell's Shakespeare. Lavater is to come home in a coach to-day. My father seems to think much the same of him that you did when you saw him abroad, that to some genius he adds a good deal of the mountebank. My father is going soon to Bath. Madame de Genlis is there, and he means to present the translation of "Adele and Theodore" to her; he had intended to have had me introduced to her, but upon inquiry he was informed that she is not visited by demoiselles in England.

For some time I kept a Bristol journal, which I intended to send to Black Castle in form of a newspaper, but I found that though every day's conversation and occurrences appeared of prodigious importance just at the moment they were passing, yet afterwards they seemed so flat and stale as not to be worth sending. I must however tell you that I had materials for one brilliant paragraph about the Duchess of York. Mr. Lloyd had seen the wondrous sight. "When she was to be presented to the Queen, H. R. H. kept Her Majesty waiting nearly an hour, till at last the Queen, fearing that some accident had happened, sent to let the Duchess know that she was waiting for her. When the Duchess at length arrived, she was so frightened - for a Royal Duchess can be frightened as well as another - that she trembled and tottered in crossing the presence chamber so that she was obliged to be supported. She is very timid, and never once raised her eyes, so that our correspondent cannot speak decidedly as to the expression of her countenance, but if we may be allowed to say so, she is not a beauty, and is very low. She was dressed in white and gold," etc., etc.

The children all desire their love; they were playing the other day at going to Black Castle, and begged me to be Aunt Ruxton, which I assured them I would if I could! but they insisted on my being Sophy, Letty, and Margaret at the same time, and were not quite contented at my pleading this to be out of my power.

TO MISS SOPHY RUXTON.

CLIFTON, March 9, 1792.

I wish, my dear Sophy, that you could know how often I think of you and wish for you, whenever we see or hear anything that I imagine you would like. How does your ward go on? My mother desires me to say the kindest things to you, and assure yourself, my dear Sophy, that when my mother says the kindest, they are always at the same time the truest. She is not a person ever to forget a favor, and the care and trouble you are now bestowing on little Thomas Day will be remembered probably after you have forgotten it. But my father interrupts me at this moment, to say that if I am writing to Sopby I must give him soine room at the end, so I shall leave off my fine speeches. We spend our time very agreeably here, and have in particular great choice of books. I don't think the children are quite as happy here as they used to be at home; it is impossible they should be, for they have neither the same occupations or liberty. It is however "restraint that sweetens liberty," and the joy they show when they run upon the Downs, hunting fossils, and clambering, is indeed very great. Henry flatters himself that he shall some time or other have the pleasure of exhibiting his collection to Cousin Sophy, and rehearses frequently in the character of showman. Dr. Darwin has been so good as to send him several fossils, etc., with their names written upon them, and he is every day adding to his little stock of larning. There is a very sensible man here who has also made him presents of little things which he values much, and he begins to mess a great deal with gums, camphor, etc. He will at least never come under Dr. Darwin's definition of a fool. "A fool, Mr. Edgeworth, you know, is a man who never tried an experiment in his life." My father tells me that Henry has acquired a taste for improving himself, and that all he has now to fear is my taste for improving him.

We went the other day to see a collection of natural curiosities at a Mr. Broderip's, of Bristol, which entertained us very much. My father observed he had but very few butterflies, and he said, "No, sir, a circumstance which happened to me some time ago determined me never to collect any more butterflies. I caught a most beautiful butterfly, thought I had killed it, and ran a pin through its body to fasten it to a cork: a fortnight afterward I happened to look in the box where I had left it, and I saw it writhing in agony: since that time I have never destroyed another."

My father has just returned from Dr. Darwin's, where he has been nearly three weeks; they were extremely kind, and pressed him very much to take a house in or near Derby for the summer. He has been, as Dr. Darwin expressed it, "breathing the breath of life into the brazen lungs of a clock" which he had made at Edgeworthstown as a present for him. He saw the first part of Dr. Darwin's "Botanic Garden;" £900 was what his bookseller gave him for the whole! On his return from Derby, my father spent a day with Mr. Keir, the great chemist, at Birmingham: he was speaking to him of the late discovery of fulminating silver, with which I suppose your ladyship is well acquainted, though it be new to Henry and me. A lady and gentleman went into a laboratory where a few grains of fulminating silver were lying in a mortar: the gentleman, as he was talking, happened to stir it with the end of his cane, which was tipped with iron, - the fulminating silver exploded instantly, and blew the lady, the gentleman, and the whole laboratory to pieces! Take care how you go into laboratories with gentlemen, unless they are, like Sir Plume, skilled in the "nice conduct" of their canes.

Have you seen any of the things that have been lately published about the negroes? We have just read a very small pamphlet of about ten pages, merely an account of the facts stated to the House of Commons. Twenty-five thousand people in England have absolutely left off eating West India sugar, from the hope that when there is no longer any demand for sugar the slaves will not be so cruelly treated. Children in several schools have given up sweet things, which is surely very benevolent; though whether it will at all conduce to the end proposed is perhaps wholly uncertain, and in the mean time we go on eating apple pies sweetened with sugar instead of with honey. At Mr. Keir's, however, my father avers that he ate excellent custards sweetened with honey. Will it not be rather hard upon the poor bees in the end?

Mrs. Yearsly, the milkwoman, whose poems I dare say my aunt has seen, lives very near us at Clifton: we have never seen her, and probably never shall, for my father is so indignant against her for her ingratitude to her benefactress, Miss Hannah More, that he thinks she deserves to be treated with neglect. She was dying, absolutely expiring with hunger, when Miss More found her. Her mother was a washerwoman, and washed for Miss More's family; by accident, in a tablecloth which was sent to her was left a silver spoon, which Mrs. Yearsly returned. Struck with this instance of honesty, which was repeated to her by the servants, Miss More sent for her, discovered her distress and her genius, and though she was extremely eager in preparing some of her own works for the press, she threw them all aside to correct Mrs. Yearsly's poems, and obtained for her a subscription of £600. In return, Mrs. Yearsly accused her of having defrauded her, of having been actuated only by vanity in bringing her abilities to light - a new species of vanity from one authoress to another - in short, abused her in the basest and most virulent manner. Would you go to see Mrs. Yearsly?

Lo! I have almost filled the Bristol Chronicle, and have yet much that I wish to say to you, dear Sophy, and that I could tell you in one half hour, talking at my usual rate of nine miles an hour; when that will be, it is impossible to tell. My mother is now getting better. All the children are perfectly well; Bessy's eyes are not inflamed; Charlotte est faite peindre et plus encore aimer, if that were French.

Little Thomas Day Edgeworth died at the age of three, whilst he was in the care of the Ruxtons, and about the same time Maria Edgeworth's own brother Richard, who had paid a long visit to his family at Clifton, returned to North Carolina, where he had married and was already a father.

TO MISS SOPHY RUXTON.

ASHTON BOWER, CLIFTON, August 14, 1792.

Last Saturday my poor brother Richard took leave of us to return to America. He has gone up to London with my father and mother, and is to sail from thence. We could not part with him without great pain and regret, for he made us all extremely fond of him. I wish my dear aunt could have seen him; he was very sensible of her kindness, and longed to have a letter from her. He is to come over in '95. Emmeline is still with Lady Holt and Mrs. Bracebridge, at Atherstone, in Warwickshire. Miss Bracebridge, granddaughter to Lady Holt, is a very agreeable companion to my sister, though some years younger, and she enjoys the society at Atherstone very much. They are most unwilling to part with her; but now she has been absent two months, and we all begin to growl for her return, especially now that my brother is gone, who was "in himself a host."

I am engaged to go in October to pay a visit to Mrs. Charles Hoare. I believe you may remember my talking to you of this lady, and my telling you that she was my friend at school, and had corresponded with me since. She was at Lisbon when we first came to England, and I thought I had little prospect of seeing her, but the moment she returned to England she wrote to me in the kindest and most pressing manner to beg I would come to her. Immediately after this, I dare not add that she is a most amiable and sensible woman, lest Sophy should exclaim, "Ah! vanity! because she likes you, Mademoiselle Marie!".

My uncle, William Sneyd, whom I believe you saw at Edgeworthstown, has just been with us for three weeks, and in that time filled five quires of paper with dried plants from the neighboring rocks. He says there is at Clifton the richest harvest for botanists. How I wish you were here to reap it. Henry and I will collect anything that we are informed is worthy of your Serene Highness's collection. There is a species of cistus which grows on S. Vincent's rock, which is not, I am told, to be found in any other part of England. Helpless as I am and scoffed at in these matters, I will contrive to get some of it for you. A shoemaker showed us a tortoise shell which he had for sale. I wished to have bought it for La Sophie, but upon inquiry I found it could not be had for less than a guinea; now I thought at the utmost it would not give Sophy above half a crown's worth of pleasure, so I left the shoemaker in quiet possession of his African tortoise. He had better fortune with two shells, admirals, which he sold to Lady Valentia for three guineas.

We begin to be hungry for letters. The children all desire their love to you; Charlotte is very engaging, and promises to be handsome; Sneyd is and promises everything; Henry will, I think, through life always do more than he promises; little Honora is a sprightly, blue-eyed child, at nurse with a woman who is the picture of health and simplicity, in a beautiful romantic cottage, just such a cottage as you would imagine for the residence of health and simplicity. Lovell is perfectly well, and desires his kind love to you. Dr. Darwin has paid him very handsome compliments in his lines on the Barbarini vase, in the first part of the "Botanic Garden," which my father has just got.

Has my aunt seen the "Romance of the Forest"? It has been the fashionable novel here, everybody read and talked of it; we were much interested in some parts of it. It is something in the style of the "Castle of Otranto," and the horrible parts are, we thought, well worked up, but it is very difficult to keep Horror breathless with his mouth wide open through three volumes.

Adieu, my dear Sophy: do not let my aunt forget me, for I love her very much; and as for yourself, take care not to think too highly of Cousin Maria, but see her faults with indulgence, and you will, I think, find her a steady and affectionate friend.

TO MISS SOPHY RUXTON.

FLEET STREET, LONDON, October 17, 1792.

I have been with Mrs. Charles Hoare a week, and before I left Clifton had a budget in my head for a letter to you, which I really had not a moment's time to write. I left them all very well, just going to leave Ashton Bower, which I am not sorry for, though it has such a pretty, romantic name; it is not a fit Bower to live in in winter, it is so cold and damp. They are going to Prince's Place again, and I dare say will fix there for the winter, though my father has talked of Bath and Plymouth.

I find in half-rubbed-out notes in my pocket-book, "Sophy - Slave-ship: Sophy - Rope-walk: Sophy -Marine acid: Sophy - Earthquake: Sophy - Glasshouse etc.": and I intended to tell you au longue of these.

We went on board a slave-ship with my brother, and saw the dreadfully small hole in which the poor slaves are stowed together, so that they cannot stir. But probably you know all this.

Mrs. Hoare was at Lisbon during two slight shocks of an earthquake; she says the night was remarkably fine, there was no unwholesome feeling that she can remember in the air, immediately preceding the shock: but they were sitting with the windows open down to the ground, looking at the clearness of the sky, when they felt the shock. The doors and windows, and all the furniture in the room, shook for a few instants; they looked at one another in silent terror. But in another instant everything was still, and they came to the use of their voices. Numbers of exaggerated accounts were put into the public papers, and she received vast numbers of terrified letters from her friends in England. So much for the earthquake. The marine acid I must leave till I have my father at my elbow, lest in my great wisdom I should set you wrong.

About the glasshouse: there is one Stephens, an Englishman, who has set up a splendid glasahouse at Lisbon, and the government have granted him a pine wood sixteen miles in extent to supply his glasshouse with fuel. He has erected a theatre for his workmen, supplied them with scenes, dresses, etc. ; and they have acquired such a taste for theatrical amusements that it has conquered their violent passion for drinking, which formerly made them incapable of work three days in the week; now they work as hard as possible, and amuse themselves for one day in the week.

Of the beauty of the Tagus, and its golden sands, and the wolves which Mrs. Hoare had the satisfaction of seeing hunted, I must speak when I see you. Mrs Hoare is as kind as possible to me, and I spend my time at Roehampton as I like; in London that is not entirely possible. We have only come up to town for a few days. Mr. Hoare's house at Roehampton is an excellent one indeed - a library with nice books, small tables upon casters, low sofas, and all the other things which make rooms comfortable. Lady Hoare, his mother, is said to be a very amiable, sensible woman: I have seen her only once, but I was much entertained at her house at Barnelms, looking at the pictures. I saw Zeluco's figure in Le Brun's "Massacre of the Innocents." My aunt will laugh, and think that I am giving myself great airs when I talk of being entertained looking at pictures; but assure her that I remember what she used to say about taste, and that without affectation I have endeavored to look at everything worth seeing.

TO MRS. RUXTON.

STANHOPE STREET, LONDON,
November 6, 1792.

I left Roehampton yesterday, and took leave of my friend Mrs. Charles Hoare, with a high opinion of her abilities, and a still higher opinion of her goodness. She was exceedingly kind to me, and I spent most of my time with her as I liked; I say most, because a good deal of it was spent in company where I heard of nothing but chariots and horses, and curricles and tandems. Oh, to what contempt I exposed myself in a luckless hour by asking what a tandem was! I am going in a few days to meet Mrs. Powys at Bath. Since I have been away from home I have missed the society and fondness of my father, mother, and sisters more than I can express, and more than beforehand I should have thought possible; I long to see them all again. Even when I am most amused I feel a void, and now I understand what an aching void is perfectly well. You know they are going back to Prince's Buildings to the nice house we had last winter; and Emmeline writes me word that the great red puddle which we used to call the Red Sea, and which we were forced to wade through before we could get to the Downs, will not this winter be so terrible, for my father has made a footpath for his "host."

CLIFTON, December 13, 1792.
(The day we received yours.)

The day of retribution is at hand, my dear aunt: the month of May will soon come, and then, when we meet face to face, and voucher to voucher, it shall be truly seen whose letter-writing account stands fullest and fairest in the world. Till then, "we'll leave it all to your honor's honor." But why does my dear aunt write, "I can have but little more time to spend with my brother in my life?" as if she was an old woman of one hundred and ninety-nine and upwards! I remember, the day I left Black Castle, you told me, if you recollect, that you "had one foot in the grave;" and though I saw you standing before me in perfect health, sound wind and limb, I had the weakness to feel frightened, and never to think of examining where your feet really were. But in the month of May we hope to find them safe in your shoes, and I hope that the sun will then shine out, and that all the black clouds in the political horizon will be dispersed, and that "freemen" will by that time eat their puddings and hold their tongues. Anna and I stayed one week with Mrs. Powys at Bath, and were very thoroughly occupied all the time with seeing and I won't say with being seen; for though we were at three balls, I do not believe any one saw us. The Upper Rooms we thought very splendid, and the playhouse pretty, but not so good as the theatre at Bristol. We walked all over Bath with my father, and liked it extremely: he showed us the house where he was born.

GLOUCESTER ROW, CLIFTON,
July 21, 1793.

My father is just returned to us from Mr. Keir's. . . . Come over to us, since we cannot go to you. "Ah, Maria, you know I would come if I could." But can't you, who are a great woman, trample upon impossibilities? It is two years since we saw you, and we are tired of recollecting how kind and agreeable you were. Are you the same Aunt Ruxton? Come and see whether we are the same, and whether there are any people in the world out of your own house who know your value better.

During the hot weather the thermometer was often 80, and once 88. Mr. Neville, a banker, has taken a house here, and was to have been my father's traveling companion, but left him at Birmingham: he has a fishing-stool and a wife. We like the fishing-stool and the wife, but have not yet seen the family. My father last night wrote a letter of recommendation to you for a Mr. Jimbernat, a Spanish gentleman, son to the King of Spain's surgeon, who is employed by his Court to travel for scientific purposes: he drank tea with us, and seems very intelligent. Till I saw him I thought a Spaniard must be tall and stately: one may be mistaken.

Adieu, for there are matters of high import coming, fit only for the pen of pens.

R. L. EDGEWORTH, in continuation.

The matters of high importance, my dear sister, have been already communicated to you in brief, and indeed cannot be detailed by any but the parties. Dr. Beddoes, the object of Anna's vows, is a man of abilities, and of great name in the scientific world as a naturalist and chemist - good-humored, good-natured, a man of honor and virtue, enthusiastic and sanguine, and very fond of Anna.

MARIA TO MRS. RUXTON.

EDGEWORTHSTOWN, November 18, 1793.

This evening my father has been reading out Gay's "Trivia" to our great entertainment. I wished very much, my dear aunt, that you and Sophy had been sitting round the fire with us. If you have "Trivia," and if you have time, will you humor your niece so far as to look at it? I think there are many things in it which will please you, especially the "Patten and the Shoeblack," and the old woman hovering over her little fire in a hard winter. Pray tell me if you like it. I had much rather make a bargain with any one I loved to read the same book with them at the same hour, than to look at the moon like Rousseau's famous lovers. "Ah! that is because my dear niece has no taste and no eyes." But I assure you I am learning the use of my eyes main fast, and make no doubt, please Heaven I live to be sixty, to see as well as my neighbors.

I am scratching away very hard at the Freeman Family.