1767 - 1787
IN the flats of the featureless county of Longford stands the large and handsome but unpretentious house of Edgeworthstown. The scenery here has few natural attractions, but the loving care of several generations has gradually beautified the surroundings of the house, and few homes have been more valued or more the centre round which a large family circle has gathered in unusual sympathy and love. In his "Memoirs," Mr. Edgeworth tells us how his family, which had given a name to Edgeworth, now Edgeware, near London, came to settle in Ireland more than three hundred years ago. Roger Edgeworth, a monk, having taken advantage of the religious changes under Henry VIII., had married and left two sons, who, about 1583, established them-selves in Ireland. Of these, Edward, the elder, became Bishop of Down and Connor, and died without children; but the younger, Francis, became the founder of the family of Edgeworthstown. Always intensely Protestant, often intensely extravagant, each generation of the Edgeworth family afterwards had its own picturesque story, till Richard Edgeworth repaired the broken fortunes of his house, partly by success as a lawyer, partly by his marriage, in 1732, with Jane Lovell, daughter of a Welsh judge.
Their eldest son, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, was born in 1744, and educated in his boyhood at Drogheda School and Dublin University. Strong, handsome, clever, ingenious, and devoted to sports of every kind, he was a general favorite. But his high spirits often led him into scrapes; the most serious of these occurred during the festivities attendant on his eldest sister's marriage with Mr. Fox of Fox Hall, at which he played at being married to a young lady who was present, by one of the guests dressed up in a white cloak, with a door-key for a ring. This foolish escapade would not deserve the faintest notice, if it had not been seriously treated as an actual marriage by a writer in the "Quarterly Review."
In 1761 Richard Edgeworth was removed from Dublin to Corpus Christi College at Oxford. There he arrived, regretting the gayeties of Dublin, and anxious to make the most of any little excitements which his new life could offer. Amongst the introductions he brought with him was one to Mr. Paul Elers, who, himself of German extraction, had made a romantic marriage with Miss Hungerford, the heiress of Black Bourton in Oxfordshire. Mr. Elers honorably warned Mr. Edgeworth, who was an old friend of his, that he had four daughters who were very pretty, and that his friend had better be careful, as their small fortunes would scarcely fit one of them to be the wife of his son. But the elder Mr. Edgeworth took no notice - Richard was constantly at Black Bourton; and in 1768, being then only nineteen, he fled with Miss Anna Maria Elers to Gretna Green, where they were married. Great as was Mr. Edgeworth's displeasure, he wisely afterwards had the young couple remarried by license.
The union turned out unhappily. "I soon felt the inconveniences of an early and hasty marriage," wrote the bridegroom; "but, though I heartily repented my folly, I determined to bear with firmness and temper the evil which I had brought on myself." His eldest child, Richard, was born before he was twenty; his second, Maria, when he was twenty-four. Though he became master of Edgeworthstown by the death of his father in 1769, he lived for some years chiefly at Hare Hatch, near Maidenhead, where he already began to distract his attention from an ungenial home, by the endless plans for progress in agriculture and industry, and the disinterested schemes for the good of Ireland, which always continued to be the chief occupation of his life. It was his inventive genius which led to his paying a long visit to Lichfield to see Dr. Darwin. There he lingered long in pleasant intimacy with the doctor and his wife, with Mr. Wedgwood, Miss Anna Seward, - "the Swan of Lichfield," - and, still more, with the eccentric Thomas Day, author of "Sandford and Merton," who became his most intimate friend, and who wished to marry his favorite sister Margaret, though she could not make up her mind to accept him, and eventually became the wife of Mr. Ruxton of Black Castle. With Mrs. Seward and her daughters lived at that time - partly for educational purposes - Honora Sneyd, a beautiful and gifted girl, who had rejected the addresses of the afterwards famous Major André, and who now also refused those of Mr. Day. "In her, Honora Sneyd," wrote Mr. Edgeworth, "I saw for the first time in my life a woman that equaled the picture of perfection existing in my imagination. And then my not being happy at home exposed me to the danger of being too happy elsewhere." When he began to feel as if the sunshine of his life emanated from his friendship with Miss Sneyd, he was certain flight was the only safety. So leaving Mrs. Edgeworth and her little girls with her mother, he made his escape to France, taking with him only his boy, whom he determined to educate according to the system of Rousseau. Then, for two years, he remained at Lyons, employing his inventive and mechanical powers in building bridges.
Meantime, the early childhood of Maria Edgeworth, who was born 1st January, 1767, in the house of her grandfather, Mr. Elers, at Black Bourton, was spent almost entirely with relations in Oxfordshire, or with her maternal great-aunts, the Misses Blake, in Great Russell Street in London. It was in their house that her neglected and unloved mother - always a kind and excellent, though a very sad woman - died after her confinement of a third daughter (Anna) in 1773. On hearing of what he considered to be his release, Mr. Edgeworth hurried back at once to England, and, before four months were over, he was married to Miss Honora Sneyd, whose assent to so hasty a marriage would scarcely prepare those who were unacquainted with her for the noble, simple, and faithful way in which she ever fulfilled the duties of a wife and stepmother. The son of the first marriage, Richard Edgeworth, went, by his own choice, to sea; but the three little girls, Maria, Emmeline, and Anna, returned with their father and stepmother to Edgeworthstown, where they had a childhood of unclouded happiness.
In 1775 Maria Edgeworth, being then eight years old, was sent to a school at Derby, kept by Mrs. Lataffiere, to whom she always felt much indebted, though her stepmother, then in very failing health, continued to take part in her education by letter.
MRS. HONORA EDGEWORTH TO MARIA.
BEIGHTERTON, NEAR SHIFFNALL,
October 10, 1779.
I have received your letter, and I thank you for it, though I assure you I did not expect it. I am particularly desirous you should be convinced of this, as I told you I would write first. It is in vain to attempt to please a person who will not tell us what they do and what they do not desire; but as I tell you very fully what I think may be expected from a girl of your age, abilities, and education, I assure you, my dear Maria, you may entirely depend upon me, that as long as I have the use of my understanding, I shall not be displeased with you for omitting anything which I had before told you I did not expect. Perhaps you may not quite understand what I mean, for I have not expressed myself clearly. If you do not, I will explain myself to you when we meet; for it is very agreeable to me to think of conversing with you as my equal in every respect but age, and of my making that inequality of use to you by giving you the advantage of the experience I have had, and the observations I have been able to make, as these are parts of knowledge which nothing but time can bestow.
In the spring of 1780 Mrs. Honora Edgeworth died of consumption, leaving an only son, Lovell, and a daughter, Honora. Mr. Edgeworth announced this - which to her was a most real sorrow - to his daughter Maria in a very touching letter, in which he urges her to follow her lost stepmother's example, especially in endeavoring to be "amiable, prudent, and of use;" but within eight months he married again. Mrs. Honora Edgeworth, when dying, had been certain that he would do so, and had herself indicated her own sister Elizabeth as the person whose character was most likely to secure a happy home to him and his children. So, with his usual singularity, though he liked her less than any of her other sisters, and though he believed her utterly unsuited to himself, he followed the advice which had been given; and in spite of law and public opinion, Elizabeth Sneyd became the third Mrs. Edgeworth within eight months of her sister's death.
"Nothing," wrote Mr. Edgeworth, "is more erroneous than the common belief that a man who has lived in the greatest happiness with one wife will be the most averse to take another. On the contrary, the loss of happiness which he feels when he loses her necessarily urges him to endeavor to be again placed in the situation which constituted his former felicity.
"I felt that Honora had judged wisely and from a thorough knowledge of my character, when she advised me to marry again as soon as I could meet with a woman who would make a good mother to my children, and an agreeable companion to me. She had formed an idea that her sister Elizabeth was better suited to me than any other woman, and thought I was equally suited to her. But, of all Honora's sisters, I had seen the least of Elizabeth."
Mrs. Elizabeth Edgeworth proved herself worthy of her sister's confidence. She was soon adored by her stepchildren, and her conduct to them was in all respects maternal. Maria at this time was removed from Bath to the school of Mrs. Davis, in Upper Wimpole Street, London, where she had excellent masters. Here her talent as an improvisatrice was first manifested in the tales she used to tell to her companions in their bedroom at night. She also, by his desire, frequently wrote stories and sent them for her father's criticism and approval. During holidays, which she often spent with his old friend Mr. Day at Anningsly, she benefited by an admirable library and by Mr. Day's advice as to her reading.
In 1782 Mr. and Mrs. Edgeworth returned to Ireland, taking the whole family with them. Maria was now fifteen, and was old enough to be interested in all the peculiarities of the Irish as contrasted with the English character, soon showing such natural aptitude for dealing with those around her, that her father intrusted her with all his accounts, and practically employed her as his agent for many years. Thus she obtained an insight into the lives and characters of her humbler neighbors, which was of inestimable value to her when afterwards writing her sketches of Irish life. She already began to Nan many stories, most of which were never finished. But Mr. Edgewonth discouraged this. In the last year of her life Miss Edgeworth wrote: "I remember a number of literary projects, if I may so call them, or aperçus of things which I might have written if I had time or capacity so to do. The word aperçu my father used to object to. 'Let us have none of your aperçus, Maria: either follow a thing out clearly to a conclusion, or do not begin it: begin nothing without finishing it.,"
Building and planning alterations and improvements of every kind at Edgeworthstown were at once begun by Mr. Edgeworth, but always within his income. He also made two rules: he employed no middlemen, and he always left a year's rent in his tenants' hands. "Go before Mr. Edgeworth, and you will surely get justice," became a saying in the neighborhood.
"Some men live with their families without letting them know their affairs," wrote Miss Edgeworth, "and, however great may be their affection and esteem for their wives and children, think that they have nothing to do with business. This was not my father's way of thinking. On the contrary, not only his wife, hut his children, knew all his affairs. Whatever business he had to do was done in the midst of his family, usually in the common sitting-room; so that we were intimately acquainted, not only with his general principles of conduct, but with the minute details of their every-day application. I further enjoyed some peculiar advantages: he kindly wished to give me habits of business, and for this purpose allowed me, during many years, to assist him in copying his letters of business, and in receiving his rents."
With the younger children Mr. Edgeworth's educational system was of the most cheerful kind; they were connected with all that was going on, made sharers in all the occupations of their elders, and not so much taught as shown how best to teach themselves. "I do not think one tear per month is shed in this house, nor the voice of reproof heard, nor the hand of restraint felt," wrote Mr. Edgeworth to Dr. Darwin. In both precept and practice he was the first to recommend what is described by Bacon as the experimental mode of education. "Surely," says Miss Edgeworth, "it would be doing good service to bring into a popular form all that metaphysicians have discovered which can be applied to practice in education. This was early and long my father's object. The art of teaching to invent - I dare not say, but of awakening and assisting the inventive power by daily exercise and excitement, and by the applieation of philosophic principles to trivial occurrences - he believed might be pursued with infinite advantage to the rising generation."
Maria Edgeworth found very congenial society in the family of her relation, Lord Longford, at Pakenham, which was twelve miles from Edgeworthstown, and in that of Lord Granard, at Castle Forbes, nine miles distant. Lady Granard's mother, Lady Moira, full of wit and wisdom, and with great nobility of character, would pour out her rich stores of reminiscence for the young girl with ceaseless kindness. But more than any other was her life influenced, helped, cheered, and animated by the love of her father's sister Margaret, Mrs. Ruxton, the intimate friend and correspondent of forty-two years, whose home, Black Castle, was within a long drive of Edgeworthstown Mrs. Ruxton's three children - Richard, Sophy, and Margaret - were Maria Edgeworth's dearest companions and friends.
CONTENTS | 1787-1793.