Maria Edgeworth

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Maria Edgeworth by John Downman

Several years ago, while carrying out some research for an academic paper, I came across the following quotation from the Anglo-Irish writer Maria Edgeworth:

“The blunders of men of all countries, except Ireland do not affix an indelible stigma upon individual or national character.  A free pardon is, and ought to be granted by every Englishman to the vernacular and literary errors of those who have the happiness to be born subjects of Great Britain.  What enviable privileges are annexed to the birth of an Englishman! and what a misfortune it is to be a native of Ireland!” [1]

I loved the quote. For me, it was a great, stinging blow to English ignorance, couched in the most sophisticated, savage irony. You’re judging the Irish before you’ve even met them, Edgeworth seems to suggest. You recognise that  Irish English is different. Therefore, you assume it’s inferior. What a misfortune indeed to be born Irish – her scorn cuts to the bone.

Edgeworth’s mockery seemed to resonate – there was something very modern about her satire, something almost rebellious in the way she, as a member of the Irish Ascendancy class, chose to refute the attitudes and prejudices of her peers. And in fact her Anglo-Irish heritage added another layer to Edgeworth’s fascination: she emerges as an outsider figure, born into a marginalised group within an already marginalised society. This is perhaps one of the reasons why her legacy is not celebrated in the way that, for example, we celebrate the legacies of Austen or the Brontes. And yet what she was doing in her literature was so radical that she influenced them and Walter Scott with whom she corresponded.

So I decided to read her first significant work, Castle Rackrent – a biting satire on the subject of absentee landlords and the depravities of the gentry in late eighteenth century Ireland. And while that might seem a subject well out of our frame of reference, the humour of her novel and the degree of psychological insight is anything but. The story is told from the perspective of Thady Quirk, servant to the Rackrent heirs, and loyal to a fault. While Thady’s masters prove to be a bunch of dissolute, mendacious, heartless bastards, Thady serves without question. And whether he turns a blind eye to their faults or really is such an innocent, we’re never quite certain. Yet his naivety throws into relief their sheer awfulness. It’s a carefully realised exercise in irony, and it has been suggested that Edgeworth was one of the first novelists to use the device of the unreliable narrator, a literary strategy subsequently employed by writers from Emily Bronte to Nabakov.  Her work was bold, experimental and infused with wry,  bitter humour which throws into relief the political and social disparities of her day.

Edgeworth went on to write essays, novels and children’s stories and yet seems a somewhat shadowy figure, hidden behind giants like Austen, the Brontes and Scott.  And so I think that Ireland’s national day is a great opportunity to celebrate one of a great literary nation’s lesser known literary heroes.

 

[1] Maria Edgeworth, Tales and Novels Volume 4 – Castle Rackrent; An Essay on Irish Bulls; An Essay on the Noble Science (Charleston S.C.: BiblioBazaar, 2006), p. 90.

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