Review of Valerie Pakenham (ed.), Maria Edgeworth’s Letters from Ireland (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2017). Paperback €25/£20 ISBN 978-1-84351-734-4
Reviewed by Anna Pilz
As we are celebrating the 250thanniversary of the birth of Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849), Valerie Pakenham’s selection of Maria Edgeworth’s Letters from Irelandis a timely and handsome publication at a moment of reassessment. The volume presents us with “Maria’s unbowdlerized letters” with an express aim “to redress the balance of Christina Colvin’s two large volumes of Maria’s letters from abroad” (8), opening up comparative and transnational lines of inquiry.
Accompanied by numerous illustrations, Maria Edgeworth’s Letters from Irelandoffers vivid, witty and at times painful insights into life at Edgeworthstown in Co. Longford. The family moved to Ireland in 1782 and here Maria was surrounded by a large extended family of siblings, aunts, nieces, and nephews. The volume is arranged chronologically, from eight-year-old Maria’s “earliest surviving letter” from a boarding school in Derby to her stepmother (23) to her very last letter, penned only a fortnight before she died. The letters are interspersed with helfpul explanatory paragraphs that untangle familial relations alongside cultural and historical contextualisation. Further brief biographical sketches of the extended Edgeworth family are appended to the volume along with a chronology of Maria’s life.
One of the striking watercolours in the book is of Maria, drawn in secret by her stepmother’s sister Louisa Beaufort, shows the writer at the age of eighty in an ordinary pose: sitting in the library at Edgeworthstown by the fire, immersed in writing. The woman in this intimate portrait had, at that point, achieved the extraordinary status of the most accomplished Irish novelist of her time. In 1842, when she was in her 70s, Maria had been the fourth female and first Irish woman elected as Honorary Member of the Royal Irish Academy, joining Princess Yekaterina Dashkova (1791), mathematician and science writer Mary Somerville (1834), and astronomer Caroline Herschel (1838). While the coalescing of the private and the public is fundamental to the volume, Pakenham’s purposely selected only those letters written “to her immediate family” for their “delightful conversational style” (9) that privileges the personal over the public. In fact, Maria was deeply hurt when her cousin (and one of her principal correspondents in the volume), Sophy Ruxton, passed on one of her letters to another relative who in turn read it out aloud. Feeling that her privacy had been violated by one who she trusted so deeply, she threatened to write only ‘wise show letters’ (118) from then on.
The opening letters are, however, those of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, predating the Edgeworths’ move to Ireland in 1782. With the inclusion of these short early letters, Pakenham is setting up a particular narrative whereby the reader is encouraged to consider what follows within the context of her childhood which was marked by the deaths of her mother and first step-mother and a transient existence between England and Ireland. It would also suggest a focus on the complexities of the father-daughter relationship. The volume, however, productively gestures to new ways of thinking about Maria’s role within the wider family and the development of her own voice. Indications are found in a letter to Sophy in which she asserts that ‘My father has not read [The Absentee] and is foaming for it. It is a great venture to send it off unknown to him’ (155).
The majority of letters selected are, in fact, written to female relatives and friends, offering a particularly rich opportunity to gain insights into homosocial relationships and the ways in which they offered emotional, practical, and professional support. When her last stepmother, Frances Edgeworth, gave birth, Maria wrote a letter to Frances’ younger sister which offers insights into the intimacy of her family relationships: ‘she suffers much pain from one of her breasts to which the little hero has never yet taken kindly. … The nipple is sadly wounded and nobody but she whom my father says was born to the mother of heroes could bear this torture with so much fortitude’ (127). At a time when her father was unwell, Maria was comforted by the company of her Aunt Ruxton: ‘I am now sufficiently at ease … to be merry & talkative again as my dearest aunt Ruxton knows – I sleep in the room with her – such fine talking at night! What a delight her company has been to us’ (126). Enjoying a long life, Maria also offers perspectives on age when she states that ‘60 now appears to me not at all old – rather the first bloom of old age’ (309). As a single woman, we encounter Maria as a sharp, ambitious, caring, curious, engaged, and practical family member and confidante.
Although the personal component is certainly rewarding, this highly selective volume only hints at the importance of local, national, and transnational networks and intellectual engagements that beg to be explored further via a more comprehensive engagement with Edgeworth’s correspondence from Ireland. Pakenham’s editorial commentary is light, with a focus on brief explanations for names, places, and publications. Yet, while this tactic allows Maria’s voice to take centre stage, more cross references to her other letters and further contextualisation of her literary works would have proved both welcome and beneficial. Pakenham’s omissions, ‘for reasons of space’ (21), are indicated by ellipses and might at times leave the reader dissatisfied. Maria’s famous letter from February 1834, for instance, includes the oft-cited comment that ‘It is impossible to draw Ireland as she is in the present in any book of fiction’ (335). Pakenham chose not to provide this letter in full and cut a section in which, as she usefully explains, Maria ‘reported further on her new novel, Helen’ (335). This leaves the literary historian hanging mid-letter. Pakenham’s editorial choices disappointingly privilege the personal and national over the literary at times. However, for the curious researcher, it will almost certainly encourage further engagement with Maria Edgeworth’s correspondence and inspires us to return to the archives for the full letters and additional correspondence.
Maria Edgeworth’s Letters from Ireland presents a rich resource for literary scholars, historians, and those working in gender studies. The volume illuminates Maria Edgeworth’s wide-ranging interests from literature to fashion and gardening while also enabling glimpses into female networks and homosocial relationships that contribute much to the field of women’s and family history.
Anna Pilz researches nineteenth-century Irish literary and cultural history. She has co-edited, with Whitney Standlee, a volume on Irish Women’s Writing, 1878-1922 (Manchester University Press, 2016).