Maria Edgeworth: Woman of the Week

Today is foggy and rainy in San Francisco, a perfect day for sitting inside with a cup of tea and thinking about all the women over the years who have done the same. Today I am going to start honoring some of those women by starting a series of “Woman of the Week” posts on this blog. And because this is St. Patrick’s Day weekend, I’ll start with a famous Irish woman you’ve probably never heard of –Maria Edgeworth. She may be forgotten now, but in the earth 19th century her books had made her so famous that once when an American reader wanted to reach her, she addressed her letter to “Maria, Ireland” and it was safely delivered.

One day in 1847, a procession of porters approached the estate in Longford where Maria Edgeworth lived. They brought a hundred and fifty barrels of flour and rice sent from Boston. They were from some of the children of Boston who had read Maria’s stories and wanted to help the famine stricken children of Ireland. The address on the barrels was “To Miss Edgeworth for her Poor”. Even the porters who hauled the barrels to the house would not accept payment for their efforts. In gratitude to these men Miss Edgeworth knitted a comforter for each of them.

Maria’s stories were known all over the English-speaking world going through one edition after another. They remained in print until the end of the 19th century and generations of children grew up reading them. They introduced characters like Lazy Lawrence, who always tries to avoid doing any work while the hard-working widow’s son Jem takes over his tasks. In the end Jem achieves prosperity while Lawrence falls in with criminals and comes to a bad end. illus. from Lazy Lawrence  And who could forget Rosamond, the girl who begs her mother to buy her a beautiful purple jar that she sees in the chemist’s window instead of purchasing new shoes. Alas, the purple jar turns out to be plain glass when the purple liquid is poured out, and Rosamond’s shoes become so worn and uncomfortable that she can’t go on an outing with her father.

The Edgeworth family wasn’t “really” Irish. They were landlords who had come from England 200 years before Maria’s birth and lived in Longford in central Ireland.  Maria’s father, Richard Edgeworth had gone to England as a very young man and married his first wife there. Maria was the third child in this young family, but she soon became an elder sister as Richard Edgeworth married quickly after his first wife died, then again, and again. In the end he had survived four wives and had 22 children. Perhaps Maria had enough experience in childcare as she was growing up to cure her of the desire to have children of her own. At any rate, she never married but spent much of her life helping raise the children in her own far-flung family and writing stories to help other families raise theirs.

But despite her fame as a writer for children, Maria Edgeworth was much more than that. She was deeply concerned with social conditions and politics. She helped to run the large Edgeworth estate and deserves much of the credit for keeping the family out of debt despite the reckless spending of her brother Lovell, who inherited the estate after the death of their father. When the potato famine hit Ireland in the late 1840s, Maria tried to help their tenants by purchasing new seed for them and arranging emigration for some families. She supported Catholic emancipation, unlike many other landlords, and struggled to make Ireland a more just society where both Catholics and Protestants could live in peace. Let’s honor her today for all the good that she did, although we are still struggling to solve some of the social problems she worried about.