Updated: Nov 1
The name Jane Austen would be familiar to many, bringing to mind perhaps rural landscapes, stately homes and an assortment of characters attending tea parties and balls. It was therefore somewhat surprising to discover that the Anglo-Irish author, Maria Edgeworth, who lived for much of her life in the small town named after her, was far more popular, and sold far more books in her lifetime, than Austen. In fact, between 1800 and 1814 she was the most highly paid author writing in English. So why has she almost disappeared, whereas Austen’s work is the subject of TV programmes and film remake after remake?
I read Castle Rackrent years ago, my only foray into Maria Edgeworth’s work and, to be honest, I found the novella to be a little too twee to be wholesome and this may be why she is not as revered today as Austen. However the tale stayed with me and I’ve been meaning to call into the museum dedicated to one of the first Irish people to be photographed, which certainly gives a strong indication of her fame in the early nineteenth century.
Maria is pronounced Ma-rye-a, not Ma-ree-a, therefore I’ve been mispronouncing it for years. She was the second oldest of twenty two children – yes you read that correctly – twenty two children. Her father was married four times and is quite a character himself, being a politician, inventor, engineer, and educator. Maria was his favourite daughter who assisted him in some of his endeavours as well as writing novels in her own right.
Not all of Maria’s siblings lived long and illustrious lives but her brother, William, was a cartographer whose map of County Longford is a detailed work of art, and another brother, Micheal, a botanist, sent her exotic cuttings from India which she planted in her garden.
The museum is excellent, with a fabulous audio tour which even an idiot like me could operate. I spent almost two hours listening to actors portraying the daily life and exploits of Maria and her family, which was not only informative but entertaining.
There are three rooms in the museum, but there is plenty to see and learn. Downstairs there is a parlour filled with pictures, photographs and prints documenting Maria’s life, and a schoolroom acknowledging Maria and her father’s work in education.
They were very far seeing for their time, encouraging experimentation, curiosity and avoiding religious indoctrination. Maria was a real proponent for educating women and children of all classes to overcome prejudice and she wrote on the subject alongside her father. A copy of their book: Practical Education is on display.
Upstairs there is a large room giving detailed information about Maria’s life and work, some artefacts, and hands-on computer generated information, which is always fun and reminded me that I should download Maria’s work onto my kindle for very little money – if any at all.
Like myself, Maria was well travelled for a woman of her time. She visited, London, Paris and Lake Geneva, but a highlight of her life was meeting the novelist, Sir Walter Scott in his home town of Edinburgh where he is very much celebrated. He was very impressed with the Irish novelist and exceedingly complimentary about her work.
Unlike Jane Austen whose residence no longer exists, the house in which Maria lived is now a nursing home, which has undergone many changes over the years. I didn’t take a photograph as I felt it an encroachment on those who now reside there. However there is a beautiful print of the house on show in the parlour, which I have taken the liberty of showing below.
Maria entertained William Wordsworth and others at the house and wrote many letters to notable figures such as the scientists Sir Humphrey Davy and Joseph Banks. She was eventually invited to be an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin, but after her father’s death she managed her father’s estate using her income to make many improvements and give sustenance to the poor of the parish.
Unfortunately I could not gain access to St John’s Church in which Maria is buried in the family vault. The gates were padlocked, but it is also the burial site of Oscar Wilde’s sister, Isola, who died at the tender age of nine. The church is very similar in style to that where her half-sisters are buried in County Monaghan.
When travelling along the N4 from the west of Ireland to Dublin (or vice versa!) Edgeworthstown is by-passed, but I would thoroughly recommend turning off and spending some time in the museum and the locality which is famous for other Irish authors including Oliver Goldsmith (She Stoops to Conquer) and Johnathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels). There is a five euro entrance fee, but this is one of the best museums I have visited in some time and well worth the money.
It is good to see that Maria is celebrated in her home town and there is a writer’s festival every May in her honour, which I will make an effort to attend next year. Thank you to all with whom I spoke at the museum; it was a real treat. Keep up the great work and I will see you again soon.
For more information on this marvellous museum, please visit: https://mariaedgeworthcenter.com
Please check out my blogs regarding other writers and their families:
Sir Walter Scott is celebrated in Edinburgh with Robert Louis Stevenson and Rabbie Burns:
The terrible tragedy of Oscar Wilde’s half-sisters is told in this popular blog: