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  • Susan Stoderl

Anglo-Irish Writer of Children’s Stories and Novels About Irish Life | Maria Edgeworth (1768—1849)


Painting of Maria Edgeworth by John Donovan, 1807

Maria Edgeworth is a woman writer I would have liked to have known.


Edgeworth lived in England prior to her family moving to their estate in Edgeworthstown, County Longford, Ireland in 1782. She was fifteen years old, and as the eldest daughter, she assisted her father in managing the estate. While doing so, she learned about the rural economy and the Irish peasantry, which defined her novels. Her father encouraged her writing, and she did so in the common sitting room. There she studied the other twenty-one children who became both the subjects and her audience for her stories. She published them in 1796 as The Parent’s Assistant; or, Stories for Children. Scholars believe that much of the moralizing was because of her father’s editing. The children depicted in these stories are the first true-to-life children in English literature since Shakespeare.


In the book’s preface, Edgeworth states she has avoided poetical allusions and uses actual situations that children can easily understand and find interesting. She believed that examples of virtue are not above a child’s powers to understand and emulate. Edgeworth also noted that in real life, children see vice. Therefore, they should know of it in order to avoid it. She pointed out that “there is a great deal of difference between innocence and ignorance.”


Below is an example of Edgeworth’s realism in “The Birthday Present.”


“But why the nice new playthings? Do you like them only because they are new?”
“Not only—I do not like playthings only because they are new; but Bell does, I believe—for that puts me in mind—Do you know, mother, she had a great drawer full of old playthings that she never used, and she said that they were good for nothing, because they were old; but I thought many of them were good for a great deal more than the new ones. Now you shall be judge, mamma; I’ll tell you all that was in the drawer.”
“Nay, Rosamond, thank you, not just now; I have not time to listen to you.”
“Well then, mamma, the day after tomorrow I can show you the drawer. I want you to judge very much, because I am sure I was in the right. And, mother,” added Rosamond, stopping her as she was going out of the room, “will you—not now, but when you’ve time—will you tell me why you never keep my birthday—why you never make any difference between that day and any other day?”
“And will you, Rosamond—not now, but when you have time to think about it—tell me why I should make any difference between your birthday and any other day?”
Rosamond thought, but she could not find out any reason; besides, she suddenly recollected that she had not time to think any longer; for there was a certain work-basket to be finished, which she was making for her cousin Bell, as a present upon her birthday."

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