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  • Susan Stoderl

The Shockingly Modern 19th-Century Anglo-Irish Novels of Maria Edgeworth


Portrait of Maria Edgeworth, line and stipple engraving. Date, Published 1 November 1808.

Maria Edgeworth began writing in a variety of forms in the mid-1790s when she was in her late twenties, including novels for adults and educational books for young adults. She diverged from other writers of her time in that they depended on aristocratic supporters, while she appealed directly to the London booksellers. By living an unconventional life in an Irish backwater, her mind was open to new and different thoughts about how a lady should act, think and write.


Castle Rackrent (1800), was published anonymously, and without her father’s edits or knowledge. It is a satirical story of four generations of Anglo-Irish landlords and the mismanagement of their estates.


Belinda was a full-length, three-volume novel published in London. It told of love, courtship, and marriage, pitting personality vs. environment, reason vs. feeling, restraint vs. individual freedom, and society vs. free spirit. In the first edition (1801) and second (1802), an English country girl marries a West Indian slave. However, the bi-racial marriage was removed in the third edition (1810) due to her father's interference. James Jackson, a white man, is substituted for the slave Juba and Belinda's possible marriage to Mr. Vincent, is changed to mere admiration for the rich West Indian Creole.


A two-series collection of short stories, Tales of Fashionable Life (1809 and 1812), focuses on a woman’s life. The second series brought such success that she came to be regarded as equal to Jane Austen.


In 1815, after The Absentee, was published, Edgeworth was chastised by an American Jewish woman named Rachel Mordecai, for her stereotypical depiction of Jews. She responded to the criticism by publishing Harrington (1817), an apology to the Jewish community, in the form of a fictitious autobiography about overcoming antisemitism. The novel portrayed one of the first sympathetic Jewish characters in an English novel.


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