I recently picked up William Trevor’s The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories and stumbled upon a short story by Maria Edgeworth. Once again, I was amazed at not only the quality of the story but why no one has ever heard of her. In Trevor’s collection, Edgeworth’s “The Limerick Gloves,” appears between Oliver Goldsmith’s “Adventures of a Strolling Player” and William Carleton’s “Death of a Devotee,” All three stories are amazing literary mirrors of a broken society.
I first came across Maria Edgeworth (pronounced Mariah) in an Irish Studies class offered through the National University of Ireland, Galway. We were required to read her Castle Rackrent, an amazingly humorous indictment of the English absentee landlord economic system under which her fellow countrymen lived. It was a system that perpetuated entitlement, abuse of tenancy; and created a generation of idle and entitled young men. As I read the Castle Rackrent, I realized how far ahead Maria was of both the historian and social scientist in detailing the sociological, economic and historical dis-membership of an English class system, and how she is a match for any of the sardonic humor of today’s satirists. The impact of Castle Rackrent could be compared to one of our admired, established writers single-handedly dismembering our own economic fallacies, such as “trickle down” economics, or income inequality as sound policy.
In “The Limerick Gloves” (the story from Trevor’s collection), a young woman is being courted by Brian O’Neill, an Irish glove maker living in Hereford, England. O’Neill is wealthy, kind, and generous but he’s Irish, and here in lies the crux of the story. Not only will Phoebe’s father not allow her to see the man or attend the ball to be held at his house, he accuses O’Neill of conspiring to blow up the local cathedral, “having come to settle at Hereford nobody knew why, and who seemed to have money at command nobody knew how.” The father’s prejudice evolves to where, the “over-wise politicians” decide that the best thing that could be done for Hereford, “and the only means of preventing the immediate destruction of the cathedral, would be to take Mr. O’Neill into custody.” The climax of the story is a brilliant jab at the father’s prejudice.
In a few short pages, Maria Edgeworth succeeds in not only showing how subtle prejudice can grow into hateful rage, but how such prejudice can rile the entire community against one man, all over a pair of gloves. Reading the story is like sailing through what you think are calm waters only to be shocked, upon landing, at what you just experienced. Maria’s contemporary, Jane Austen, was great at ridiculing people’s peccadilloes; Maria was brilliant at seizing upon those peccadilloes and using them to have us look at ourselves through a cracked mirror.
Maria Edgeworth wrote novels that dealt with English and Irish social conditions, economic concerns, political patronage, female independence and education, and family conflicts. She was the first to portray an economic connection between an individual and his/her wider social context, and the first to develop literary character in terms of class. She wrote the first family saga, the first Big House novel, the first realist novel, the first regional novel, and the first social/historical novel. Thady Quirk, her Irish manservant of Castle Rackrent, is the first (and wildly) unreliable narrator in modern literature. Maria was also the first to attempt an inter-racial relationship and marriage in her novel, Belinda, (1st edition).
There can be endless literary speculation as to why Maria Edgeworth is stuck in the third-string lists of 19th century women writers. Perhaps, between the end of the nineteenth century and World War I, perhaps the male characters developed by Jane Austen and the Brontes better fit a growing trend for dark Byronic hero-types such as Darcy and Heathcliffe. These male characters act impulsively within a limited and limiting community, whereas the moral development of an Ormond in Maria Edgeworth’s Ormond or a Colambre in The Absentee, or O’Neill in “The Limerick Gloves” exist within the context of a whole economic and social setting. Maria’s female characters struggle in intellectual, educational, economic and moral conflict as they face a growingly modern society.
Though Maria Edgeworth was popular for her marriage-market, Big House-type novels, by the 1820s, she had become best known for four Irish novels: Castle Rackrent, The Absentee, Ormond and Ennui, all of which were published and became popular during Great Britain’s Act of Union and Ireland’s “era of emancipation.” As I learned this, and as I put her writing within the social and political context of her time, I realized that Maria’s HH loss of popularity may not be a literary phenomenon at all. Maria Edgeworth’s Irish writings (and therefore all of her writings) became out of sync with the England’s dominant political messaging at the time—the Irish as lawless and backwards; Ireland as a sister nation that could not and would not accept the “civilizing” effects of a Great Britain. This is really the lesson of Maria Edgeworth and her lack of popularity to the modern reader; she was tucked away by the London publishers who preferred to cater to Parliament’s prejudices and need for policy conformity.
Most libraries carry Castle Rackrent and Belinda, both of which are good introductions to Maria Edgeworth. I love The Absentee, Ormond, Patronage and Helen, available online, through any library's Interlibrary Loan and on Amazon.
Surprisingly, there will be the first Maria Edgeworth Literary Festival in Edgeworthtown, Co. Longford, Ireland on May 9th. Surprisingly because we were just in Edgeworthtown last winter and had to inquire at three pubs and ask two nuns where her house was, only to be steered to a beat-up and faded corner street map (but then we were there in the middle of winter). Hopefully, the literary festival will grow her reputation.