Dates: b. 1768, d. 1848
Literary Movement: Realism, early Romanticism,
Famous Works: Practical Education, Belinda, Leonora, Helen
Profile: While Maria Edgeworth doesn’t always get the recognition she deserves, she is noted as having been a significant figure in the evolution of the novel in Europe. Though she was born in England, Edgeworth moved to Ireland as a child. She received home-schooling from her father and excelled in law, politics, literature, and other subjects. After receiving her primary education, Edgeworth became her father’s assistant in managing the family estate.
As a young woman, Maria and her family toured the English midlands, then traveled to the continent—specifically, Brussels and France. She met Lord Byron and Humphry Davy, then entered into a long correspondence with Sir Walter Scott. These experiences helped Edgeworth develop her own set of politics, which she explored at length in her books. She worked several positions—as an editor, as a relief worker for famine-stricken Irish peasants, and an unofficial advisor to William Rowan Hamilton.
Edgeworth was one of the first realist writers in children’s literature and was a significant figure in the evolution of the novel. Edgeworth was also among the few authors who truly espoused the educator’s role. Her novels are morally and socially didactic, and close analyses of her drafts and revisions reveal an intimate relationship between her syntactic style and emphasis on education. She worked to connect the strain of formal realism (both philosophical and rhetorical) with human nature, examining the ways in which it manifested in social custom. She used fiction to address the issues she observed in society, such as prejudice directed toward specific religious, national, racial, class, sexual, and gender identities. Cunning, wry, and satirical, Edgeworth’s novels are also incredibly entertaining.