Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Maria Edgeworth and Mothers of the Novel

Maria Edgeworth (born 1 January 1767)

In 1970, when I was an undergraduate, I took a course in the history of the novel; although I no longer remember what its title in the official course catalogue was, the syllabus I received was titled "Fathers of the Novel." We began with the work of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding, and we ended with Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. Although I had read both Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre while I was still in high school, the study of the novel as a literary genre, as far as my college classroom was concerned, was a zone for men only.

Of course, that doesn't mean I didn't find my way to novels written by women. Several years later, while studying for my Ph.D. exams and increasingly tired of Defoe and Dickens, I found my way to the Gothic extravaganza of Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and to the "non-canonical" novels of Fanny Burney--I loved Burney's novels in particular because they were huge--the paperback copy of Camilla (1796) that I bought in 1975 is 900 pages long! And it is still on my shelf today.

But I didn't have any idea of all that I was missing until I discovered Dale Spender's Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Writers before Jane Austen, first published in 1986 and still in print, nearly thirty years later. Spender describes her own process of discovery in the introduction:
     This is not the book I started to write. Half-way through my research, I changed my mind. When I began my work on early women novelists--in the attempt to explore the relationship between women and fiction--I had assumed that women novelists had not really "come into their own" until the entry of Jane Austen, and that the starting point for my work would be somewhere about the middle of the nineteenth century. At that stage, I had no idea that for more than one hundred and fifty years before Jane Austen, women had been writing novels, and that to return to the early days of women's relationship to fiction meant to go back to the seventeenth, and not the nineteenth century. 
Maria Edgeworth, born on 1 January 1767, is just the first of the "mothers of the novel" I will profile in this blog over the coming months. The daughter of an Anglo-Irish gentleman, Edgeworth explored serious social issues in her novels, including class, politics, race, and education, and her work can seem a bit didactic at times. But her novels are also full of sparkling adventures, memorable characters, and real humor.

An 1807 portrait of Maria Edgeworth
Two early novels, Castle Rackrent (1800) and The Absentee (1812), focus specifically on Anglo-Irish issues. The 1817 novel, Harrington, addresses anti-semitism, the novel itself a response to a letter to Edgeworth written by a reader, Rachel Mordecai. 

The Jewish-American Mordecai wondered how Edgeworth, who demonstrated "such justice and liberality" on issues of education, "should on one alone appear to be biased by prejudice." Mordecai had noticed that, whenever a Jewish character appeared in Edgeworth's novels, a "mean, avaricious, and unprincipled" nature was "invariably attached to him." (Mordecai refers specifically to characters in Castle Rackrent, Belinda, published in 1801, and The Absentee.) 

In her response to Mordecai, Edgeworth offers Harrington as "atonement and reparation . . . for the past."

Despite the presence of the Jewish moneylender Solomon in Belinda, this is a wonderful novel with which to start reading Edgeworth. It will allow you to see the unthinking anti-semitism for which Edgeworth will later offer her "atonement." It offers not one but two interracial romantic relationships, insight into the fear of and treatments for breast cancer in the very early nineteenth century, an exploration of jealousy between women, and a lively, often humorous, examination of the perils of the marriage market.

Edgeworth died at the age of eighty-one on 22 May 1849. Her work is readily available in print today. It's also available online in a variety of e-texts. To link to a Google books version of Belinda, click here.