With an author who only published six novels, coming up with topics to discuss at our monthly meetings year after year is a bit of a challenge, but somehow we manage. One of our semi-regular topics involves looking at writers whom Jane Austen (1775-1817) read. And so it was that for the first meeting of this year we decided to look at Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) who was during her heyday, which was also Sir Walter Scott’s, “the most celebrated and successful living English novelist”. She’s clearly a writer worthy of our investigation! Austen was one of her fans, writing to her niece Fanny that: “I have made up my mind to like no novels really but Miss Edgeworth’s, yours, and my own.” Edgeworth had mixed feelings about Austen, but did like some of her work, including Persuasion.
Our plan was for each member to choose one of her books to read and then discuss at the meeting. There was no coordination, so some books were read by more than one member, and some members exceeded expectations by reading more than one book. It all made for a very interesting, if somewhat longer meeting than usual!
We didn’t manage to cover her extensive oeuvre, so here are the books we read, in chronological order of publication:
- Letters for literary ladies (1795)
- Castle Rackrent (1800)
- Belinda (1801)
- Leonora (1806)
- The absentee(part of Tales of a fashionable life) (1812)
- Harrington (1817)
- Helen (1834)
Letters for literary ladies (1795)
These letters focus on women’s education, and were inspired by letters her father had exchange on the topic with a good friend. Our member found it heavy-going, and somewhat “turgid”. There was some satire she said but it was often hard to separate from the rest. So, we moved quickly on to …
Castle Rackrent (1800)
Castle Rackrent has been read by more of us than any other, but for several of us that was some time ago so our memories were, let us say, a little vague. However, at least a couple had read it recently. Its subject is a theme we see recur in Edgeworth, which is the mismanagement of estates by the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. We commented on the detail provided on the many ways in which landlords “rip off” their tenants. It’s a satire, and rather over-the-top to modern ears.
Members commented on the use of a single voice – a steward – commenting on the events, and the English voice in the footnotes offering a different commentary. (Wikipedia suggests that the footnotes, glossary and introduction were added shortly before publication “to blunt the negative impact the Edgeworths feared the book might have on English enthusiasm for the Act of Union 1800.) A member wondered whether the role of the Editor voice influenced/prefigures Jane Austen’s use of commentary in her novels, but others thought it was part of the satire. It was also suggested that upholsterer character might anticipate a similar character (and associated commentary) in The absentee.
A member said her favourite Edgeworth quote comes from this novel:
Wigs were formerly used instead of brooms in Ireland for sweeping or dusting tables, stairs, etc. The Editor doubted the fact till he saw a labourer of the old school sweep down a flight of stairs with his wig; he afterwards put it on his head again with the utmost composure, and said, ” Oh, please your honour, it’s never a bit the worse.
Our Belinda reader chose it because Austen liked this novel. Indeed she mentions it in her famous defence of the novel in Northanger Abbey:
“…It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.
Belinda, said our member, has some similarities with Northanger Abbey in the idea of a young girl going into city, and is about who will she marry, but our member said it “wasn’t exactly a page-turner”. It’s somewhat didactic, convoluted, and features long philosophical conversations, but it does get exciting at the end.
The plot uses gossip (particularly servants talking and sharing inaccurate information), and anonymous letters. There is also the stereotypical Jewish moneylender, and, interestingly, a coloured person, a man who is “almost perfect” our member says and nearly marries Belinda – in the first edition. In later editions of the novel the role of “coloured” characters is lessened. Belinda has an interesting publishing history.
The novel contains some commentary on women, particularly in that Belinda is not necessarily being keen to marry. Our member saw some relationship to Austen’s Pride and prejudice.
Our member chose Leonora primarily because her reading time was running out, and it’s shorter than Belinda and Helen, but it turned out to be a great choice (she thought!) It’s an epistolary novel, and moves away from the Anglo-Irish themes to an English-French one. It pits English common-sense, through Lady Leonora guided by her mother the Duchess, against French “sensibility”, through Olivia, an English woman who behaves like a French “coquette” under the guidance of her friend Gabrielle. It anticipates Jane Austen’s Sense and sensibility, but while Marianne’s “sensibility” is more teenage silliness, Olivia’s is selfish, self-centred (and she’s unlikely to change). The book critiques of this sort of over-dramatic, over-blown behaviour, and makes a case for steady love based on early passion developing into deep respect and friendship!
Our member liked the use of letters to present multiple first person points-of-view, but found it took a little while to work out who was who. As well as being written in letters, the interception of letters is used to force the denouement. There is a double standard here in terms of acceptance of male philandering.
The absentee (1812)
Like Castle Rackrent, The absentee was read by a few members. It’s a sociopolitical novel which returns to the Anglo-Irish subject of absentee landlords and their effect on Irish workers, and about how the English take advantage of Irish hospitality.
One suggested that it could have been written today by a precocious 12-year-old! One felt it was farcical but had interesting commentary on the abuse of others by wealthy people, and commented on the satire of interior decoration that she’d seen in Castle Rackrent. Another really enjoyed it, particularly for the discussion of what was happening in Ireland.
Overall, the characters, as those in Edgeworth’s novels, tend to be black and white, the novel plot-driven, and the resolution predictable.
One member shared a favourite quote from the novel:
Remember we can judge better by the conduct of people towards others than by their manner towards ourselves.
Our member who read this chose it because of its origins: it was written in response to a letter from a Jewish-American reader who complained about Edgeworth’s anti-semitic portrayals of Jews in works like Castle Rackrent, Belinda, The Absentee. Our member researched the history relevant to the novel’s theme of prejudice:
- the 1780 Gordon riots which aimed to end official discrimination of Catholics, and which are regarded still as London’s worst riots. The riots are also referred to in Northanger Abbey.
- the Jewish Naturalisation Act of 1753, which was repealed in 1754.
The novel is presented as an autobiography of the (initially) anti-Semitic Harrington from the age of 5 yrs old. Our member described it as presenting, through that character of Harrington, an anatomy of prejudice.
The novel is a romance, and like other Edgeworth novels has a lot of improbabilities.
Helen was read by a couple of members. Like Belinda, it contains much longwinded philosophical commentary, and is didactic and moralistic. The plot concerns Helen, who is duped to the point that it threatens her marriage. The novel is about truth and truthfulness, but also, one member felt, about the possibility of redemption. John Mullan, who wrote the introduction to our members’ edition, says its theme is the way lies compound, the ramifications of deceit.
Mullan also suggests that the character of Lady Davenant is Edgeworth’s voice, but she’s very longwinded complained our readers! Mullan also suggests that there is some character development in the novel.
Overall, our members found it hard-going. They found it very slow for the first half, like Belinda. It contains some of the techniques we saw in earlier novels – the use of letters to move the plot on, the role of gossip. (In both Belinda and Helen, French servants steal letters, which, given Leonora’s theme too, suggests an ongoing anti-French sentiment.) The characters are black and white, with the men, in particular, being unbelievable.
Our members did find things to enjoy though, including a wonderful description of “dirty” London and its poisonous atmosphere. It also has a dinner party scene which blows up, something you don’t see in Austen. Our members loved the satire on the gentry’s dinner parties!
An underlying question in the novel is “can a woman love more than once?” but why is that question not asked of men, our member asked?
Helen can be seen to mark the shift from the 18th century to the Victorian era.
We felt that Edgeworth was more didactic than Austen, with more black and white characters. Helen, which was written nearly two decades after Persuasion, shows no real evidence of being influenced by Austen’s more subtle, realistic style and approach.
We concluded as always with a quiz (quotes relating to Love and Marriage) and our guess-the-quote challenge.
We decided the topics for our April and May meetings:
- April: Read and discuss poems by Crabbe and Cowper (two of Austen’s favourite poets)
- May: Discuss Jane Austen’s friends and acquaintances, their role in her life and how her relationship with them illuminates our understanding of her and her work.