|Maria Edgeworth's 'Tales and Novels'
||[Aug. 16th, 2016|09:44 pm]
...and the stains drip between fingers...
Link to Volume 1
Edgeworth's general work is recommended for the experience of the thing - intensely moralistic, didactic, repetitive, and comes across as an important step in the development of modern-day fiction. Edgeworth's depiction of women's lives is also important.
Edgeworth usually comes across as much more intelligent and well-meaning than Jack Chick, to compare her to another didactic practitioner. The main jarring factor is that multiple early tales are very anti-Semitic. The only Jewish character Edgeworth seems able to write in these short stories is an antagonistic male pawnbroker and cheat, drawn entirely from stereotype. Later in her career, through the novel 'Harrington', Edgeworth apologised for her past anti-Semitic writing (credit to her for trying to turn things around).
Surprisingly, black and mixed-race characters receive a fair amount of narrative sympathy and are heaps better written than, say, GONE WITH THE WIND or Thackeray's Miss Schwartz. Don't count on Edgeworth for a searing anti-racist tract, but she has mixed-race and black secondary characters who have their own goals and at least two dimensions.
And then there's a story which definitely reads to the twenty-first century with lesbian undertones. Innocent high-minded lass Anne Warwick is Led Astray by the seductive, emotive pleadings of her lady pen pal Araminta! Anne elopes to Araminta's pastoral cottage and then discovers that life is not the romance she was expecting in this cautionary tale.
Edgeworth also wrote about Irish idioms and against cultural stereotyping; her non-fiction writing is fascinating.
The novel 'Belinda' contains Edgeworth's deconstruction of the 'Wife Husbandry' trope - Clarence Hervey adopts a young orphan, Virginia, intending to raise her as a pristine, unspoiled, pastoral wife, only to find that this doesn't work out. Clarence falls in love with an educated, strong-minded woman instead and Virginia grows up to discover she isn't attracted to Clarence, but Clarence feels he has to ask Virginia to marry him as she's his responsibility, and in turn Virginia feels her gratitude won't let her refuse. 'Belinda' was based on a real event: a friend of Edgeworth's father, Thomas Day, attempted to raise a young orphan, Sabrina Sydney, as his bride. It didn't work out as expected.
Two other interesting things edited out of 'Belinda' in later editions, changed from the writer's first choice, are:
- Mr Vincent, a West Indian Creole, nearly marries Belinda rather than being merely esteemed by her
- A white English girl, Lucy, marries Vincent's black servant Juba rather than a white Englishman
Edgeworth's writing about women's education is also worth a read. She and her extremely large family (her father was married four times) had interesting ideas and practices about children's education, many of which still seem viable.
This bit in Edgeworth's 'Harrington' endears her, as she is mocking and criticisng her own early work for its anti-Semitism:
And here I must observe, that not only in the old story books, where the Jews are as sure to be wicked as the bad fairies, or bad genii, or allegorical personifications of the devils, and the vices in the old emblems, mysteries, moralities, &c.; but in almost every work of fiction, I found them represented as hateful beings; nay, even in modern tales of very late years, since I have come to man's estate, I have met with books by authors professing candour and toleration—books written expressly for the rising generation, called, if I mistake not, Moral Tales for Young People; and even in these, wherever the Jews are introduced, I find that they are invariably represented as beings of a mean, avaricious, unprincipled, treacherous character.
Interesting fact: Edgeworth also reviewed Jane Austen's Emma and didn't like it.
There is no story in it, except that Miss Emma found that the man whom she designed for Harriet's lover was an admirer of her own-& he was affronted at being refused by Emma & Harriet wore the willow*-and smooth, thin water-gruel is according to Emma’s father’s opinion a very good thing & it is very difficult to make a cook understand what you mean by smooth, thin water-gruel. - Edgeworth on EMMA
Pearls before ... people who are unable to appreciate pearls, and all that sort of thing. (At least Edgeworth and her family were 'much entertained' by MANSFIELD PARK.) Edgeworth can be mocked for poor taste and didactic writing, but she helped make the novel what it is today, worked hard and was prolific, and was active in helping Irish people during the famine.
Plus, when Edgeworth was in school, she wrote a story about an adventurer who habitually wore a mask made out of the dried skin of a dead man. This greatly pleased her audience at the time. Sadly, this juvenilia never made it into her published work.