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Maria Edgeworth's 'Tales and Novels' [Aug. 16th, 2016|09:44 pm]
...and the stains drip between fingers...
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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:

  1. Mr Vincent, a West Indian Creole, nearly marries Belinda rather than being merely esteemed by her

  2. 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.

[User Picture]From: heliopausa
2016-08-18 02:27 am (UTC)
That's a terrific link! Thank you! I'd only read one of her novels before this, Castle Rackrent, ages ago, and didn't like it enough to look for more.
But I've enjoyed the Tales and Novels - at least as far as I've got. Forester made me laugh in recognition several times. This, for example:
"After he had told her all that he knew concerning the fossils, as they were produced from the cabinet — and he was far from ignorant — he at length perceived that she knew full as much of natural history as he did, and he was surprised that a young lady should know so much, and should not be conceited." :D Love it! Three jokes in one sentence! - or three dry observations of Forester's bumptiousness, anyway.

Yes, the passionate friendship in The Unknown Friend could easily be seen as lesbian - but even more Forester's friendship with Henry feels gay, what with the treasuring of mementos etc.

I really liked the language in it, too - "What's the matter?" for example. Is anybody else writing like this at the time?

She sounds a lot like early Charlotte Yonge - i.e. to the extent that I think this is what CMY took as a model for her first attempts at didactic writing, though she's much better at it than early CMY.

The anti-Semitism is very evident - but it's at least good to have on record, to get a feel for how things shifted (or didn't) through the century - and the differences from place to place, as in the mention of Jews being recruited as an all-Jewish unit in the militia in Potsdam.

The sympathetic portrayals of black and mixed-race characters (as opposed to Thackeray) adds to my belief that racist attitudes hardened through the century. The distinction made between "mulatto" and "Creole" is significant though, I guess. :(
Thackeray's racism fits with Charlotte Bronte's, about Bertha Mason, in the same post-Darwin time-frame. (I know he hadn't published, but he talked to people, and ideas get around.) Contrariwise, Jane Austen's "chilly and tender" "half-mulatto" schoolgirl in Sanditon is a good match for Oliver (not literally - she's too old for him!). It seems that being sent back for education was not rare; I wonder if there's been any stats compiled?

I'll have to post this hastily - my machine is acting up again. More later, I hope!

editing - for typos and to add:

I really liked the strand of detective-work in the stories, too - especially in Forester, where the clues were dangled one by one (and two mysteries, counting the canaries), but also in The Prussian Vase.
Also to add about the interpretable gayness of the friendship between Forester and Henry - the scene in Chapter 16, where Forester, estranged from Henry, is not only looking fondly and sadly at everything that's connected with him, but also finds the slate where Henry has been doodling "Forester" repeatedly. Of course in the story he's probably destined for Flora, but if ever I saw a bromance, this is it.

Edited at 2016-08-24 02:51 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: blueinkedpalm
2016-08-29 12:20 pm (UTC)
Thank you for writing such an amazing long comment! I'm sorry for taking so long to respond. I loved reading your thoughts on Forester.

"After he had told her all that he knew concerning the fossils, as they were produced from the cabinet — and he was far from ignorant — he at length perceived that she knew full as much of natural history as he did, and he was surprised that a young lady should know so much, and should not be conceited."

Bumptious he may be, but Forester is still positively adorable compared to Hannah More's Coelebs! I like a character who can change his mind. I think Edgeworth definitely goes with the idea of 'some faults are worse than others' - Forester's annoying, aggressive sincerity is a 'better' fault than the depraved aristocrat cheating on his bets (okay, and also killing kittens, not at all nice!).

Now you bring the bromance up, I'm convinced of Henry/Forester. The slate writing, the sharing of mementos, the meeting of minds through Henry's writing and Forester's appreciation - that's a stronger connection than Scotch reels! The impending menage a trois is Lady Audley's Secret all over again.
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[User Picture]From: heliopausa
2016-08-31 03:27 am (UTC)
Oh< I can see he's basically a good-hearted young man - just very young! Part of why he amused me so much was because I'd seen not dissimilar in my own life - if not in me*, in people I've seen in action. :D
Charlotte Yonge wrote quite a lot of the same sort of thing - about basically good people learning the hard way to be more wise (e.g. The Clever Woman of the Family).
I've never read Hannah More; is Coelebs written as a villain?
I'm not exactly sure how Henry/Forester would work out, but three-in-a-cottage must surely figure somewhere in the story.

editing to add: to be fair, some of it was in me!

Edited at 2016-09-01 12:20 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: blueinkedpalm
2016-09-06 01:56 pm (UTC)
Coelebs jolly well ought to be a villain! (I feel sure that at age forty-two he'll have a midlife crisis, run amuck, become an atheist, and move into a den of sin with a dominatrix twice his age.) If being highly self-satisfied, pretentious, keen on women taking their proper place in life, and worst of all, long-windedly explaining all this, is enough to make a villain - Coelebs is one. He's Mr Collins' soulmate. And Coelebs had literary predecessors who were much better, so I allow no excuses!

Although I have/had a bit of Coelebs or Forester in me too. I couldn't go on with Clever Woman of the Family, for feeling so embarrassed for the eponymous character.
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[User Picture]From: heliopausa
2016-09-10 12:06 am (UTC)
I can't say Coelebs seems attractive at all!

I have some Rachel in me, too, and I thought some parts of the novel were very funny because of that. Her habit of asking people questions phrased as statements, for example. (I've tried to reform!) Her absolute obliviousness to people's criticism is very scarey, though.
CMY is a bit schoolmistressy with her, and goes to unjustified lengths to teach her a lesson, but it does end happily. (Well, I think you'd guessed that!)
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[User Picture]From: livejournal
2016-08-23 12:13 am (UTC)

Listening and reading and thinking about writing.

User heliopausa referenced to your post from Listening and reading and thinking about writing. saying: [...] y 700-1350, I think.) I've dipped into Maria Edgeworth, thanks to a post by blueinkedpalm on LJ [...]
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