“And what are you reading, Miss –?” “Oh! it is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “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. Northanger Abbey, Chapter 5
Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) was an Anglo-Irish author most famously remembered by Janeites as being favored by Jane Austen with a presentation copy of Emma in 1816 which Edgeworth read, did not understand, or appreciate. “There’s no story in it,” she wrote to a friend and then never acknowledge or thanked the author for sending it to her before publication. Previously, Austen had paid homage to Edgeworth’s talent by mentioning her with another famous female novelist of the era in her reproving “In Defense of a Novel” passage in Northanger Abbey quoted above.
In Jane Austen’s time, novels were considered low-brow and unworthy of serious consideration by critics and general society. By mentioning Cecilia: or Memoirs of an Heiress (1782) and Camilla: Or, A Picture of Youth (1796) by Frances Burney and Belinda (1801) by Maria Edgeworth, Austen ironically defends writing and reading novels in the midst of a novel parodying gothic novels. A nice bit of genteel saber rattling indeed.
When you read Maria Edgeworth’s works, she takes a much different perspective with her characters and plot than Austen, delving into areas where she never chose to tread: politics, religion and social unrest. Edgeworth’s reaction to the level of everyday events and secluded activity of a few families in Highbury must have bored her to tears to have made such a biting comment and exemplifies how progressive Austen’s advancement of the English novel truly was.
- Biography and works of Maria Edgeworth
- Read Belinda online, (1896 edition) illustrated by Chris Hammond
- Read my previous post on illustrator Chris Hammond
*Portrait of Miss Maria Edgeworth (1807) by John Downman (1750-1824), pencil and watercolor heightened with white from the Bloomsbury auction 2009