“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
Its interesting to realise, isn’t it, that Jane Austen’s connection to Maria Edgeworth, came through her aunt and uncle, Mr and Mrs James Leigh-Perrot, for Maria’s father Richard Edgeworth was friends with them,and lived near to their home, Scarlets at Hare Hatch near Wargrave in Berkshire. In fact Richard Edgeworth and Mr Leigh-Perrot once engaged in a scientific experiment telegraphing messages from Hare hatch to Nettlebed( both near Scarlets) by means of windmills ;-)
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Thanks Julie – what I great tidbit of Austenology! I did not know of the Edgeworth and Leigh-Perrot connection. This may explain why JA sent a presentation copy of Emma to Maria. She did not receive many advance copies from her publisher and sent most to friends and family. I do not remember reading if JA and Maria Edgeworth ever met or corresponded. It does seem out of character for Austen, but because of the family connection, it could have been possible. Thanks so much for sharing this great fact. The telegraphing from windmills is interesting. I wonder if there were any rye comments in the family about the two tipping away at the project. It seems a wild idea.
Three cheers for Maria and her talent. Great post.
All the very best.
I keep meaning to start reading what Austen read – Cowper, Edgeworth, Burney etc. Maybe a project for next year!
wow, how crazy to think that someone dared snub Jane! I cant imagine! And its hard to believe that novels were once treated so frivolously…when austen’s work has outlasted many other things that seemed ‘important’ works at the time…
What is even more amazing is that people continued to snub Jane, well into the twentieth century! When I was researching my most recent blog post, I discovered that Jane didn’t make it onto the Harvard list of classic literature, and only Emma and Pride and Prejudice make it onto Great Books. For shame!
Hmmm, I like that idea too! Beautiful watercolor too
I was glad a professor in college recommended reading Austen in conjunction with Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Ann Radcliffe. Too often we read writers as Best hits” and don’t get a sense of their peers and the literary/historical context in which they wrote.