Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849)

Maria Edgeworth was born in Oxfordshire in 1768, and, when her mother died when she was five, the family returned to Ireland to live on her father's estate in Edgeworthstown, Co. Longford. After living there for two years, Edgeworth was sent to boarding school in England until she was 14. At that point, she returned to Edgeworthstown, where she resided for the rest of her life (with the exception of some extended trips to Britain and the continent). Edgeworth never married, and she effectively became the manager of her family's estate (even during her father's lifetime); she distinguished herself late in life for her tireless work on behalf of the starving during the Great Famine.

Edgeworths's handling of estate affairs gave her an exposure to the Irish tentantry that she often drew upon in her writings. Her Irish novels – Castle Rackrent (1800), Ennui (1809), The Absentee (1812), Ormond (1817), and Orlandino (1848, a temperance novella for adolescents) – were greatly admired by the likes of Jane Austen, Walter Scott, and Ivan Turgenev, and she has rightly earned a reputation as one of the greatest novelists that Ireland has ever produced. She is also celebrated for some of her “English society” novels, her Irish short stories (for children and adults), and a treatise co-written with her father, An Essay on Irish Bulls (1803). However, something that is often ignored about Edgeworth's career is that she wrote a number of plays. Her classic novel The Absentee actually began life as a play but was rejected by Sheridan at Drury Lane on the grounds that he didn't have enough Irish actors and that it was unlikely to be passed by the Lord Chamberlain (England's theatrical censor). Sheridan had also rejected her earlier play, Whim for Whim (1798).

Because Edgeworth had trouble getting her plays produced (a problem encountered by many women playwrights in Ireland – then and today!), her scripts always ended up being performed as “home theatricals”. That is, they were put on for family and friends at Edgeworthstown House, her family's "Big House". Of her twelve plays, four besides The Absentee have Irish interest. These include her first – and arguably best – play, 1786's The Double Disguise, which was only published for the first time in 2015; Eton Montem from 1800, which, although set in England, features a central Irish character; and two comic dramas from 1817, both of which are concerned with the notion that each country has a unique “national character”: Love and Law and The Rose, Thistle, and Shamrock.


Find out more

For more on this playwright from an Irish Studies perspective, see Clíona Ó Gallchoir’s book, Maria Edgeworth: Women, Enlightenment, Nation (2005).

Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849)