Research Trips & Excursions

Maria Edgeworth and the ‘Irish Education Bill’ (1799) Pt.1

By Joanna Wharton

Last summer, I visited Dublin to follow up on a hunch about a manuscript. In truth, it was barely even a hunch, but it was a good enough excuse for my mother and I to do some travelling together: neither of us had ever been to Ireland, though we’d often talked about going.

The manuscript in question was a draft of a bill presented by Richard Lovell Edgeworth to the House of Commons at Dublin Castle on 28 March 1799. I’d read about it while researching for my book, Material Enlightenment: Women Writers and the Science of Mind, 1770-1830 (forthcoming, Boydell & Brewer), which has chapters on the writings and educational practices of Honora Sneyd Edgeworth (RLE’s second wife) and her step-daughter, the celebrated and highly influential writer, Maria Edgeworth.[i]

The draft bill had been brought to light in 1979 in an article by Edward F. Burton entitled ‘Richard Lovell Edgeworth’s Education Bill of 1799: A Missing Chapter in the History of Irish Education’.[ii] Burton’s article gives an account of RLE’s unsuccessful attempt to establish a national school system in Ireland and provides a transcription of the draft, indicating that this was likely the version that RLE introduced to parliament.

As the Dublin Evening Post’s report of RLE’s speech introducing the bill makes clear, this particular ‘scheme for the civilization and moral improvement of the rising generation of Irishmen’ was a response to the Irish Rebellion of 1798.[iii] Already aware that the bill was doomed, RLE remonstrated with the Government for its ‘total apathy for the interests of the people’, as well as its short-sightedness:

The happiness, the tranquillity, not only of the lower orders, but of all ranks, all descriptions of people in Ireland, depend upon the amelioration of our national education.—Must another age of barbarism and blood pass, before some minds could be convinced of this truth? He repeated, he could not too often repeat, that opinions were not to be conquered by the sword.[iv]

Having previously spent a month at the Bodleian Library looking at the notebooks of Honora and Maria Edgeworth, and thinking about modes of collaboration within the family, my interest was piqued by Burton’s mention that part of the draft bill was written in a different hand to the rest. At the Bodleian, I’d also read the manuscript essay ‘On the Education of the Poor’ (c. 1800), which was written by Maria for publication under RLE’s name, and which referred to the bill and expounded its rationalist aims. I wondered then, could the unidentified handwriting on the draft perhaps be Maria’s?

Leaving Mum to explore Dublin, I registered at the NLI and made my way to the Department of Manuscripts, where librarian Gerry Kavanagh helped me retrieve the relevant box in the Richard Lovell Edgeworth Papers.

‘RLE’s draft Irish Education Bill’, Richard Lovell Edgeworth Papers, National Library of Ireland, MS 22471 (1). Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

I was excited by what (I thought) I saw, and which expert Edgeworthian Dr Susan Manly (University of St Andrews) later confirmed: the main text is in Maria Edgeworth’s handwriting. The other hand is probably that of Frances Anne Beaufort Edgeworth, Richard Lovell’s fourth wife. Of course, it is impossible to know either woman’s precise role in the drafting of this legislation, but no matter where we place the act of writing on the collaborative spectrum,[v] it seems safe to say that Maria Edgeworth played a part in creating the ‘Irish Education Bill’ of 1799.

In 2018, the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies will hold a conference to mark the 250th anniversary of Maria Edgeworth’s birth. If you would like to be kept informed of this and other upcoming events in York and elsewhere, please email to be added to the mailing list, and/or follow @Edgeworth250 on Twitter.

This post is continued here.

[i] I am grateful to the publisher for permission to reproduce material from the book.
[ii] In The Irish Journal of Education / Iris Eireannach an Oideachais 13, no. 1 (1979): 24–33.
[iii] Dublin Evening Post, 2 April 1799. My thanks to Jennifer Louise Mueller for photographing this resource.
[iv] Although RLE’s speech presents the bill as a means of social control, its provisions were relatively progressive in terms of religious toleration, allowing for schools for Catholic children with teachers appointed by local Catholic clergy. Burton conjectures that it may have been this – and not, as RLE had been told, a shortage of money in a time of increased military spending – that led to the bill’s rejection by the House (30).
[v] Aileen Douglas argues that the ‘peculiar advantages’ Edgeworth gained from being her father’s copyist are an important and enduring theme in her fiction, to the extent that ‘her works represent access to social power… through acts of copying’. See Douglas, ‘Maria Edgeworth’s Writing Classes’, Eighteenth-Century Fiction 14, no. 3, 371. Also see chapter 6 of Douglas’ excellent new book, Work in Hand: Script, Print, and Writing (OUP, 2017), 152-176.

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