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Maria Edgeworth and the ‘Irish Education Bill’ (1799) Pt.2

By Susan Manly

(The first part of this post can be found here.)

Having spent several years now reading through the manuscript notes and letters in the Edgeworth family papers held in the Bodleian and the National Library of Ireland, I’ve become ever more convinced that Marilyn Butler was quite right: collaborative exchange underpins Richard Lovell Edgeworth’s and Maria Edgeworth’s work. Ideas – often political ideas – flowed both ways. Maria Edgeworth’s involvement in the project of popular education in Ireland was not dutiful, but heartfelt. She was driven by the vision that Richard Lovell Edgeworth also shared, of a non-sectarian Irish future of prosperity and peace. This shared vision shines through a number of manuscripts and letters from 1799-1800: the post-1798 period when the Edgeworths were trying to see a way forward that would not aggravate existing ideological battle-lines – as they felt the retributive mood of the Protestant Ascendancy must do – but which would unite the country.

The essay fragment in Maria Edgeworth’s handwriting ‘On the Education of the Poor’ (c.1800), cited in Joanna’s piece here, is an excellent example of the commitment she felt to a form of instruction that she believed would bring ‘happiness’ to her ‘fellow-creatures’, and social cohesion with it. Parts of this essay sound very much like the Richard Lovell Edgeworth of the earlier 1790s, especially the anger expressed towards the beginning about the divisions between the rich and the poor, between ‘one set of beings [who] revel in prodigal luxury’ while the ‘naked wretch […] drudges & struggles on thro his whole existence without any other idea or possibility of pleasure but that of brutal intoxication’.

Maria_Edgeworth_by_Adam_Buck_c1790

In place of this division, the essay seeks to discover a means to ‘render all classes of society equally happy’. Attacking the kind of politics that looks only to the material wealth of a nation to judge its prosperity, regardless of the possibility that this wealth is ‘collected into the possession of a few to whom it secures the most splendid luxuries’, the essay ends by calling for a consideration of measures to ‘encrease the pleasurable mental feelings of the poor’. Some aspects of the essay are conservative, insisting that popular education will not lead to ‘sedition’, because it offers an opportunity to impart ‘those habits which render men good subjects, & useful members of society […] A shoemaker does not want the Latin grammar of the schoolmaster’. But the essay broadly suggests that any attempt by those in power at ‘mental coercion’ will fail, and that the circulation of information and intelligence through increased literacy is a social good: ‘Facts speak for themselves & provided the whole truth be known, a just conclusion will be formed by the mass of a nation’. Contrary to the impression left by the essay’s insistence on keeping social ‘destination’ in view when designing popular education, a more utopian note is sounded in the description of recommended reading in the schools for the poor – ‘histories of men of perseverance & ingenuity who born in a low rank of life have raised themselves by their talents & exertions’ –  together with the claim that ‘a man who can read & write may make his way to the first offices of the state’.

It’s likely that some of the essay was drawn from conversations with Richard Lovell Edgeworth, but other parts strongly recall passages in Practical Education – largely written by Maria Edgeworth – and Letters for Literary Ladies – her first publication in 1795. It’s certainly the case that Maria felt a strong personal interest in the establishment of schools for the poor in Ireland. A letter written to her aunt Charlotte on 2nd April, 1799 expresses Maria’s anger that the Irish Parliament had refused to set aside any financial resources to make the Education Bill a reality, and goes on to outline the tale for children she was working on: ‘Forgive and Forget’, written, she says, out of the conviction ‘that early lessons for the poor should speak with detestation of the spirit of revenge’. In March 1800, she wrote enthusiastically to her father in response to the news that popular education seemed once more on the cards: ‘How glad I am that you have sent for the report of the commissioners of Education – It seems as if something good would yet be done – Unionists and antiunionists must all agree that the education of the people ought to be improved […] Perhaps I am as usual building painting & papering castles in the air […]’. Clearly, Maria Edgeworth felt herself to be as much an architect of this vision for Ireland as was her father.

Susan Manly is a Reader in English at the University of St Andrews, and the author of Language, Custom and Nation in the 1790s: Locke, Tooke, Wordsworth, Edgeworth (2007). She is currently writing A Political Biography of Maria Edgeworth and a book on late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century radical and reformist writing for children, Schools for Treason. She edited Maria Edgeworth’s Harrington and Practical Education, and co-edited Helen and Leonora, all in the twelve-volume Novels and Selected Works of Maria Edgeworth (1999-2003); and is the editor of Maria Edgeworth: Selected Tales for Children and Young People (Palgrave, 2013).
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