Edgeworth’s Letters for Literary Ladies Publication Peers and Analytical Antagonists
Edgeworth’s Letters for Literary Ladies Publication Peers and Analytical Antagonists
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter reexamines Maria Edgeworth’s relationship to Thomas Day through the lens of her intended first publication of de Genlis and of Edgeworth’s careful engagement with his Sandford and Merton to demonstrate that Edgeworth rejected perceived essential association between women and emotion or intellectual inferiority and that she denied domestic utility in arguments on behalf of a woman’s education that went beyond the typical feminine accomplishments. In addition, Edgeworth targeted Mary Wollstonecraft’s endorsement of Day through her deliberate 1798 revision of Letters for Literary Ladies and its invocation of Wollstonecraft’s ‘rights,’ exemplifying the potential for women writers to speak to their peers, both women and men, while they negotiated the business of eighteenth-century publishing.
Maria Edgeworth’s role in Romantic women’s writing has remained vexed. Her established relationships with her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, and author Thomas Day have led many scholars to overlook her as unsatisfyingly conservative in her feminism. At the same time, her perceived lack of relationships with other radical women writers, in particular, Mary Wollstonecraft, have led some critics to overlook her for similar reasons. Despite more recent general consensus among critics regarding the important role Edgeworth plays within late-eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century women’s writing, critics remain divided as to its nature. Elizabeth Kowaleski Wallace has argued that Edgeworth’s identification with ‘masculine literary discourse … at best creates a female subject according to its own bias and interests’.1 Similarly, Annette Wheeler Cafarelli and Julia Douthwaite emphasize her intransigent conservatism.2 Cafarelli’s indictment of Edgeworth as anti-feminist is scathing, arguing that her work ‘upholds an essentially conservative position, and indeed, the high copyright payments and the wide distribution of her novels of manners cannot be detached from their affirmation of the status quo. In her works … the wife is made entirely responsible for the success of the marriage and the happiness of the husband, as well as for driving him to and drawing him from the path of dissipation’ (p. 145). In contrast, Anne Mellor and Catherine Gallagher celebrate, respectively, how Edgeworth’s educational writing asserts (p.227) the equal rights of father and mother and male and female children.3 More recently, Catherine Toal has offered a sort of middle ground, suggesting we recognize how Edgeworth’s writing focuses ‘instead on knowledge and skills useful for entry into an already constituted public or domestic sphere’.4
However, re-examination of Edgeworth’s Letters for Literary Ladies and its engagements with Day and Wollstonecraft demonstrate that Edgeworth rejected perceived essential associations between women and emotion or intellectual inferiority. Edgeworth’s negotiation of the publishing world, her dialogue with both male and female authors, also demonstrates her rejection of arguments on behalf of women’s education according to domestic utility. By organizing her intervention in the debate about women’s education in letters and a satirical essay in which she assumes male and female voices for specifically male and female readers, she proves her ability, as a woman, to apply reason in defiance of stereotypes. Specifically, by deliberately revising her text in 1798 and acknowledging a divergence between the intended audience of ‘A Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend upon the Birth of a Daughter, With the Answer’, the ‘Letters of Julia and Caroline’, and the ‘Essay’, Edgeworth manifests the equality of women’s reasoning outside the confines of a woman’s domestic sphere and inside the public world of print. Maria Edgeworth’s Letters exemplifies the potential for women writers to speak to their peers, both women and men, while they negotiated the business of eighteenth-century publishing.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the divided critical reception of Edgeworth’s work generally is repeated in scholarship devoted to Letters. Much of this has to do with the divided nature of the text itself. In 1795, Edgeworth published the first edition of Letters for Literary Ladies, in which she represents multiple views of women’s education and social roles during the late eighteenth century. In ‘Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend Upon the Birth of a Daughter’, ‘Answer to the Preceding Letter’, and ‘Letters of Julia and Caroline’, Edgeworth adopts both male and female voices to reflect contemporary views regarding the propriety and practicality of women’s education within the context of women’s public and private duties. Edgeworth’s addition of a third text, ‘An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification’ offers a final ironic commentary upon these arguments concerning women’s reasoning and its relationship to domestic duty.
(p.228) Much of the lack of critical consensus on Letters results from focus on distinct portions of the text rather than on it in its entirety. Marilyn Butler, for example, highlights ‘Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend’ as Edgeworth’s reification of male disapproval regarding women’s authorship.5 Cafarelli, also focusing on this letter and its response has argued that ‘Although modern readers are eager to confer the victory in the debate on the less conservative voice … the dialogue is at best ambiguous, since neither offers a radical advocacy of women’s education. Both disavow being ‘a champion for the rights of woman’ (p. 137). Even Clíona Ó Gallchoir, in her insightful analysis of Edgeworth’s debt to Madame de Genlis’s cosmopolitanism, bases her refutation of Cafarelli’s conservative reading on a discussion of the first of the volume’s letters. She writes: ‘‘Letter to a Gentleman’ in particular … bears striking evidence of its post-Revolutionary context, and focuses specifically on the value of women’s literary production’.6
Only in Mona Narain’s essay, ‘A Prescription of Letters: Maria Edgeworth’s Letters for Literary Ladies and the Ideologies of the Public Sphere’ do we get an insightful and sustained examination of the first two sets of letters together. In this essay, Narain argues, ‘Maria Edgeworth in her very first publication, Letters for Literary Ladies, circumvents dominant, patriarchal literary authority and actively interrogates aspects of it, an act that also allows her to find an authorial voice’.7 By focusing on Edgeworth’s ability to challenge ‘aspects’ of a dominant patriarchal literary voice, Narain is able to conclude that Edgeworth’s authorial intervention depends upon a conservative acceptance that ‘women’s sphere is the private domestic sphere’ and that ‘By advising women to eschew power, emptying the domestic sphere of power hierarchies, Edgeworth gains a mediating influence within the public arena and argues for a public voice for women’ (pp. 279, 280). Narain determines that while Edgeworth should continue to be recognized as an important woman writer of her period, we should view Edgeworth’s feminism as compromised by her proximity to male writers, to male thought, and to the challenges inherent in a woman’s navigation of the publishing world.
Edgeworth’s biography has done much to cement such views, specifically (p.229) her relationship to Thomas Day and his relationship to her family. In her Memoirs of her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, she records Thomas Day’s reaction to news of her intent to publish her translation of Madame Stéphanie Félicité Ducrest de Genlis’s Adèle et Théodore, ou Lettres sur l’ éducation (1782), an epistolary novel that traces the education of a young son and daughter by their aristocratic parents in a rural setting. Regarding Day’s disapproval she wrote, ‘At one time, he was nearly of Sir Anthony Absolute’s opinion, that the extent of a woman’s erudition should consist in her knowing her simple letters, without their mischievous combinations’.8 Invoking Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s absurd caricature from The Rivals (1775), Edgeworth’s lighthearted mocking of the conservative views of a long-time family friend suggests the divergence between her own beliefs and Day’s.
While Edgeworth’s later rejection in Belinda (1801) of Day’s misguided attempt to apply Rousseau to women’s education has been recognized by critics, Letters for Literary Ladies has yet to be understood in its entirety as a satire of such attempts.9 Further, Day’s opinion of Edgeworth’s literary ambitions has continued to fuel dominant interpretations of Edgeworth’s Letters. According to Butler, ‘When the publication of Adelaide and Theodore was cancelled, Day sent Edgeworth a sardonic letter of congratulation, which ‘contained an eloquent philippic against female authorship’. Richard Lovell wrote back and the correspondence, or Maria Edgeworth’s memory of it, afterwards inspired the first part of Letters for Literary Ladies’.10 Despite the fact that Butler’s reference to the manuscript source of Day’s eloquent philippic is missing, Connolly repeats this detail in the introduction to her edition of Letters. She also describes how after another translation of de Genlis’s work was published before Maria Edgeworth’s and precluded the release of her work, Day was ‘delighted’, ‘He wrote at once to Richard Lovell Edgeworth, congratulating him on saving his daughter from the despicable world of female authorship. Maria Edgeworth based the first two letters in Letters for Literary Ladies on this exchange’.11 Thus, Day’s celebration of Maria Edgeworth’s literary (p.230) disappointment has come to determine interpretations of her authorship as a sort of ventriloquism. Significantly, more minute examination of Day’s close relationship with the Edgeworth family and their views concerning Rousseau’s Émile (1762) reveals what can only be Edgeworth’s deliberate irony in assuming Day’s voice or a Day-like voice in Letters.
Edgeworth and Day
From the beginning, Day’s acquaintance with the Edgeworth clan was cemented by the mutual concern of all its members for education, and when Richard Lovell’s first marriage produced his first child and heir, Day enthusiastically supported the new father’s efforts to raise his son according to the radical plan described by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Eventually, Day’s enthusiastic championing of Richard Lovell’s experiment transformed into a scheme to apply Rousseau’s ideas to his own romantic life and find his own Sophie. Thus, in 1769, Richard Lovell aided Day in a plan to adopt and train two girls as his potential future brides.12 Further, in both of his trips to the Foundling Hospital in search of promising girls, Day supplied Richard Lovell Edgeworth’s name as the responsible party. Wendy Moore has concluded that while Richard Lovell may not have attended Day on his first trip, ‘it seems likely that he accompanied Day on [his] second visit since Richard Lovell signed the chosen orphan’s apprenticeship indentures’ (p. 76). For Day, protected from the corruption of leisure and luxury by their own hard work, girls ‘must be shaped from infancy to fulfill their subservient role’ (p. 48).
Perhaps not surprisingly, Day’s application of Rousseau’s ideas to the creation of a perfect wife failed. He first discarded the foundling Lucretia after only a year in an apprenticeship to a milliner. In the following year (1771), he dismissed the foundling Sabrina, packing her off to boarding school and an eventual apprenticeship with a dressmaker. Neither Day’s ward nor wife, Sabrina was forced to rely on the kindness of others in Day’s social circle for economic means. While Sabrina later married and found employment as housekeeper and secretary at Charles Burney’s school for boys, Maria Edgeworth’s correspondence with Sabrina throughout the rest of their lives testifies to Edgeworth’s intimate acquaintance with the lasting social complexities and awkwardness of Day’s notorious experiment.
Nevertheless, Day remained committed to his rejection of luxury and class-based inequality in ways that resonated with Edgeworth. After she left school in 1781, Edgeworth stayed with Day twice within the year, ‘once in July and once in September’ (Butler, Maria, p. 74). And during this period, (p.231) as Butler has persuasively argued, with reference to Maria’s correspondence and early fiction, Edgeworth seems to have been very much interested in Day’s philosophical perspectives, so much so that her own publishing career and Day’s became intertwined. Stephen Bending and Stephen Bygrave detail this intertwining with respect to the development of Day’s incredibly popular novel for children, The History of Sandford and Merton (1783–9). They explain how,
Day’s tale originated as a short story for inclusion in Harry and Lucy, a larger projected work for children planned by Day’s friend Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Edgeworth’s [second] wife Honora (Sneyd). Harry and Lucy (eventually given to R. L. Edgeworth’s daughter Maria for Early Lessons, published in 1801) was, [according to Richard Lovell’s Memoirs (1820) written by Maria], ‘to have diffused through an interesting story, the first principles of morality, with some of the elements of science and literature, so as to show parents how these may be taught without wearying the pupil’s attention’.13
These publishing details reflect how Day and Maria’s educational philosophies became increasingly entangled. Day’s The History of Sandford and Merton is larded with controversial applications of its author’s educational theories and beliefs as well as his standard denunciations of wealth and luxury, and Maria’s celebration of Day’s novel and the tale that inspired it in the ‘Frank’ story in Early Lessons (1801) testifies to her approbation of at least some of Day’s intellectual and educational commitments. In ‘Frank’, Maria references Sandford and Merton in order to urge matching a child with content appropriate to his or her age. Specifically, she writes, ‘the last volume of which is suited to young men at college; while parts of the first two are fit for children of seven or eight, and other parts for ten or twelve years old’.14
Maria Edgeworth’s familiarity with Sandford and Merton must have certainly also included knowledge of its representations of Day’s views of women’s education, introduced through the character of Miss Simmons. When the spoiled and wealthy Tommy and his humble ‘plough-boy’ friend Harry visit the Merton home, complete with fashionable acquaintances, Miss Simmons provides a distinct counter to the behaviors of the elite set gathered there.15 We learn that Miss Simmons, orphaned at a young age, was raised by her uncle, ‘a man of sense and benevolence, but a very great humorist’ (p. 249). She was (p.232) ‘taught to believe that domestic economy is a point of the utmost consequence to every woman that intends to be a wife or mother’ (p. 250). As a result, Miss Simmons is able to provide measured and accurate moral judgment of such characters as ‘Lord Squander’. She is also able to explain to Harry the hypocrisies of fashionable life, and, most importantly, she is able to read well and choose reading material appropriate to the entire group, regardless of age. Day’s Miss Simmons is provided a practical education that perfectly suits her to carry out the duties of a domestic sphere.
In addition, Miss Simmons carries out this domestic duty by reinforcing female subservience. As such, she chooses to read the story of ‘Sophron and Tigranes’, about two Asian boys whose adaptation to the politically unstable and violent world around them take different forms (p. 250).16 Significantly, Miss Simmons’s choice repeats her own unique educational history. In it, Sophron rescues an old man and his beautiful daughter from a party of soldiers who have taken them prisoner. When the old man, Chares, provides his history, he also includes the education of his daughter, Selene: ‘As she grew up, her mother instructed her in all the arts and employments of her sex; while I … thought it necessary to arm her mind with all the firmness which education can bestow’ because, he insists, ‘it is upon the qualities of the female sex that our own domestic comforts and the education of our children must depend’ (p. 367). Finally, Chares explains how Selene also heard ‘the lessons of wisdom and the examples of virtuous women, which I used to read to her at evening, out of the writings of celebrated philosophers’ (p. 367).
It makes some sense then, in the context of Day’s novel and Edgeworth’s established familiarity with it, to read Edgeworth’s ‘Letter from a Gentleman’ as a repetition of Day’s conservative views of education. In Edgeworth’s text, like in Sandford and Merton, the gentleman insists that ‘having been educated in the amiable acquiescence to well established maxims of female prudence’ is the most effective way of ensuring ‘women be conducted quietly to their good’.17 The gentleman goes on to also remind his correspondent of the incompatibility of literary learning and the realities of running a home when he writes, ‘I should not expect that my house affairs would be with haste dispatched by a Desdemona, weeping over some unvarnished tale, or petrified with some history of horrors, at the very time when she should be (p.233) ordering dinner, or paying the butcher’s bill’ (p. 12). This certainly seems to be Edgeworth’s reification of Day’s misogyny.
Any misogyny we see in Edgeworth’s gentleman must be dismissed, however, upon closer reading of his letter; it decisively proves that no man’s mere interest in women’s education renders him suitable to make pronouncements upon it. The letter opens, ‘I congratulate you, my dear sir, upon the birth of your daughter … but we differ materially as to the cultivation which it is necessary or expedient to bestow upon the understandings of women’ (p. 1). The argument following this is a perfect example of what Audrey Bilger identifies in Edgeworth’s novels as her mocking of patriarchal texts by ‘attributing sexist assumptions to comic male characters’.18 Bit by bit, her Gentleman correspondent betrays his own failure of duty, emotional excess, rational deficiencies, and tyrannical tendencies. Immediately, he reveals his tendencies toward superstition when he calls on the ‘fairies of ancient times’ to endow the infant with the ‘health, wealth’ and ‘beauty’ (p. 1) that would best prepare her for the ‘domestic duties, taste for dissipation, love of romance, poetry, and all the lighter parts of literature’ must ‘so fully’ occupy their time ‘it seems impossible that their minds should ever acquire that vigour and efficiency, which accurate knowledge and various experience of life and manners can bestow’ (pp. 2, 2, 3). His own reasoning skills are lazy, circular, and based on inaccurate observations of the world around him, and, as such, they render him completely unfit to rule upon the propriety of anyone’s education, including that of the women he has so unjustly accused of this very behavior.
The gentleman’s poorly constructed argument against women’s wit continues by insisting on the inferiority of female intellect and the ‘monstrous’ offense that any exception to this rule has posed to his ‘taste’ (p. 1). But in the next breath his acknowledgement of the ‘great talents’ some women have displayed in ‘poetry, plays, and romances, in the art of imposing upon the understanding by means of the imagination’ proves that women’s wit does indeed have value, albeit value derived from its power to manipulate his own weak mind, a power which further undermines his previous pronouncement on the essential non-relationship between women’s wit and taste. Further, his insistence that ‘women must always see things through a veil, or cease to be women’ inadvertently acknowledges the very constructed nature of expectations for women’s behavior by likening it to a garment that, by definition, may be donned or doffed at will (pp. 2, 3). In addition, his denunciation of the history of ‘female influence and female depravity’ in political history to maintain that no woman may be trusted with power, similarly betrays faulty reasoning, arguing that past description is sufficient for present prescription of women’s behavior. This (p.234) cherry-picking of evidence also fails to acknowledge the necessarily similar and illogical outcome of applying such reasoning to historical examples of male influence and male depravity in political history. Perhaps most effective in Edgeworth’s mocking of the gentleman’s anti-feminist stance is his repeated equivocation of the essential terms of his argument when he says women must necessarily depend upon ‘traditional maxims of experience, or those early prepositions, which may be termed prejudices, but which in reality serve as their moral instinct’ (p. 31). In this formulation, the laws guiding behavior for women should be simultaneously those of experience and lack of experience and they should derive simultaneously from innate impulses and developed partialities. The only consistency in the gentleman’s argument stems from his application of the previous premises to his circular questioning of the ‘utility’ of women’s intellect to the ‘useful arts’. At this point, Edgeworth’s biography and her gentleman could be seen to render Letters the result of a personal grudge. Edgeworth might seem to merely attack Day and the most misogynist and conservative of his views without in any significant way adding to discussions of women’s education.
Nevertheless, Edgeworth’s gentleman also admits the possibility and importance of positive educational change for women that seem to go beyond domestic subservience. He allows: ‘I should be glad to see a list of discoveries, of inventions, of observations, evincing patient research, of truths established upon actual experiment, or deduced by just reasoning from previous principles’ (p. 3). Such emphasis on the empirical and rational in women’s education, however, was also important to Day. Also in Sandford and Merton, Miss Simmons’s education, in addition to its domestic utility, is described in more radical terms. We are told that Miss Simmons’s uncle ‘had such peculiar ideas of female character, that he waged war with most of the polite and modern accomplishments’ (p. 249). This took the form of regular cold baths, daily early-rising, and lengthy horseback rides and walks regardless of weather. She was also instructed in ‘several parts of knowledge, which rarely fall to the lot of ladies; such as the established laws of nature and a small degree of geometry’ (p. 250). Her education had other limits as well. We read: ‘As to music, though Miss Simmons had a very agreeable voice … she was entirely ignorant of it. … Nor would he permit her to learn French’ (p. 250). Chares’s description of his daughter’s education in Miss Simmon’s narrative is also unusual for the vigor and strength it promoted at the expense of more traditional accomplishments. Chares describes: ‘I endeavored to give both to her mind and body a degree of vigor, which is seldom found in the female sex. As soon as she was sufficiently advanced in strength to be capable of the lighter labors of husbandry and gardening, I employed her as my constant companion’ (p. 366). In addition, he believed in ‘hardening [women’s] minds by the severer principles of reason and philosophy’. Misogynist or no, science (p.235) and vigor prove integral to Day’s notions of women’s education. These details illustrate the complexity of Day’s text. On one hand, it champions reason and physical vigor instead of mere accomplishments. On the other, it relegates women’s education to domestic instrumentality. Such complexity explains the subtlety of Edgeworth’s engagement.
Day and Wollstonecraft as Interlocutors
Significantly, Day’s misogynist and conservative notions may also be recognized as more truly radical. As D. L. Macdonald and Kathleen Sherf observed in their edition of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Mary Wollstonecraft praised this very passage from Sandford and Merton and quoted it at length. She describes it as a ‘sensible account’ from a ‘respectable old man’ and reproduces Day’s text including its justification:
If women are in general feeble both in body and mind, it arises less from nature than from education. We encourage a vicious indolence and inactivity, which we falsely call delicacy … we breed them to useless arts, which terminate in vanity and sensuality. … And what are the comforts or the education which a race of beings, corrupted from their infancy, and unacquainted with all the duties of life, are fitted to bestow?19
Macdonald and Sherf also note that this lengthy quotation also closes the review of the final volume of Sandford and Merton in the Analytical Review (September–December 1789), attributed to Wollstonecraft. Radical feminism and conservative misogyny converge in Wollstonecraft and Day.
Thus, while Cafarelli has argued that Wollstonecraft ‘was by far the most radical feminist’ of her contemporaries, including Maria Edgeworth, in Edgeworth’s 1798 revisions to the text, she takes on both Wollstonecraft and Day. Specifically, in the Advertisement that emphasizes the revision’s more radical feminist commitments Edgeworth writes: ‘In the first edition, the Second Letter upon the advantages of cultivating the female understanding, was thought to weaken the cause it was intended to support. – That letter has been written over again; no pains have been spared to improve it, and to assert more strongly the female right to literature’ (p. xxvi, emphasis added). Acknowledgement of this reworking is key, especially in combination with Susan Manly’s important observation that the determination to revise was ‘a remarkable decision considering that, with the same publisher as Mary (p.236) Wollstonecraft and William Godwin – Joseph Johnson – she would have been well aware of adverse criticism of the kind of woman’s literary life made public by Godwin through his memoirs of Wollstonecraft …’.20 Edgeworth’s presentation of the nature of women’s rights is of particular importance. Invoking the language of the Vindications, the father writes:
Do not, my dear sir, call me a champion for the rights of woman; I am too much their friend to be their partisan, and I am more anxious for their happiness than intent upon a metaphysical discussion of their rights: their happiness is so nearly connected with ours, that it seems to me absurd to manage any argument so as to set the two sexes at variance by vain contention for superiority. It ought not to be our object to make an invidious division of privileges, or an ostentatious declaration of rights, but to determine what is most for our general advantage. (pp. 29–30)
Rather than effectually reinforcing a ‘metaphysical’ separate but equal law of reason to men and women as Wollstonecraft does in her Vindication of the Rights of Man and Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Edgeworth’s father character demands that by enacting equal education for his daughter, he is enacting equal citizenship for men and women.
The evenhanded ‘Answer to the Preceding Letter’ throws into even starker relief the various absurdities of the gentleman’s unreasonable prejudices, but it also allows for the propriety of men’s participation in discussions of women’s education. Countering the Gentleman’s claim that learned women are necessarily imperious and unpleasant, Father recollects that ‘A profusion of vulgar aphorisms in the dialects of all the counties in England, proverbs in Welsh, Scottish, French, Spanish, Italian, and Hebrew, might be adduced to prove that scolds are to be found amongst all classes of women’ (p. 15). He then goes on to redefine the term as ‘women who have cultivated their understandings not for the purposes of parade, but with the desire to make themselves useful and agreeable,’ and he insists, ‘I estimate the value of a woman’s abilities and acquirements, by the degree in which they contribute to her happiness’ (p. 16). Fortunately, for Father’s daughter, ‘women of literature are much more numerous of late than they were a few years ago,’ providing a large potential circle of acquaintances and friends. Unmarried women, in particular, benefit from a rich education that ensures that ‘by a variety of associations they are connected with the world, and their sympathy is expanded and supported’ (p. 17). Father goes on to insist that since a happy (p.237) marriage is not guaranteed for his daughter, ‘it will be therefore prudent to make her felicity in some degree independent of matrimony’ (p. 17). At length, Father reminds his friend of the changing values of their world. He creates an analogy between the recent recognition of ‘men of deep science’ and women who ‘now possess a considerable stock of information’ (p. 18, 19). He declares, ‘You must have observed that public opinion is at present more favorable to the cultivation of the understanding of the female sex that it was some years ago,’ so much so that ‘something more is now required’ of women (p. 19). He goes on to describe how Chemistry and Mathematics are more than appropriate areas of study for women’s cultivation of ‘social virtues’ conducive to ‘our own happiness or that of our fellow-creatures’ (p. 22). He describes how good habits and power of reasoning are mutually reinforcing when cultivated in age-appropriate ways over the course of childhood and that such cultivation culminates on ‘strength of mind which enables people to govern themselves by their reason’ (p. 24). He describes women’s reading as a better occupation than ‘coquetting or gaming’ and women’s writing ‘at least as good’ as that of many men’ (p. 25). Further, he writes: ‘Far from being ashamed that so little has been done by female abilities in science and useful literature … much has been effected. On natural history, on criticism, on moral philosophy, on education, they have written with elegance, eloquence, precision and ingenuity’ (p. 27). Edgeworth’s refinements of Day and Wollstonecraft are unmistakable.
Even more effective than Edgeworth’s nuanced refutation of arguments against the propriety of literary women is her direct refusal of Day and Wollstonecraft’s repetition of Day’s specific instruction. Father insists on the importance of cultivating ‘the general powers of the mind, rather than any particular faculty’ (p. 20). He writes:
I do not desire to make my daughter merely a musician, a painter, or a poet; I do not desire to make her merely a botanist, a mathematician, or a chemist; but I wish to give her early the habit of industry and attention, the love of knowledge, and the power of reasoning: these will enable her to attend to excellence in any pursuit to which she may direct her talents (p. 20)
Significantly, this father invokes the standard accomplishments recommended to young women as qualities attractive to men in order to insist, instead, on women’s ability to become masters, in their own right, of such skills. He then goes on to pair women’s ability to master these frequently feminized skills with that of masculine natural sciences. Methodical study exploring a variety of topics contributes to the formation of a rational mind for women (p.238) whose agency allows them to direct their attention and skill according to their own desires, not just marriage.
In addition, it is not until the last page that the Father addresses his friend’s skepticism regarding the suitability of literary ladies to husbands, arguing that such women’s observations are ‘beneficial to her fellow-creatures’, her writings reflect the belief that one ‘who must depend so much as man does on the assistance of others, owes, as a debt to his fellow-creatures, the communication of the little useful knowledge that chance may have thrown in his way’ (p. 37). This, Father writes, has been proven by the respectable example of Sir George Lyttleton, author of Dialogues of the Dead (1760) with Elizabeth Montagu; Albrecht von Haller, Swiss natural scientist and author of Letters from Baron Haller to His Daughter on the Truths of the Christian Religion (1780); and Dr. John Gregory, Scottish physician and author of Father’s Legacy to His Daughters (1761). The strength of this reasoning and example, he assumes, must clearly answer his last rhetorical flourish, the letter’s closing: ‘Can women of uncultivated understandings make such wives or such mothers?’ (p. 38). And while some have understood this emphasis as a reprisal of Maria Edgeworth’s own father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth’s, conservative progressivism, this question explicitly mirrors Mary Wollstonecraft’s invocation in The Vindications of Thomas Day’s conservatism. Important to note here, is how insignificant a role the question of educated women’s suitability as wives and daughters plays in the father’s overall argument. The last one sentence paragraph is a question that needs no additional reasoning or support; the answer is such a commonplace it requires no further discussion.
Edgeworth’s deliberate engagement with Wollstonecraft’s radical language becomes less remarkable, however, through close reading of the next portion of Letters, ‘Letters of Julia and Caroline’. This portion of Letters juxtaposes the correspondence of two quite different women to illustrate that women were not, as a result of a superior natural physical sensitivity, more emotional and less rational than men; the letters also demonstrate that women do not possess more social sympathy. Julia’s letter begins the collection and justifies her privileging feeling over principle as a result of the fact that ‘a woman’s part in life is to please’ (p. 40). In response, Caroline insists that Julia’s justification is contradictory, that she acts ‘from principle’ in cultivating ‘slight accomplishments and a trivial character’ (p. 43). With this foundation laid, the rest of the correspondence charts Caroline’s advice to Julia upon her marriage to a Lord V— and the ‘public diversion and public admiration, dissipation, and all the pleasure of riches and high rank’ corresponding to it (p. 48). Caroline founds her argument upon the fact that a hectic public life is incompatible with ‘the pleasures of the heart and of the imagination’, ‘cultivating literary taste’, and ‘friendship and confidence, or any of the delicacies of affection’ that would render her ‘equal’ to her husband (p. 49). In contrast, Caroline (p.239) recommends a more retired existence as the wife of her own brother, a life in which ‘The regulation of your time and occupations would be your own’ (p. 49). This is followed by another letter in which Caroline offers Julia advice regarding her desire to separate from her husband, Lord V— after five years of marriage. Citing Julia’s self-described ‘despair’ at the ‘madness’ that led her to accept Lord V—, Caroline attempts to reason with Julia. She writes: ‘Despair is either madness or folly. … In strong minds, despair is an acute disease; the prelude to great exertion. In weak minds, it is a chronic distemper, followed by incurable indolence. Let the crisis be favourable, and resume your wonted energy’ (p. 50). Her mind is neither necessarily weak or strong, feminine or masculine. Her actions will determine her suffering from the effects of ideas equally dangerous to all humanity. Further, in the next letter to Julia, written after her separation from Lord V—, Caroline reprimands her friend for playing the victim by declaring herself a being with ‘no free will’ (p. 56). Reiterating Edgeworth’s critique of metaphysics found in the father’s letter, Caroline writes:
Your understanding involved itself in metaphysical absurdity. In conversing upon literary subjects one evening, in speaking of the striking difference between the conduct and the understanding of the great Lord Bacon, you said, ‘It by no means surprised you; that to an enlarged mind, accustomed to consider the universe as one vast whole, the conduct of that little animated atom, that inconsiderable part self, must be too insignificant to fix or merit attention. It was nothing’, you said, ‘in the general mass of vice and virtue, happiness and misery’. I believe I answered, ‘that it might be nothing compared to the great whole, but it was every thing to the individual’.
For Caroline, the value of literature and reason lay in their ability to aid an individual’s navigation of a complex universe, and part of that navigation must involve the recognition of humanity’s essential moral difference from the rest of creation. Caroline’s next letter traces her break from the now ‘infamous’ and ‘fallen’ Julia; in the last and final letter, Caroline writes to Lord V— to describe her reunion with Julia in which Julia has returned to beg, upon her deathbed, that her friend and daughter forgive her for her ‘disgrace’ (pp. 58, 62). Caroline writes, ‘I think I never felt such sorrow as I did in contemplating Julia at this instant: she who stood before me, sinking under the sense of inferiority, I knew to be my equal – my superior; yet by fatal imprudence, by one rash step, all her great, and good, and amiable qualities were irremediably lost to the world and to herself’ (p. 60). Here, Caroline acknowledges her own hardness of heart, her own cowardice in shunning her friend in her hour of need. She acknowledges Julia’s superior qualities and their essential equality as women subject to the prejudice and judgment of others. Most importantly, Caroline (p.240) also records Julia’s last words to her daughter to ‘be good and happy’ (p. 62). Caroline does not equate women’s intelligence with subservience to men, but she does acknowledge the ability of other men and women to judge a woman’s goodness and thus her ability to be happy in their midst. For Edgeworth, in contrast to Wollstonecraft, good and right are more than metaphysical terms or abstract ideas; they are behaviors upon which intelligent women and men must determine to act upon according to their own potential for happiness.
The last piece in Letters, ‘An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification’, ices the preceding layer cake of correspondences between men and women, rejecting any easy correlation between conservatism and radicalism in men’s and women’s views on women’s education. Its first line attacks Day and Wollstonecraft directly by presenting a semantic argument: ‘Endowed as the fair sex indisputably are, with a natural genius for the invaluable art of self-justification, it may not be displeasing to them to see its rising perfection evinced by an attempt to reduce it to a science’ (p. 63). This line immediately mocks any essentialist claims about women’s natural intellectual or emotional abilities. But it also simultaneously links the Day/Wollstonecraft condemnation of the ‘useless arts’ practised by women to the question of useful arts or, in other words, sciences, through ‘reduction’. The art of self-justification, otherwise known as deflecting blame, may be better understood as a science according to the observation that ‘very little precept and practice will confirm [women] in the habit, and instruct them in all the maxims’ of it (p. 63). This conflation of arts and sciences has led Connolly to read ‘An Essay’ as the ‘return of repressed emotion, passion, and pleasure’ denied in the two previous epistolary discourses (p. xxv). However, re-examination of ‘An Essay’s’ rhetorical structure, in the context of the entire collection suggests that its particular contributions lie elsewhere than in the ‘emotion’ both the previous set of letters clearly contextualize according to women’s intellectual equality. Instead, the progressive genius of Edgeworth’s intervention lies in her specific deployment of Enlightenment discourse. In ‘An Essay’, she redefines the relationship of men and women to scientific rationalism, further undermining any easy relationship between women and reason and continuing to critique justifications for women’s education grounded in the privileging of women’s domestic duties.
Interestingly, in the advertisement for the second edition of the collection, Edgeworth draws a distinction between the first two sets of correspondence and the final essay, writing:
The first two letters upon Female Literature, the Letters to Julia, and the Arts of Self-Justification, were printed and paged separately: the publisher afterwards thought proper to join them in one volume, under the title of ‘Letters for Literary Ladies’, which is applicable only to the first letters. – The author, however, has thought it better to continue (p.241) the former name, than to hazard the imputation of publishing an old work under a new title.21
With this notice, Edgeworth acknowledges that this edition speaks to a new audience, and, upon immediate consultation of ‘The Essay’, it becomes apparent that the intended reader is neither the kind of literary lady so maligned in the first set of correspondence by the Gentlemen nor the distinctly domestic literary lady so aptly defended by the father’s and Caroline’s letters. ‘Only to the first letters’ suggests that Edgeworth intended only the letters between the gentlemen for ‘Literary Ladies’. Her ironic ventriloquizing of male arguments against women’s education is a deliberate warning to women against the specious and fallacious arguments by which men continued to deny women reason. Nevertheless, the parody of both literary and unliterary ladies in the letters between Caroline and Julia that follow invalidates arguments for domestic duty as a justification for women’s intellectual training and education. These letters, ostensibly for an audience of literary men, confront her readers with the potential for a particular literary lady, Edgeworth herself, to craft ‘useful literature’ outside of the confines of her own domestic duties as wife and mother.
The final essay of the text takes the form of a philosophical treatise that proves Edgeworth’s ability, as woman, to craft this very kind of literature. In it she proves the ability of women to engage in reasoned debate, setting forth conclusions based on ‘axioms’ and ‘principles’ (p. 63). Her insistence on the value of establishing specific terms within any productive argument demonstrates her mastery of this practice. She writes:
Right and wrong, if we go to the foundation of things, are as casuists tell us, really words of very dubious signification, perpetually varying with custom and fashion, and to be adjusted ultimately by no other standards but by opinion and force. Obtain power, then, by all means: power is the law of man; make it yours. (p. 64)
In this moment, Edgeworth’s simultaneous invocation of casuistry to provide an ironic imperative to tyranny acknowledges the arbitrary foundation of both patriarchy and metaphysical argumentation. Edgeworth further demonstrates her expert argumentative skills when she encourages her audience to consider audience needs and expectations. She explains how ‘nicety of conscience’ or moral sensitivity ‘may be of use in your first setting out, because you must establish credit; in proportion to your credit will be the value of your future asseverations’ (p. 68). She also outlines the usefulness of the Socratic method and ‘interrogatories artfully put’ (p. 72).
(p.242) Of course at odds with this demonstration of ‘useful’ women’s wit, is the literal message of the ‘Essay’. Repeatedly, it uses battle metaphors to describe matrimony referring to it as ‘combat’ and ‘battle’ and referring to a husband as ‘that common enemy’ (pp. 64, 65, 65). In addition, the narrator supplies specific instructions for how to subdue a husband with ‘an active temper’ by appealing to the subjective nature of ‘taste’ and the idiosyncrasy of ‘manners’ (pp. 65, 66). She goes on to recommend the efficacy of transferring blame to others (p. 67). With a ‘sober-minded man’ she recommends appearing to either concede, press ad nauseum, or ‘suddenly grow absent’ against any criticism (p. 69). These defensive strategies are opposed to those of the offensive type which include the conferral of ‘obligations’ on anyone who might help a wife’s cause, muddying the issue with irrelevant questions, emotional appeals, and minute discernment of a husband’s attitudes (p. 71). Collectively, this simultaneous well-informed philosophical dissection and detailed instruction in techniques of manipulation expose their faulty construction as ‘natural’ to women and of assuming the utility of all rational, philosophical, and scientific discourse.
Perhaps even more significant, however, is the different approach Edgeworth’s narrator assumes near the end of the text. She explains:
Thus, my dear pupils, I have endeavoured to provide precepts adapted to the display of your several talents; but if there should be any amongst you who have no talents, who can neither argue nor persuade, who have neither sentiment nor enthusiasm, I must indeed – congratulate them; – they are particularly qualified for the science of Self-justification: indulgent nature, often even in weakness, provides for the protection of her creatures; just Providence, as the guard of stupidity, has enveloped it with the impenetrable armour of obstinacy. (p. 75)
Essentially, Edgeworth’s narrator argues here, that even the most unlearned and irrational women may win the war of marriage, elevating personal power over moral virtue and duty. And by encouraging her pupils, during any marital dispute, to explain, ‘No, my dear, you know I do not pretend to reason’, she exposes the insufficiency of male wit to lead wives by reasoned example to domestic harmony and duty (p. 76). But, when the narrator finally concludes that these ‘naturally’ irrational women must win any matrimonial battle with their husbands ‘even because they cannot conceive the excess of your stupidity, they shall actually begin to believe that they themselves are stupid’, she insists on their superior intelligence and, thus, through insisting on the disastrous consequences of such marriages, further reinforces the equal importance of intelligence in both women and men should they become wives and husbands (p. 76). Ultimately, the ‘Essay’s’ ironic discourse deconstructs arguments that, first, women must be inferior in reasoning to men and, second, that women’s (p.243) inferiority in reasoning aids in domestic duty. Edgeworth’s satiric piece also deconstructs the argument that women’s wit is necessarily either at odds with the fulfillment of women’s domestic duty or must correspond to it.
Despite Edgeworth’s troubled status in the canon of Romantic of women’s writing, a status contingent upon her limited categorization as Anglo-Irish writer or writer of Children’s literature, including disapproval of her supposed conservatism and paternalism, including unflattering claims about her apparently trying didacticism, Maria Edgeworth was undoubtedly the most successful, popular and respected authoress of her time. Letters for Literary Ladies exemplifies her first steps along this path and the thorough knowledge she had of her intellectual peers. Not only does it demonstrate her willingness to directly engage with both men and women writers of various political positions, it also illuminates her ability to shape their ideas and expectations for her own ends: the recognition and acclamation of women’s intellectual equality regardless of social station or expectation. Stuart Curran, in his essay ‘The Records of Woman’s Romanticism’ recently reviewed the history and present of recovery and analysis efforts. As a result of this review, he identified biography and publishing networks as important areas for future work, specifying: ‘In a publishing industry constituted through the long eighteenth century by men for men, women had to inch their way into the business. Their access, if undoubtedly increasing markedly during the Romantic period, was in general on terms quite different from those of male writers’.22 Re-examination of Maria Edgeworth’s biography and publishing networks, close reading of the allusions in her Letters, and re-examination of logical arguments presented within the various discreet portions of Letters as well as the text as a whole proves Edgeworth’s active engagement with a publishing industry comprised of both men’s and women’s voices.
Bour, Isabell. ‘What Maria Learned: Maria Edgeworth and Continental Fiction’. Women’s Writing 18.1 (February 2001).
Bilger, Audrey. Laughing Feminism: Subversive Comedy in Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998.
Butler, Marilyn. ‘Edgeworth’s Stern Father: Escaping Thomas Day, 1795–1801’. Tradition in Transition: Women Writers, Marginal Texts and the Eighteenth-Century Canon. Ed. Alvaro Ribiero and James G. Basker. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.
—. Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Cafarelli, Annette Wheeler. ‘Rousseau and British Romanticism’. Cultural (p.244) Interactions in the Romantic Age: Critical Essays in Comparative Literature, ed. Gregory Maertz. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.
Connolly, Claire, ed. Letters for Literary Ladies by Maria Edgeworth. London: Everyman, 1993.
Curran, Stuart. ‘The Records of Woman’s Romanticism’, Women’s Writing 22.2 (2015).
Day, Thomas. The History of Sandford and Merton, ed. Stephen Bending and Stephen Bygrave. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2010.
Douthwaite, Julia. ‘Experimental Child-Rearing After Rousseau: Maria Edgeworth Practical Education and Belinda’. Irish Journal of Feminist Studies 2.2 (December 1997).
Edgeworth, Maria. Early Lessons, 2nd edn. Vol. 1. London: J. Johnson, 1815.
—. Letters for Literary Ladies, ed. Clare Connolly. London: Everyman, 1993.
—. Letters for Literary Ladies, 2nd edn. London: J. Johnson, 1798.
—. Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Esq., Vol. 2. London, 1820.
Gallagher, Catherine. Nobody’s Story: The Disappearing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670–1820. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Kowaleski-Wallace, Elizabeth. Their Father’s Daughters: Hannah More, Maria Edgeworth, and Patriarchal Complicity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Manly, Susan. ‘Maria Edgeworth and (Inter)national Intelligence’. A Companion to Irish Literature. Vol. 1, ed. Julia Wright. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
Mellor, Anne K. ‘A Novel of Their Own: Romantic Women’s Fiction, 1790–1830’. The Columbia History of the British Novel, ed. John Richetti. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Moore, Wendy. How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Batchelor and his Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate. New York: Basic Books, 2013.
Narain, Mona. ‘A Prescription of Letters: Maria Edgeworth’s “Letters for Literary Ladies”, and the Ideologies of the Public Sphere’. Journal of Narrative Technique, 28.3 (Fall 1998).
Ó Gallchoir, Clíona. ‘Gender, Nation, and Revolution: Edgeworth and de Genlis’. Women, Writing, and the Public Sphere, 1700–1830, ed. Elizabeth Eger, Charlotte Grant, Clíona Ó Gallchoir, and Penny Warburton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001
Schroder, Anne. ‘Going Public Against the Academy in 1784: Mme de Genlis Speaks Out on Gender Bias’. Eighteenth-Century Studies 32.3 (1999).
Toal, Catherine. ‘Control Experiment: Edgeworth’s Critique of Rousseau’s Educational Theology’. An Uncomfortable Authority: Maria Edgeworth and Her Contexts, ed. Heidi Kaufman and Chris Fauske. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004.
Walker, Lesley. ‘Producing Feminine Virtue: Strategies of Terror in Writings by Madame de Genlis’. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 23.2 (Fall 2004).
Wollstonecraft, Mary. The Vindications: The Rights of Men, The Rights of Women, ed. D. L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf. Peterborough, OT: Broadview Press, 1997.
(1) Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace, Their Father’s Daughters: Hannah More, Maria Edgeworth, and Patriarchal Complicity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 12.
(2) Annette Wheeler Cafarelli, ‘Rousseau and British Romanticism’, in Cultural Interactions in the Romantic Age: Critical Essays in Comparative Literature, ed. Gregory Maertz (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), pp. 125–55. Julia Douthwaite, ‘Experimental Child-Rearing After Rousseau: Maria Edgeworth Practical Education and Belinda, Irish Journal of Feminist Studies 2.2 (December 1997), pp. 35–56.
(3) Anne K. Mellor, ‘A Novel of Their Own: Romantic Women’s Fiction, 1790–1830’, in John Richetti, ed. The Columbia History of the British Novel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 333. Catherine Gallagher, Nobody’s Story: The Disappearing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670–1820 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p. 267.
(4) Catherine Toal, ‘Control Experiment: Edgeworth’s Critique of Rousseau’s Educational Theology’ in An Uncomfortable Authority: Maria Edgeworth and Her Contexts, ed. Heidi Kaufman and Chris Fauske (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004) pp. 212–34.
(5) Marilyn Butler, ‘Edgeworth’s Stern Father: Escaping Thomas Day, 1795–1801’, in Tradition in Transition: Women Writers, Marginal Texts and the Eighteenth-Century Canon, ed. Alvaro Ribiero and James G. Basker (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), pp. 75–93.
(6) Clíona Ó Gallchoir, ‘Gender, Nation, and Revolution: Edgeworth and de Genlis’, in Women, Writing, and the Public Sphere, 1700–1830, ed. Elizabeth Eger, Charlotte Grant, Clíona Ó Gallchoir, and Penny Warburton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 201.
(7) Mona Narain, ‘A Prescription of Letters: Maria Edgeworth’s “Letters for Literary Ladies” and the Ideologies of the Public Sphere’, Journal of Narrative Technique, 28.3 (Fall, 1998), p. 268.
(8) Maria Edgeworth, Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Esq., Vol. 2 (London, 1820), p. 342.
(9) Isabell Bour. ‘What Maria Learned: Maria Edgeworth and Continental Fiction’. Women’s Writing Vol. 18, No. 1 (February 2001), p. 38. Bour writes: ‘the inset story of Virginia Saint-Pierre, which is loosely related to the plot of Paul et Virginie (1788) … more importantly, purports to be a critique of sentimentalism a la Rousseau and a la Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. This inset story is also, more referentially, a satire of the utopian Rousseauian ambitions of Thomas Day, a friend of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Maria’s father’.
(10) Marilyn Butler, Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 149.
(11) Claire Connolly, ed. Letters for Literary Ladies by Maria Edgeworth (London: Everyman, 1993), p. xix.
(12) Wendy Moore, How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Batchelor and his Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate (New York: Basic Books, 2013), p. 53.
(13) Thomas Day, The History of Sandford and Merton, ed. Stephen Bending and Stephen Bygrave (Peterborough, OT: Broadview Press, 2010), p. 11.
(14) Edgeworth, Maria, Early Lessons, 2nd edn., vol. 1. (London: J. Johnson, 1815), p. xiv.
(16) As Bending and Bygrave note in their edition, the source of this tale is likely Thomas Percival’s A Father’s Instructions; consisting of moral tales, fables, and reflections; designed to promote the love of virtue, a taste for knowledge, and an early acquaintance with the works of nature, seventh edition (1788) in which Sophron’s tales are drawn from Oliver Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature (1774).
(17) Maria Edgeworth, Letters for Literary Ladies, (London: Everyman, 1993), p. 6. All subsequent citations refer to the 1798 revision reprinted in Clair Connolly’s 1993 edition, unless otherwise noted.
(18) Audrey Bilger, Laughing Feminism: Subversive Comedy in Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998), p. 119.
(19) Mary Wollstonecraft, The Vindications: The Rights of Men, The Rights of Women, ed. D. L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf (Peterborough, OT: Broadview Press, 1997), p. 152n.
(20) Susan Manly, ‘Maria Edgeworth and (Inter)national Intelligence’ in A Companion to Irish Literature, vol. 1, ed. Julia Wright (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), p. 278.
(21) Maria Edgeworth, Letters for Literary Ladies. 2nd edn. (London: J. Johnson, 1798), pp. iv–v.
(22) Stuart Curran, ‘The Records of Woman’s Romanticism’, Women’s Writing 22.2 (2015), pp. 263–9, p. 266.