Edgeworth is born at Black Bourton, Oxfordshire, England on January 1, 1768. She is the second child of Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Anna Maria Edgeworth (née Elers). She spends her early years with her mother’s family in England, until her mother’s death when Maria is five. When her father marries his second wife Honora Sneyd in 1773, she goes with him to his estate, Edgeworthstown, in County Longford. There, she assists her father in managing his estate. In this way she acquires the knowledge of rural economy and of the Irish peasantry that is to become the backbone of her novels.
Domestic life at Edgeworthstown is busy and happy. Encouraged by her father, Edgeworth begins her writing in the common sitting room, where the 21 other children in the family provide material and audience for her stories. She publishes them in 1796 as The Parent’s Assistant. Even the intrusive moralizing, attributed to her father’s editing, does not wholly suppress their vitality, and the children who appear in them, especially the impetuous Rosamond, are the first real children in English literature since William Shakespeare.
Her first novel, Castle Rackrent (1800), written without her father’s interference, reveals her gift for social observation, character sketch, and authentic dialogue and is free from lengthy lecturing. It establishes the genre of the “regional novel,” and its influence is enormous. Sir Walter Scott acknowledges his debt to Edgeworth in writing Waverley. Her next work, Belinda (1801), a society novel unfortunately marred by her father’s insistence on a happy ending, is particularly admired by Jane Austen.
Edgeworth never marries. She has a wide acquaintance in literary and scientific circles. Between 1809 and 1812 she publishes her Tales of Fashionable Life in six volumes. They include one of her best novels, The Absentee, which focuses attention on a great contemporary abuse in Irish society: absentee English landowning.
Before her father’s death in 1817 she publishes three more novels, two of them, Patronage (1814) and Ormond (1817), of considerable power. After 1817 she writes less. She completes her father’s Memoirs (1820) and devotes herself to the estate. She enjoys a European reputation and exchanges cordial visits with Scott. Her last years are saddened by the Irish famine of 1846, during which she works for the relief of stricken peasants.
After a visit to see her relations in Trim, Maria, now in her eighties, begins to feel heart pains and dies suddenly of a heart attack in Edgeworthstown on May 22, 1849. She is laid to rest in a vault at Edgeworthstown Church.
The feminist movement of the 1960s leads to the reprinting of her Moral Tales for Young People, 5 vol. (1801) and Letters for Literary Ladies (1795) in the 1970s. Her novels continue to be regularly reprinted in the 21st century.
(Pictured: Maria Edgeworth by John Downman, 1807)