Saturday, 30 March 2013

Linking literary Lichfield and Longford

Stowe House, Lichfield ... the home of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, whose family gave their name to Edgeworthstown, Co Longford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am enjoying some of my favourite walks in Lichfield this weekend. One walk bring me around Stowe Pool, from Lichfield Cathedral to Netherstowe, Saint Chad’s Church, and Stowe House, which has interesting literary connections that link Lichfield and Ireland.

Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817), who lived at Stowe House at different times in the second half of the 18th century, shared many of the radical social and political views of his friends in the social and literary circles in Lichfield at the time, including Tomas Day, Erasmus Darwin and the members of the Lunar Society.

Richard, who was born in Bath in 1744 was the son of Richard Edgeworth and his wife Jane (Lovell): the Edgeworth family had extensive estates in Co Longford, and gave their name to Edgeworthstown, where Richard later spent much of his life.

Richard was educated in Ireland at Drogheda Grammar School and Trinity College Dublin, and in England at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. But while he was still an undergraduate, he eloped with Anna Maria Elers in 1763, and they were married at Gretna Green. Their first child Dick was born in 1764 when Richard was still only 19. Their second child Maria, who was born on 1 January 1768, became one of the first important woman authors in the English language and one of Ireland’s leading writers.

When his father died in 1769, Richard inherited the large family estates in Ireland. But instead of returning to Ireland he moved to Lichfield in 1770, and first stayed with his friend Thomas Day who had just moved there too.

He came to the attention of Erasmus Darwin and other members of the Lunar Society because of his interest in all things mechanical. He investigated telegraph communications, agricultural machinery, including a machine for measuring land area, and another for cutting turnips, and improved means of transport, including carriages and an early form of bicycle.

In Lichfield, he also became friends with Anna Seward, the ‘Swan of Lichfield’ and later biographer of Darwin, and her cousins Honora and Elizabeth Sneyd.

Meanwhile, Richard was fascinated by the principles and philosophy of Rousseau, and he and Thomas Day decided to apply these ideas to the education of his son, Dick. The three travelled to France in 1771, where they met Rousseau, and they lived in Lyons for two years. However, Anna Maria Edgeworth died in March 1773, and Richard returned to Lichfield.

Back in Lichfield and living once again at Stowe House with Thomas Day, Richard flirted outrageously with Anna Seward, who was living in the Cathedral Close. She was devastated then when he married her dear friend Honora Sneyd in the Cathedral in 1773. Anna never forgave Richard and carried her hatred into old age. Honora Sneyd had earlier rejected a proposal from Thomas Day. The couple took up residence on the Edgeworth estates in Co Longford, but they soon returned to England, and Honora died in April 1780.

Oddly, Honora recommended that Richard should marry her sister Elizabeth and this he did on Christmas Day 1780. Their marriage was considered somewhat shocking in the moral climate of the day. Elizabeth too had earlier, rejected a proposal from Thomas Day.

In 1782, Richard Edgeworth returned to Ireland once again, this time with his third wife from Lichfield, and with his seven children. Richard was determined to improve the condition of his tenants and his estates and to take care of the education of his children. In 1785, he was one of the founding members of the Royal Irish Academy.

In 1797, Elizabeth Edgeworth died too.

In 1798, Richard and his daughter Maria published Practical Education. This was the year of the United Irish Rebellion and the French invasion. That year too, Richard married his Frances-Anne Beaufort, daughter of the Revd Daniel Augustus Beaufort, and he was elected MP for the borough of St John’s Town, Longford, a constituency that was abolished after the Act of Union.

Eventually, Richard was the father of 22 children by his four wives. He died on 13 June 1817, and was buried in the family vault in Edgeworthstown churchyard.

Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849), who lived in Ireland from the age of five, is one of the great figures in Irish literature, but is often forgotten as a Lichfield literary figure. She was a life-long correspondent with members of the Lunar Society while she was managing the Edgeworthtown estate, where she lived and wrote for most of her life, campaigning for Catholic Emancipation and working for Famine Relief.

Her novels include Castle Rackrent, Belinda, Harrington and Helen. She is buried with her father in the family vault in the Church of Ireland churchyard in Edgeworthstown.

The Market House built by the Edgeworth family in Edgeworthstown, Co Longford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Last month, travelling from Dublin to Achill, I stopped in Edgeworthstown to see the Market House, built by the Edgeworth family, and decorated with the Edgeworth coat-of-arms.

Edgeworthstown House is now a nursing home run by the Sisters of Mercy.

The Edgeworth family coat-of-arms on the Market House in Edgeworthstown (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

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