Saturday, 26 May 2018
Maria Edgeworth, an
Irish writer whose father
lived an extraordinary
life in Lichfield
There is a number of interesting literary anniversaries this year.
This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx who was born in Trier on 5 May 1818, and whose Das Kapital was a best-seller; the bicentenary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein on 1 January 1818; and it is 200 years since the birth of Cecil Frances Alexander in April 1818.
But it slipped my attention that this year also marked the 250th anniversary of the birth of the writer Maria Edgeworth on 1 January 1768.
Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849) was a prolific writer of adults’ and children’s literature and a significant figure in the evolution of the novel in Europe, and she strongly influenced the work of other writers of the day, including Sir Walter Scott.
Although Maria Edgeworth was born at Black Bourton in Oxfordshire, she is often regarded as an Irish writer, and her father lived an extraordinary life in Lichfield, where he was part of the literary and intellectual circle that included Anna Seward, Erasmus Darwin and the members of the Lunar Society.
Maria Edgeworth was the second child of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, who eventually fathered 22 children by four wives, and Anna Maria Edgeworth (née Elers). She spent her early years with her mother's family in England, until her mother died when Maria was five.
When her father married his second wife Honora Sneyd in 1773, she went with him to his Irish estate at Edgeworthstown, in Co Longford.
When Maria’s stepmother Honora died in 1780, her father married Honora’s sister Elizabeth – a marriage that was socially scandalous at the time and legally forbidden after 1833.
As an adult, she took charge of managing her father’s run-down Irish estate, and she lived and wrote there for the rest of her life.
The Edgeworth family has given its name to Edgeworthstown in Co Longford, and to Edgeworth House on Oakenfield in Lichfield.
Stowe House, overlooking Stowe Pool in Lichfield, is a Grade II listed building that was built in the 1750s by Elizabeth Aston. At first, Stowe House was home to the Revd Thomas Hinton of Saint Chad’s, who died in 1757.
However, the most famous resident of Stowe House must be Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817). Although he never owned Stowe House, Edgeworth came to live there in 1770 with his large, growing family, and his friend Thomas Day, and he stayed on in Lichfield for many years.
Edgeworth was a failure as a student at both Trinity College Dublin and Oxford. He was still an undergraduate at Oxford when he eloped with Maria’s mother, Anna Maria Elers. The two were married in Gretna Green in 1763, and a church wedding took place on 21 February 1764. Their first child followed immediately, a son named Dick, who was born on 29 May just before Richard’s twentieth birthday.
Richard first visited Lichfield in 1776 at the invitation of Erasmus Darwin, who introduced him to the intellectual and cultural circles centred in the Close. In Darwin’s house, he saw the doctor revive his drunken brother, found ‘nearly suffocated in a ditch.’ At dinner with the Seward family in the Bishop’s Palace, he flirted briefly with the poet and biographer of Erasmus Darwin, Anna Seward (1747-1809), the ‘Swan of Lichfield’ – until Darwin’s wife Polly revealed that Edgeworth was married.
Richard later reminisced: ‘How much of my future life has depended on this visit to Lichfield.’ He returned regularly to Lichfield, and came to live in Stowe House in 1770. He was a tall, dark and handsome Irishman who made friends easily, and befriended other members of the Lunar Society. He channelled his energies into several inventive projects, and was a pioneer in a number of fields, including telegraph communications, agricultural machinery, and transport. He also flirted with Anna Seward’s attractive young ward and cousin, Honora Sneyd, and fell in love with her although he was married man with children.
Richard’s wife, Anna Maria Edgeworth, who was the mother of four small children, was only 29 when she died in March 1773. On her deathbed, she was attended by Dr Darwin, who tried in vain to save her. Within weeks, Richard married Honora in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral, with Anna’s father, Canon Thomas Seward, officiating at the wedding on 17 July.
Honora, who had earlier rejected Thomas Day’s proposal, had lived with the Sewards in the Close from the age of nine. Richard took her back to live on the large estate he inherited from his father in Ireland, and there they had two more children.
By 1779, Honora was dying from tuberculosis, but still Richard visited Lichfield alone in 1779, calling on Anna Seward in the Close. Honora died on 30 April 1780 in Beighterton, near Shifnal, 30 miles west of Lichfield – once again attended by Darwin. Anna blamed Richard’s neglect for her ill-health and her death. By then, Anna was causing scandal though her relationship with John Saville, a married man and a Vicar Choral of Lichfield Cathedral, for whom she bought No 6 The Close.
Oddly, Honora had suggested that Richard should marry her sister Elizabeth. This they did eight months later, on Christmas Day 1780, in Saint Andrew’s Church, Holborn – where no-one knew them and no-one could oppose the banns. Elizabeth too had earlier rejected a proposal from Thomas Day.
Richard and Elizabeth – who had six more children between 1781 and 1794 – moved to Ireland in 1782. Elizabeth died there in 1797, and Richard – never the man to be a heart-broken widower – married for the fourth time a few months later on 31 May 1798, this time marrying Frances Ann Beaufort, the daughter of an Irish archdeacon. But he kept in touch with his friends in the Lunar Society, and when Erasmus Darwin died in 1802 he wrote his obituary in the Monthly Magazine.
When John Saville died in 1803, Anna Seward erected a monument to his memory in the cathedral. But she never forgave Richard, and she carried that hurt until she died in 1809.
Richard died on 13 June 1817, and was buried in the family vault in Edgeworthstown churchyard. He had fathered 22 children in all. His kinsman, the Abbé Edgeworth, attended Louis XVI on the scaffold during the French revolution and later escaped to Russia. Richard’s widow Frances outlived him by many years, and died in 1865.
Richard’s daughter Maria is best remembered for her novel Castle Rackrent, but in her day she was recognised as a talented author, respected and admired by writers such as Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen. When She died on 22 May 1849, she was buried in Edgeworthstown, but Sir Walter Scott composed her epitaph for a memorial in Lichfield Cathedral.
Edgeworthstown, a small market town in the Irish Midlands, recalls the most famous resident of Stowe House. The town, in east Co Longford, developed on Richard’s large Irish estate. When he was an MP in the Irish Parliament (1798-1800) it was known as St Johnstown, and the Anglican parish church he built there is still known as Saint John’s. In the 19th century, the town became Edgeworthstown.
In a fit of nationalist pique in 1935, Longford County Council changed the town’s name to Mostrim. But local residents reused to cast aside the memory Richard and his family. The new name was seldom used, and in 1974, a government order restored the name of Edgeworthstown.
Teresa Barnard, Anna Seward: A Constructed Life: A Critical Biography (Ashgate, 2013).
Howard Clayton, Cathedral city: a look at Victorian Lichfield (Lichfield, ca 1977).
Howard Clayton, Coaching City: A glimpse of Georgian Lichfield (Lichfield: Abbotsford, 2009, 4th ed).
Maria Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent(1800), (Oxford, 1995).
MW Greenslade (ed), The Victoria History of the County of Stafford (Oxford, 1990), Vol 14, Lichfield.
Wendy Moore, How to Create the Perfect Wife (Hachette, 2013).
Marion Roberts, ‘Close Encounters: Anna Seward, 1742-1809, a woman in provincial cultural life’ (unpublished MLitt thesis, University of Birmingham (December 2010).
Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men (London: Faber and Faber, 2002).
Philip K Wilson, Collecting the Instruments of Life Around Me: Anna Seward’s Creation of a Life in her Memoirs of Dr Erasmus Darwin (1804) (Lichfield, 2007).