Monday, 11 March 2013

Maria Edgeworth, Edward Smedley and Jane Austen

Maria Edgeworth

This post is a continuation of the previous two posts about the Smedleys and Jane Austen. The Smedley household is where the 'new portrait' of 'Jane Austin' is thought to have been drawn and I have been examining the possibility of it being of Jane Austen herself. The Smedleys, it turns out, were rather closely linked to literary London, both through the publisher John Murray and through links with the Edgeworth family. In this post I look more closely at Edward Smedley's friendship with Maria Edgeworth and what is known of  Maria's opinion of Jane's novels.

By 1813 Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) had established herself as one of the most famous writers of her day. Her novels Castle Rackrent and Belinda, published in 1800 and 1801 respectively had been hugely successful and we know that Jane Austen admired her work. It has been said that Maria Edgeworth did not reciprocate this admiration but I wonder whether this is the whole story? 


 On 28 March 1813, Maria Edgeworth, her father Richard and step-mother Frances set out from their home in Edgeworthstown, Ireland on a trip to England and Wales. Over the next month they travelled to Bangor, Conway, Liverpool and Derby. They then travel south to Cambridge, travelling overnight and arriving on Wednesday 28th April 1813:

"my mother will tell you the history of our night travels over the bad road between Leicester and Kettering; my father holding the lantern stuck up against one window, and my mother against the other the bit of wax candle Kitty gave me". (letter to Honora Edgeworth - April 1813)

That day Edward Smedley, friend of Maria's brother Charles "Sneyd" Edgeworth, calls on the Edgeworths. This is evidently the first time they have met him. Maria says: "Mr Smedley has just called : tell Sneyd we think him very pleasing."

The following day the Edgeworths call on Edward Smedley for breakfast at his rooms in Sidney College "in neat, cheerful rooms, with orange fringed curtains, pretty drawings and prints". After breakfast Smedley took the Edgeworths on a tour around Cambridge. They visit the University Hall and Library: "not nearly so fine as the Dublin College Library", Trinity Library "beautiful!" and call on the Vice Chancellor Davis "to see a famous picture of Cromwell".  Smedley evidently is getting on well enough with Maria to joke with her. She says, "As we knocked at his Vice Chancellorship's door, Mr Smedley said to me, 'Now, Miss Edgeworth, if you would but settle in Cambridge! here is our Vice- Chancellor a consider about it.' A paragraph later: "The Vice-Chancellor entered, and such a wretched, pale, unhealthy object I have seldom beheld! He seemed crippled and writhing with rheumatic pains, hardly able to walk. After a few minutes had passed, Mr. Smedley came round to me and whispered, 'Have you made up your mind?' 'Yes, quite, thank you.' "

The party apparently have a fine time and spend the evening with Mr Smedley and a Mr Farish at dinner. On Friday the party left Cambridge and Mr Smedley, and after calling on Dr Clarke at Trumpington on the outskirts of Cambridge they head to London. En route they pass the time by reading a recently published novel: "Now we are again on the London Road, and nothing interrupted our perusal of 'Pride and Prejudice' for the rest of the morning. I am desired not to give you my opinion of 'Pride and Prejudice', but desire you to get it directly, and tell us yours."

So - here we have Maria Edgeworth reading Jane Austen at the same time that she visits Edward Smedley at Cambridge. The extracts above are all from Maria's letter to Charles Sneyd Edgeworth dated 1 May 1813. Clearly Maria owns a copy of Pride & Prejudice before her brother Sneyd - is it Maria that introduces Smedley to Austen too? Maybe on this visit? We know that Smedley later is a fan of Austen, surely as a writer and poet they would have discussed the book? (It is Smedley's father's house in which Paula Byrne thinks that the 'unseen portrait' of Miss Jane Austin was drawn. See previous posts for my suggestion that Edward Smedley's brother Henry may have been the artist.) The Edgeworths stayed in London until 16 June 1813 when they left for Clifton, Bristol.

In September 2014 Jane Austen famously writes to her niece Anna that "I have made up my mind to like no novels really, but Miss Edgeworth's, yours & my own." At that stage in any event, it seems Maria Edgworth is also a fan of Jane Austen. On Boxing Day of that year Maria Edgeworth writes from Edgeworthstown to her cousin Sophy Ruxton: "'A merry Christmas and a happy New Year' to you, my dear Sophy, and to my aunt, and uncle, and Margaret. I have just risen from my bed, where I have been a day and a half with a violent headache and pains, or as John Langan calls them, pins in my bones. We have been much entertained with Mansfield Park." (Lady Anne Romilly had written to her in November recommending the novel.)

Maria Edgeworth was not so taken with Austen's Emma it seems. There is an oft quoted extract from a letter from her to Sneyd and Harret Edgeworth from 1816 in which she states: "There was no story in it, except that Miss Emma found that the man whom she designed for Harriet's lover was an admirer of her own -& he was affronted at being refused by Emma and Harriet wore the willow -and 'smooth, thin, water-gruel' is according to Emma's father's opinion a very good thing & it is very difficult to make a cook understand what you mean by 'smooth thin water gruel'!!" I would love to read Maria's original letter and the context in which the statement was made, so far I have been unable to track it down. 

It is also commonly said that Maria snubbed Jane Austen by not acknowledging the copy of Emma which Austen sent her. I am however, unable to discover how this is known? It cannot simply be the absence of a letter, so how can it be stated with certainty that Maria didn't acknowledge Jane's gesture? If anyone out there can guide me on this point I would be very grateful! Maria certainly refers to receiving a copy of the book.  In a letter to her aunt Mrs Ruxton dated January 10, 1816 she says: "The authoress of 'Pride and Prejudice' has been so good as to send me a new novel, just published, 'Emma.'"

In her defence of the novel in Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen demonstrated her regard for Maria Edgeworth's 'Belinda' as well as Fanny Burney's work: "'And what are you reading, Miss - ?' 'Oh! It is only a novel!' replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. 'It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda'; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language."

On 13 June 1817, a month before the death of Jane Austen, Maria's father died. According to her stepmother, in the months that followed, Maria wrote hardly any letters. Furthermore she was struggling with her eyes which were giving her a great deal of pain and until January of 1818 she 'had the strength of mind to abstain almost entirely from reading and writing.' It must surely say something of her opinion of Jane Austen then, that despite this, by February 1818 she has already read Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. (Both novels were published in one volume in December 1817.) If Maria Edgeworth did not think highly of Austen, would she have chosen these novels to read at a time when she was seeking to limit her reading for the sake of her eyes?

This is what she says in her letter to her aunt, Mrs Ruxton, dated February 21, 1818:

"I must and will write to my Aunt Ruxton to-day, if the whole College of Physicians, and the whole conclave of cardinal virtues, with Prudence primming up her mouth at the head of them, stood before me. I entirely agree with you, my dearest aunt, on one subject, as indeed I generally do on most subjects, but particularly about 'Northanger Abbey' and 'Persuasion.' The behaviour of the General in 'Northanger Abbey,' packing off the young lady without a servant or the common civilities which any bear of a man, not to say gentleman, would have shown, is quite outrageously out of drawing and out of nature. 'Persuasion' - excepting the tangled, useless histories of the family in the first fifty pages - appears to me, especially in all that relates to poor Anne and her lover, to be exceedingly interesting and natural. The love and the lover admirably well drawn: don't you see Captain Wentworth, or rather don't you in her place feel him taking the boisterous child off her back as she kneels by the sick boy on the sofa? And is not the first meeting after their long separation admirably well done? And the overheard conversation about the nut? But I must stop: we have got no further than the disaster of Miss Musgrave's  jumping off the steps."

Here is Maria Edgeworth, unable to contain herself, writing (against medical advice) to her aunt with such enthusiasm about the characters in Persuasion. And although she is critical of Jane's portrayal of General Tilney in Northanger Abbey, this seems to me indicate a specific criticism of a minor point rather than a dislike of the novel as a whole. This is Maria Edgeworth's style: in an earlier letter to Walter Scott, whom she greatly admired, she says of a passage in Waverley: "I recollect in the first visit to Flora, when she is to sing certain verses, there is a walk, in which the description of the place is beautiful, but too long, and we did not like the preparation for a scene-the appearance of Flora and her harp was too like a common heroine, she should be far above all stage effect or novelist's trick." Criticism of a particular point does not necessarily mean she did not approve of the work in its entirety.

Edward Smedley died young, as did his brother Henry, neither of them reached the age of 50. After Edward Smedley's death in 1836 his wife published his poems and memoirs. On December 17, 1837, Maria Edgeworth writes to her cousin, Margaret Ruxton. Margaret's sister Sophy has been seriously ill and the letter opens: "We are very anxious indeed to hear of Sophy: the last account Harriet gave was quite alarming." (In fact Sophy died two weeks later.) Yet Maria in the same letter goes on to say: "I long to hear that you have had, and that you like, the 'Memoirs of Mr Smedley.' I am sure that, when Sophy is well enough to hear or to read anything, that book will be the very thing for her." Edward Smedley must have been someone she rated highly for her to recommend the book at such a time. Included in the Memoirs are a selection of Edward Smedley's letters, including a number of letters to 'Miss B', a friend who Smedley frequently wrote to for literary advice on his writings. In a letter to her dated December 21 1830, Smedley refers to theatricals which 'very agreeably disappointed me'. 'But alas! what would Sir Thomas Bertram say?' he asks. In another letter sent in December 1831 in which Smedley is refusing an invitation:

"It is most truly kind, both in your mother and yourself, to wish me to partake of that from which you are to derive pleasure; but I think Mr John Knightley would reject me from that bond of brotherhood which I have established with him from the earliest moment of our aquaintance, if, on the night of the 2nd January I were to quit my armed chair, my fire-side, my pen, my books, and my writing desk, for a twelve miles drive, six hours ennui, a spoonful of orange jelly, and a small glass of lukewarm negus."

Smedley talks familiarly of the characters of Austen's novels like they are old friends. he is clearly very familiar with Austen's work, as is Maria Edgeworth. I believe Maria Edgeworth (who incidentally was also very good friends with Tom Lefroy who lived but five miles from her at Edgeworthstone) may have thought more highly of Jane Austen than is sometimes suggested. Edward Smedley - Maria Edgeworth - Jane Austen. Is there a connection so far overlooked?

*postscript 14.03.13 - I have just uncovered another rather exciting Smedley-Austen link which I am researching and will post in the next couple of days.

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