Famous novelist had links to our borough

Maria Edgeworth
Maria Edgeworth

Maria Edgeworth, the famous Anglo-Irish novelist and intellectual, had several connections with the Dacorum area.

Her father was Richard Lovell Edgeworth, an inventor, scientist, educationalist and writer.

His four marriages produced 24 children, of whom Maria was the eldest. Her mother, Anna Maria Elers, died when the little girl was just six years of age. Maria was petite in stature and suffered with eye problems, but that did not deter her from becoming a writer of some renown.

Maria went to school in Derby and spent some of her school holidays in Northchurch, at the house known today as Edgeworth House, but previously called The Limes. The Edgeworths were a trifle unusual for their times, in that Richard actively encouraged Maria and his large family to listen while he and his erudite friends talked.

Whilst she was at school in Derby, he watched her progress from afar, admonishing her in long letters. These lessons were taken to heart and resulted in a treatise titled Practical Education, written jointly with her father in 1798. It was an early attempt at introducing more enlightened and imaginative methods of teaching young children. The ‘modern’ idea of understanding what one is reading or learning rather than learning by rote is stressed, as well as learning by doing.

Maria also tutored her younger brothers and sisters, 13 of whom were educated at home. She loved inventing stories to entertain her school friends when at boarding schools in Derby and London; this ability became evident in her later works of fiction, the most well-known of which are Castle Rackrent, Ormond, The Absentee and Belinda. Jane Austen mentioned Belinda in her own novel, Northanger Abbey, which gently lampooned the vogue for highly melodramatic stories.

Another local connection occurred in 1822 when Maria visited Beechwood, home of Sir John Sebright, and described it as “a very fine park, with magnificent large beech trees, which well deserve to give their name to the place.”

Sir John, she thought, was an entertaining character, but full of fancies and treated his six daughters like dogs and his dogs like children!

Maria’s circle of friends and admirers included Sir Walter Scott, Lord Apsley and Sir Humphrey Davy, but she left England and returned to the family seat of Edgeworthstown in Co. Longford, Ireland, to help her father manage the estate. Maria died suddenly in 1849, aged 82.