Maria Edgeworth is often considered either the 'Irish Jane Austen' or the 'female Sir Walter Scott,' although her writing actually influenced both. Her novels and stories fall into three categories: sketches of Irish life, commentary on contemporary English society, and instruction in children's moral training. Published between 1796 and 1834, her work is characterized by both a Scott-like Romantic attachment to the past and an Austenian wit and rationalism.
The English-born Edgeworth was the second of 21 children (by four wives). Her father was Richard Lovell Edgeworth, who held both an Irish estate and progressive ideas on education, particularly on the shortcomings of female education. Maria Edgeworth was schooled in Derby, England, and then in London. Her father believed that education was central to the construction of the "new" individual of the 18th century, who would rise on merit rather than birth -- an idea derived from and also spurring the revolutions in politics and philosophy in the late 1700s.
In 1782, Edgeworth went to live with her father at Edgeworthstown in Ireland to serve as his property manager. Here she collected material for her novels about Irish landlords and peasants, but she also ingested his theories of education. Thirteen years later, Maria Edgeworth's first published work appeared: "Letters for Literary Ladies," a plea for women's education reform. She would later collaborate with her father on Practical Education (1798) and Essays on Professional Education (1809). These writings asserted that women educated in the use of reason would be better wives and mothers, a common idea among advocates of girls' schooling at the turn of the 19th century.
Edgeworth avoided her father's heavy editorial stance when she published her first novel, Castle Rackrent (1800), anonymously. But even without her father's participation, her novels advanced a moral purpose. Like Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778), Edgeworth's Belinda (1801) was a novel of female education which Austen thought noteworthy. Edgeworth also dealt with subjects -- namely, Ireland -- that her English counterparts did not. The Absentee, published in 1812, traces the detrimental effects on Irish rural life of the system of absentee landlordism, in which Irish landowners lived in England. Edgeworth's concern for Ireland was more than literary: During the Irish famine (1845-1847), she worked arduously for the relief of the Irish peasants. She died in Ireland in 1849.