New Jersey’s Princeton University Library and the National Library of Ireland divided the spoils of a cache of primary source material relating to the prolific Anglo- Irish writer Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849). Collectively the 11 lots, found by specialist Jenny Low on a visit to a Cotswold cottage, totalled £148,000.
The vendor, it emerged, was the goddaughter of a descendant of Frances Anne Beaufort (1769-1865), who had become Edgeworth’s stepmother when her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817) married for a fourth time. Frances, a year younger than Maria, would be her confidante, travel companion and the recipient of most of her literary legacy.
Two years ago, in February 2018, the auction house sold a group of Edgeworth editions signed and inscribed to family members for around £4000. Low had been delighted to be asked back to inspect more of the collection at the end of 2019.
This time the unseen contents of several suitcases were the author’s most personal literary possessions. One lot, for example, included a quantity of notebooks in which Edgeworth sketches out the characters and plot developments for many of her novels and short stories including the Tales of Fashionable Life series (Ennui, 1809, The Absentee, 1812, and Ormond, 1817) that made her the most commercially successful novelist of her age.
Enough for a lifetime of study and the basis of a fascinating exhibition, the small suitcase containing around 35 items was estimated at £4000-5000 but sold at £70,000. Princeton was the buyer.
Pricing Edgeworth’s personal correspondence proved equally challenging. Although seldom read today (much of her writing will strike modern readers as morally and socially didactic in the extreme), in her day she outsold contemporaries such as Lord Byron (whom she met and disliked in 1813), Walter Scott (a close friend) and Jane Austen (a great admirer).
Sold at £40,000 against an estimate of just £200- 300 was a large quantity of letters from Rowland Hunter of publisher Baldwin, Cradock & Joy. Chiefly covering the period 1814-37, these discuss story ideas, content and possible alterations across a wide range of projects. The National Library of Ireland, a determined but disappointed underbidder on most other lots, will add these to a collection that already includes many of Edgeworth’s letters prior to 1817.
A series of letters from Richard Bentley (1794-1871), publisher of some of Edgeworth’s later works, sold to Princeton at multi-estimate bids of £6000, £10,000 and £12,000. These included a discussion of her final novel Helen, published in 1834, that features the famous line: You cannot, I conceive, satisfy yourself with the common namby-pamby little missy phrase ‘ladies have nothing to do with politics’.
Born in Oxfordshire and educated at Mrs Lattafière’s School in Derby, Edgeworth had returned to the family seat Edgeworthstown in Co Longford in 1773 to be home-tutored in law, economics, science and literature, and assist her father in the management of the estate.
Her first novel Castle Rackrent, a satire on the Irish landowning class, submitted for anonymous publication in 1800, was an immediate success.
She is considered a significant figure in the evolution of the European novel. Her writing tackled subjects such as agricultural reform, Catholic emancipation, the Act of Union, antisemitism, interracial marriage and educational opportunities for women.
Previous biographies of the author (including the 2017 Maria Edgeworth: Letters From Ireland by Valerie Pakenham) were written without input from this new rich seam of material.