Friday, November 23, 2018

Maria Edgeworth: Helen


Maria Edgeworth. Daguerreotype by Richard Beard, 1841. Image: National Portrait Gallery NPG P5.

Jane Austen admired the novels of Maria Edgeworth. The narrator of Austen's Northanger Abbey famously praises Edgeworth's Belinda (along with Fanny Burney's Cecilia and Camilla) as a 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." And in the fall of 1814, around the time Austen was writing Emma, she sent a letter to her niece Anna in which she said that "I have made up my mind to like no Novels, really, but Miss Edgeworth's, Yours, and my own." [1]

Austen thought so highly of Edgeworth that she sent her a complimentary copy of Emma. Since this was not one of the twelve presentation copies allotted to her by her publisher John Murray, Austen probably paid for it (and for the shipping to Edgeworth's home in Ireland) out of her own meager income.


Title page of Maria Edgeworth's copy of Jane Austen's Emma. Image: Sotheby's

Edgeworth, though, seems to have been unimpressed with Emma. She wrote to her half-brother Charles Sneyd Edgeworth:
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 & 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!! [2]
Edgeworth apparently never sent an acknowledgement to Austen, and passed the novel on to a friend.

However, there is evidence that Emma may have made a deeper impression on Edgeworth than she first recognized. In Edgeworth's novel Helen (1834), Lady Cecilia, like Emma, is guided by an older man who is a model of moral uprightness and sound judgment. And, like Emma, when she incurs his disapproval it ultimately brings her to the bitter realization that she has been over-concerned with social appearances and the world's opinion.


"Her husband turned, and clasped her in his arms." Lady Cecilia and General Clarendon are reconciled. Illustration from Helen, 1850.

There is also a character in Helen, Horace Churchill, who is superficially charming, but shallow and deceitful. In taking actions that are self-interested and morally questionable, he is reminiscent of another Mr. Churchill, Emma's Frank.

While Emma may have influenced Helen, Edgeworth's novel went on to have echoes in the work of later writers. Those echoes are most prominent, perhaps, in Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters (1865-66). Both Edgeworth's and Gaskell's novels center on a sensitive and steadfast heroine, whose deep affection for a more worldly companion results in a series of moral crises. Each heroine chooses to risk her own reputation, and her future happiness, in order to protect her friend.


"Oh! it is no wonder!" Illustration by George Du Maurier for Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters (1866) from the Internet Archive.

There are connections between Edgeworth's novel and the work of another Victorian writer as well. Edgeworth's heroine Helen is the niece of the childless Dean Stanley, who "possessed rich benefices in the church, and an ample private fortune, and it was expected that his niece would be a great heiress. . .But the dean’s taste warred against his affection: his too hospitable, magnificent establishment had exceeded his income. . .Cursed with too fine a taste, and with too soft a heart—a heart too well knowing how to yield, never could he deny himself, much less any other human being, any gratification which money could command. . ." The Dean's physicians  advise him to go to Italy for his health; of course, while there "he found fresh temptations to extravagance, his learning and his fancy combined to lead him on from day to day to new expense. . ." [3]

This picture of a pleasure-loving and profligate churchman may sound familiar to readers of Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers (1857). Like Dean Stanley, Trollope's Dr. Stanhope has received a "magnificent establishment" as a result of his preferment in the church: "He held a prebendal stall in the diocese, one of the best residences in the close, and the two large rectories of Crabtree Canonicorum and Stogpingum. . ." Like Dean Stanley, Dr. Stanhope had gone to Italy for his health: "He had resided in Italy for twelve years. His first going there had been attributed to a sore throat. . ." And like the "too hospitable" Dean Stanley, Dr. Stanhope is "thoroughly a bon vivant. . ." [4]

There is also a parallel between Helen and Trollope's He Knew He Was Right (1869). In Helen, General Clarendon, the upright husband of Lady Cecilia, forbids her to visit the scandalous Madame de St. Cymon, or to receive visits from her.
"'Cecilia,' said he, 'take care what you are about. Remember, it is not my request only, but my command to my wife' (he laid solemn stress on the words) 'that she should have no communication with this woman.'
"'My dear Clarendon, I have not the least wish.'
"'I do not ask what your wishes may be; I require only your obedience.'" [5]
When Clarendon discovers that Lady Cecilia has disobeyed him (she is being subtly blackmailed by Madame de St. Cymon), he announces that he will separate from her forever.

The story of He Knew He Was Right focusses on Louis Trevelyan, who forbids his wife Emily to communicate with a longtime but disreputable family friend, Colonel Osborne:
He was her master, and she must know that he was her master. But how was he to proceed when she refused to obey the plainest and most necessary command which he laid upon her?. . .As he thought of it all it seemed to him that if she would not obey him, and give him this promise, they must be separated. He would not live with her, he would not give her the privileges of his wife, if she refused to render to him the obedience which was his privilege. [6]


"Shewing how wrath began." Illustration by Marcus Stone for Anthony Trollope's He Knew He Was Right (1869).

When Trevelyan discovers that Emily has  continued to receive letters and visits from Colonel Osborne, he separates from her. By the standards of Victorian society both Clarendon and Trevelyan are "right," but their rigid adherence to patriarchal principle threatens to destroy their loved ones' happiness, and their own.

These similarities are certainly suggestive, but can we be sure that Gaskell and Trollope were familiar with Edgeworth's novel? In fact, yes. The Edgeworth scholar Marilyn Butler has shown that Gaskell read Helen and drew on both it and Swedish novelist Fredrika Bremer's A Diary (1844) in writing Wives and Daughters. [7]


Entry for "Edgeworth's Novels" in ten volumes, Waltham House Catalogue of Anthony Trollope's library. "M 4" is a shelf indication. 
Image: The Morgan Library and Museum.

And in the Waltham House Catalogue of Anthony Trollope's library printed in 1867 (held by the Morgan Library and Museum) there is an entry for "Edgeworth's Novels" in 10 volumes, probably Tales and Novels, Twenty Volumes Bound in Ten. Helen is the final volume. There were multiple editions of this set issued in the mid-1800s by various European and American publishers. Thanks to a very good friend I have a copy of the 1850 Harper & Bros. edition on my shelves; Trollope owned the Simpkin, Marshall & Co. edition of 1857. Indeed Trollope may have read Helen before acquiring this set; in his Autobiography he mentions Edgeworth and Sir Walter Scott as his mother Fanny's favorite novelists. [8]

And to bring this post full circle, Sir Walter Scott was among those who appreciated Austen's achievement in Emma more fully than did Edgeworth. As Scott wrote in his anonymous review of Emma, Austen's novels
proclaim a knowledge of the human heart. . .presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him. . .The narrative of all her novels is composed of such common occurrences as may have fallen under the observation of most folks; and her dramatis personæ conduct themselves upon the motives and principles which the readers may recognize as ruling their own and that of most of their acquaintances. . .All of [her characters'] entanglements bring on only a train of mistakes and embarrassing situations. . .in which the author displays her peculiar powers of humor and knowledge of human life. [9]
While the power of Austen's naturalism was not something that Edgeworth may have recognized when she received Emma with the compliments of its author, she clearly had done so by the time she came to write Helen.

For more on Maria Edgeworth, please see "Crossing boundaries: Gender, race and colonialism in Belinda"

Update 25 November 2018: Another Trollope novel also seems to have been inspired by Helen. In Kept in the Dark (1882), Cecilia Holt, like Edgeworth's Lady Cecilia, has not told the entire truth to her husband about her involvement with another man before their marriage. As I wrote about Kept in the Dark in "A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope part 4": "[Cecilia] wants to tell him about her past engagement but keeps putting off her confession. Events overtake her intentions, and once they are married, that previous engagement becomes a secret she must conceal." Like Edgeworth's General Clarendon, when Cecilia's husband discovers that she had a previous lover and that she has kept this information from him, he determines on a separation. Not only the plot parallels but the similarity in the characters' names are an indication of Kept in the Dark's source in Edgeworth's novel.

Update 22 December 2018: Helen was selected for my Favorites of 2018: Books.


  1. Praise of Belinda: Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Ch. V; letter to Anna Austen, Jane Austen's letters to her sister Cassandra and others. R.W. Chapman, ed. Oxford University Press, 1932, Letter 101, p. 405.
  2. Quoted in Marilyn Butler, "Letters to the Editor: Unfavourable Review." Times Literary Supplement, 29 February 1968, p. 205. The episode in which Mr. Elton "makes violent love" to Emma occurs in Ch. XV. "To wear the willow" means to mourn or grieve for a lost or forsaking lover. And it is actually Emma's sister Isabella, Mr. Woodhouse's elder daughter, who complains about the gruel: ". . .among the failures which the daughter had to instance, the most recent, and therefore most prominent, was in her own cook at South End, a young woman hired for the time, who never had been able to understand what she meant by a basin of nice smooth gruel, thin, but not too thin. Often as she had wished for and ordered it, she had never been able to get any thing tolerable" (Ch. XII). Both of these incidents are in Vol. I; Butler suggests that Edgeworth did not go on to read Vol. II or III before giving the book away.
  3. Maria Edgeworth, Helen, Ch. I.
  4. Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers, Ch. IX.
  5. Helen, Ch. XLV.
  6. Anthony Trollope, He Knew He Was Right, Ch. V.
  7. Butler, "The Uniqueness of Cynthia Kirkpatrick: Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters and Maria Edgeworth's Helen." The Review of English Studies, Volume XXIII, Issue 91, 1 January 1972, Pages 278–290. https://doi.org/10.1093/res/XXIII.91.278. Butler also points out that Edgeworth was a friend and correspondent of Gaskell's Knutsford relatives.
  8. 1857 edition noted in Richard H. Grossman and Andrew Wright, "Anthony Trollope's Libraries," Nineteenth-Century Fiction,  31(1): 48–64; Fanny Trollope's favorite novelists from Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography, Blackwood, 1883, Ch. II, "My Mother."
  9. [Walter Scott] "Art. IX. Emma, A Novel" [review]. The Quarterly Review, Vol. XIV, No. XXVII, October, 1815, p. 188-201. http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/review-of-emma-in-the-quarterly-review-1815

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