Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849), an Anglo-Irish contemporary of Jane Austen, was probably the most famous and most prolific woman novelist writing in English in her time. She was also renowned for her educational stories and pedagogical publications produced with her father; she worked closely with him and a succession of stepmothers to educate her 21 half-siblings. As a famous writer and member of a large and eventually far-flung family, Edgeworth produced a massive quantity of correspondence over her lifetime, much of it with important writers, thinkers, and politicians of her day. There are at least 10,000 extant sheets of Edgeworth’s correspondence held in archives and private collections around the world.
Not only do Edgeworth’s letters contain important contexts for her novels and educational texts, they also provide key narratives of literary and historical figures (among them Sir Walter Scott, Madame de Staël, William Wordsworth, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Frances Burney), places (including Ireland, London, and Paris), and events (such as the French invasion of Ireland, the aftermath of the Act of Union, and the great Irish famine) around the turn of the nineteenth century. The letters also reveal Edgeworth’s own engagement in nineteenth-century scientific discourse and in questions of anti-semitism.
Only selections of Edgeworth’s vast correspondence have been published. The Maria Edgeworth Letters Project (https://mariaedgeworth.org/) seeks to remedy this gap in scholarship by creating a digital space where Edgeworth’s full correspondence is made available, searchable, and annotated through a collaborative open-access project. Jessica Richard (Wake Forest University), Robin Runia (Xavier University), Susan Egenolf (Texas A&M University), and Hilary Havens, (University of Tennessee) are the faculty co-editors; the project is supported by the digital scholarship faculty and staff at Wake Forest University, University of Tennessee, and Texas A&M. In 2022 the Maria Edgeworth Letters Project was awarded a significant grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund its continued development.
The vast quantity of Edgeworth letters and the length of many of the individual letters (she sometimes wrote 30-page letters!) make the digital environment ideal for this project, which includes photographic images of the letters and transcriptions that are TEI-encoded to make them fully tagged and searchable. Visitors to the site mariaedgeworth.org will be able to search the letters by sender or recipient, subject, locations, date, etc. We will be able to add to the digital collection over time as we receive, transcribe, and code more letters. As the archive of letters on the site grows, it will host digital projects produced by scholars from the text data, including maps, data visualizations, word clouds, etc.
More than 26 archives and institutions have already given us photographs of their letters, including Trinity College Dublin, King’s College Cambridge, Bibliotheque de Geneve, the University of Birmingham, the University of Reading, Princeton University, the University of Virginia, Boston College, Harvard University, Duke University, the National Library of Scotland, Bibliotheque Nationale de France, University College London, Dartmouth, Vassar, Claremont, Yale, the Bodleian, the National Library of Ireland, the British Library, and many others. We’re excited to have the participation of so many institutions in several countries.
We loaded 200 letters onto the crowdsourcing platform Zooniverse where volunteers quickly transcribed them. We are currently piloting the coding phase of the project to build the searchability of our letters database. We look forward to reopening the crowdsourcing platform in the future for additional transcribing.
As an example of what Edgeworth’s letters can reveal, I’ve transcribed one of the letters that Trinity College Dublin photographed for us. I chose this letter at random from the files sent to us. Edgeworth writes in 1840 to Lord Lansdowne, a prominent and long-serving British Whig politician who had been Chancellor of the Exchequer, among other positions; the Lansdowne family of Bowood House, Wiltshire, had long been friends and correspondents of the Edgeworths. In this letter, Edgeworth writes to compliment Lansdowne on the public approbation he bestowed (and which she read of in a newspaper or other publication) on “Father Matthews,” as she calls him. Theobald Mathew, known as “Father Mathew,” was an Irish Catholic priest and a temperance campaigner. He and his Catholic Total Abstinence Society enrolled hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland, England, and eventually the United States, many of them poor laborers, in a pledge to abstain from alcohol. In this letter, Edgeworth calls Mathew’s movement “the greatest and most wonderful enterprize & achievement since the time of The Crusades.” After praising Father Mathew’s sermons and admiring the impact of temperance on the poor, Edgeworth concludes her letter by recommending to Lansdowne that since “coffee is so much in demand among the vast numbers in Ireland who have given up whiskey it would be a great encouragement to morality” to lower duties on coffee, making it more affordable. She mentions that this idea was suggested to her by Captain Beaufort, a friend and Rear Admiral of the Royal Navy and that it might also be beneficial to “the West Indian possessions” and a stimulus to “European labor in those colonies.”
There are some tantalizing threads to untangle in this letter. Lord Lansdowne, though a Protestant, was a champion of Catholic emancipation in Britain. He also supported, though less vigorously, the abolition of slavery. Father Mathew was hosted in the United States after this letter was written by prominent Catholics in the American North, including Archbishop of New York John Hughes; although Mathew had expressed opposition to slavery previously, his anti-abolitionist American hosts discouraged his involvement in abolition discourse in the US and Mathew complied, refusing to condemn slavery. This refusal was in turn condemned by Frederick Douglass, one-time signer of Mathew’s temperance pledge. In this context, Edgeworth’s vague allusion to “European labor” on coffee plantations is especially fascinating. I don’t have an answer yet to exactly what she might mean by this, whether there was an effort to replace the labor of enslaved people with that of free Europeans as abolition loomed and if so whether she was aware of such. What we see in this letter is a nexus among people and movements: politicians, military men, Catholics, Protestants, temperance, and abolition – with Maria Edgeworth at the center of it all. As the Maria Edgeworth Letters Project grows we will follow many such threads and connections.
Dr Jessica Richard (Wake Forest University, North Carolina), joint co-ordinator of the Maria Edgeworth Letters Project.