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A new biography of Maria Edgeworth will reveal author’s views on slavery

March 6, 2023 - Dr Susan Manly, Visiting Research Fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub will be taking a closer look at the letters and correspondences of best-selling author Maria Edgeworth to examine how the author engaged with debates on Ireland, on slavery and on women.

Susan Manly is a Reader in English at the University of St Andrews, Scotland and her visiting research fellowship is in association with Professor Aileen Douglas at Trinity’s School of English. An expert on the works of Maria Edgeworth, Dr Manly is writing a new political biography of the author. Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849) was a best-selling Irish author, and a contemporary of Jane Austen and is most widely known for her tales for children and for her numerous works of fiction including Belinda (1801).

Susan Manly

Participating in the Trinity Long Room Hub’s recent Fellow in Focus, Dr Manly spoke to Professor Aileen Douglas on the many challenges of writing a biography, not least because she is dealing with a topic of “current debate” and one which is “a really delicate and important piece of work.” Dr Manly noted how Edgeworth’s archive is vast and “scattered” and that because we know that she spent 1.5 hours a day writing letters there is a lot of material to examine.  

Dr Manly also said that at times she had “felt out of sympathy” somewhat with the author and was sometimes “irked” at Edgeworth’s politics.  She told Professor Douglas that she was however energised by the “creative opportunity” that is presented by writing a biography and by the sense that one is telling a story.

Edgeworth’s work, both fiction and non-fiction, is very political, but she rarely spoke about her politics directly in her letters. According to Dr Manly, the author’s views on slavery are impinged upon by the fact that she was the daughter of the owner of an estate in Ireland. Both Edgeworth’s “position of power” as a landowner and her awareness from an early age of the “political slavery” that existed in Ireland, where most Irish people had no seat at the political table, influenced her understandings of West Indian slavery. It is important to note, however, that the Edgeworth family’s financial papers show no trace of investment in the Caribbean sugar islands, nor of any ownership in plantations  or legacies deriving from these.



In relation to Jamaica in particular, Dr Manly alluded to the material that she is working on from the early nineteenth century, where Edgeworth makes interventions on behalf of Edgeworthstown tenants. Without going into any detail on that correspondence, Dr Manly did comment that she felt “it compromises her [Maria Edgeworth] in a really serious way ethically.”

She added that “in the full knowledge of what slavery meant”, Edgeworth “takes certain actions in those interventions which are highly problematic”.

Dr Manly argues that these correspondences show a mismatch between what the author does and how she represents the ethics of slavery in some of her fiction.

To find out more about Dr Susan Manly, see here.

Extensive works by Maria Edgeworth are held in the Pollard Collection in the Library of Trinity College Dublin. With items dating from the 17th century, it is the largest collection of children’s books in Ireland.

To listen to Susan Manly’s radio documentary on the life of Maria Edgeworth, click here.

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