Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) is mentioned twice in Jane Austen’s letters. In a letter to Cassandra, written in 1813, Austen writes at rather dismissive, “The Clements are at home and are reduced to read. They have got Miss Edgeworth”, but writing to her niece, Anna, the following year, Austen declares that “I have made up my mind to like no novels, really, but Miss Edgeworth’s, yours and my own.”
Had Austen made up her mind to dislike Edgeworth, she would have been in a decided minority. The novels of Maria Edgeworth (who, unlike Austen, did not publish anonymously), were critical, popular and financial successes. Unlike Austen, Edgeworth enjoyed a long career: her first work of fiction (a collection of short stories) was published in 1796, and her last, the novel Orlandino, was published in 1848.
Edgeworth’s first novel was an immediate success. Castle Rackrent (1800) both satirizes and indicts property neglect and landlord absenteeism, problems that invited the exploitive practice of “rack-renting”, where a middle-man would lease a large tract of estate property from the landlord on reasonable terms and then sub-let it to tenant farmers at exorbitant rates.
Inspired by the registers of the Edgeworth family’s Irish property, the novel is the narrative of Thady Quirk, the steward of Castle Rackrent for four of its masters. The first master, Sir Patrick is a convivial squanderer who has left his estate in such debt that his creditors seize corpse to hold it hostage until they are paid.
His successor, the litigious Sir Murtaugh Rackrent, maintains that the insult to Sir Patrick’s body acquits him of the debts, and funds a succession of lawsuits by selling parcels of land and from draconian fines imposed upon his tenants. (The proverbial chicken that crosses the road is guilty of “trespass”). His wife, “…of the family of Skinflints…” provisions her household by claiming “duty fowls and duty turkies and duty geese…eggs – honey – butter …” from by charging a fee to intercede with Sir Murtaugh on behalf of his oppressed tenants.
Sir Murtaugh is succeeded by his younger brother, the spendthrift Sir Kit, who shows up at the estate only for some hunting and to run up debts, flees to Bath where he carelessly signs off on bills forwarded to him by his agent. Having brought his debts to critical mass, he attempts to remedy the situation by marrying a Jewish heiress, who foils his attempt to get hold of her fortune by converting it, before their marriage, into inalienable property in the form of a diamond necklace. (Edgeworth, received a letter from a Jewish-American reader who rebuked her for her stereotypical treatment of Jews; she attempted to make amends in a later novel, Harrington).
The last heir, the distant relation, Sir Condy, is a free-spending schemer; having squandered his money, he elopes with an heiress whose family promptly disinherits her. Debts mount to the point of Sir Condy’s arrest, a disgrace postponed by his election to Parliament. At the end of his debt-ridden stint as an MP, Sir Condy returns to a neglected Castle Rackrent that has fallen into disrepair, is abandoned by his wife, swindled out of the remains of his estate by Quirk’s conniving son, Jason, and dies poor and friendless.
Edgeworth’s observations on the potential for ruin and disgrace brought on by neglect were renewed in her later novel The Absentee (1812), and appear to have been views that Austen shared. Embedded in all of Austen’s novels is some example of the consequence of the interrelated neglect of duty, family and property.
On an income of two thousand a year, Mr. Bennet might have easily set aside a comfortable provision for his widow and daughters; neglecting to do so potentially consigns six women to poverty upon his death, unless some of the girls marry well. Unfortunately, he does not even do what he can to make them attractive marriage prospects: their education was inconsistent, left to the inclination of “…such of us as wished to learn”, while “Those who chose to be idle certainly might”, and his own antipathy toward London keeps his daughters from the sphere where many good matches were secured. Even Elizabeth’s immediate conclusion that a commotion at Hunsford was the result of the pigs raiding the garden hints at a familiarity with this occurrence that does not speak well for the maintenance of Longbourn’s fences.
Sir Walter Elliott, while scrupulous about the state of his property, placed himself “dreadfully in debt” because his vanity has determined that his income is “…not equal to…the state required in its possessor”. To his credit, Sir Walter refuses to sell off an alienable portion of Kellynch – he will mortgage it only – out of a commitment to pass an undivided property to the heir. Unfortunately, the heir could not be less deserving of the effort; William Elliot neglects the family connection in favor of immediate gratification. He is both so greedy and so disconnected from obligation (or both) that while he mocks the Elliot name and title, he is willing to elevate a butcher’s granddaughter to the rank of Lady Elliot. One wouldn’t blame Sir Walter if he retaliated by disposing of the saleable tract of land.
Both Sir Thomas Bertram and General Tilney fall into a similar neglect of their households, Sir Thomas by “teaching [his children] to repress their spirits in his presence”, while General Tilney was “always a check upon his children’s’ spirits”. In the former case, Sir Thomas neglects his duty by providing education without principled example; he “sacrificed the right to the expedient”, and in doing so, allows his children to fall in with associates who lead the heir into debt and near death, the eldest daughter to disgrace, while the younger elopes to avoid the “greater severity and restraint” that Sir Thomas might impose upon her following Maria’s scandalous conduct. It appears that only the prudence of one parent can counteract the faults in the other; one wonders if Henry and Elinor Tilney would have turned out so well if they had been left to the apathetic Lady Bertram and the enabling Mrs. Norris, or whether, under the influence of Mrs. Tilney, Maria and Julia might have turned out better.
And while one criticizes Darcy at risk, the reader is told, rather than impressed with, his attention to Pemberley. While he “…cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these”, a remark that Caroline endorses with, “I am sure you neglect nothing that can add to the beauties of that noble place”, he is pretty much an absentee landlord. A wealthy gentleman might visit somewhere for the shooting in the fall, and pass a couple months in town in the winter; Darcy, on the other hand, comes from London with Bingley’s family in September, stays until the end of November, returns with the Bingleys to town until he visits Rosings in the spring. While, according to Mrs. Reynolds, Darcy spends “half his time” at Pemberley, it doesn’t appear that he finally shows up until he encounters the Gardiners and Elizabeth in July; nearly eleven months pass without his spending any substantial amount of time at “that noble place”.
Perhaps if Darcy had been more attentive to household matters, he would not have been so “unhappily deceived” in Mrs. Younge’s character, nor would his sister’s honor and happiness been salvaged by his premature arrival at Ramsgate.