A Short History of English Literature

By Harry Blamires | Go to book overview

17

Scott and contemporary novelists

In the general preface to the collected Waverley Novels Scott mentions Maria Edgeworth’s Irish novels as one of the influences that caused him to take up the neglected manuscript of Waverley and turn novelist. Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) was the daughter of Richard Edgeworth, the educationist, and collaborated with him in his Practical Education (1798). The educator’s urge to use fiction for the moral improvement of mankind is evident in Maria Edgeworth’s Moral Tales (1801) and Popular Tales (1804), but they are not therefore uninteresting, and she writes with wider social motives too. Castle Rackrent (1800) pictures the fortunes of an Irish estate through several generations of extravagant and dissipated landlords. The story is told in the form of reminiscences by an old retainer, Thady Quirk. His viewpoint gives a sharp bite to the satire, for everything is seen from the angle of ‘the family’, its dignity and prosperity; while the sufferings of the tenants and the oppressive mismanagement by the landlords are implicit. Satire is more widely directed in Belinda (1801). The young heroine, sent up to town for the first time, is too wise to slip into its frivolous dissipations. She falls in love with Clarence Hervey, a high-souled young man who is bringing up his female ward, Virginia St Pierre, on the educational theory of Rousseau. He at first intends her for his wife and is determined that she shall be uncontaminated by the vices and vanities of society. The mystery surrounding this project provides suspense and delay in Belinda’s progress towards marriage. Through Vincent, Belinda’s unsuccessful suitor, generous and warm-hearted, frank and handsome but perilously devoid of principle, we are taught that the Man of Feeling is unreliable: ‘So fallacious is moral instinct unenlightened or uncontrolled by reason and religion.’ The other moral is that

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