The Author and the Reader-"Us and Them" in Maria Edgeworth's Texts for Children and Young Adults

By Mazurek, Monika | Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview

The Author and the Reader-"Us and Them" in Maria Edgeworth's Texts for Children and Young Adults


Mazurek, Monika, Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies


ABSTRACT

The paper attempts to tackle the hyphenated self of Maria Edgeworth as Anglo-Irish writer in her books for children and young adults, reflected not only in the fact of the occasional introduction of Irish characters or Irish setting but also at the deeper level of the identity of the narrative voice and the implied reader of these texts. It attempts to show that the Anglo/Irish ratio in the narrative voice of Edgeworth's texts is a fluctuating value, defining itself in the opposition to the implied reader, whose identity is in turn constantly changing sides as well, hovering between the poles of "us" and "them".

Maria Edgeworth's texts for children attract an increasing critical attention nowadays, when pre-Victorian texts for children written by such authors as Hannah More, Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Maria Edgeworth are re-discovered by critics who read them not as examples of grinding Enlightenment didacticism but as, for instance, "subtle rewriting and personalizing of moral tale conventions" which "illuminates themes central to Georgian female life and to contemporary feminist critique as well" (Myers 1991: 98). While the attention of previous critics was focused mostly on the anecdotal aspects of Edgeworth's life (her father's pedagogical experiments on his own children or the famous library where Edgeworth wrote and her numerous siblings, and later nephews and nieces tumbled about) (Myers 1994: 58), the contemporary criticism is concentrated around the discussion of Edgeworth's texts for children and the social and political issues they are involved with.

An encyclopaedic label often applied to Maria Edgeworth--that is, that of an "Anglo-Irish writer" describes in a quite accurate way the problematical position occupied by Edgeworth which situates her across the political, social and religious divide. Maria Edgeworth, the descendant of the Elizabethan settlers, belonged to this curious class of people who felt they owed their allegiance both to Great Britain and to Ireland. Edgeworth's writings are hailed as one of the first examples of Irish regional writing, crucial in shaping the Irish national identity. This paper attempts to analyze the national identity of Edgeworth's Irish characters in her texts for young readers, the identity of the narrator and that of the implied reader or target audience. The close reading of these texts shows that the impression of Edgeworth's being an advocate of the Irish is a superficial one. Indeed, if the implied reader is English, Edgeworth's narrator stands up for the Irish, trying to negotiate the cultural differences. However, when the implied readers are Irish, the narrative voice directed to them is an unmistakably English one, pointing out all the aspects in which the Irish fall lamentably short of the English ideal. Edgeworth is primarily the advocate of the Union between Ireland and Britain, and the narrating voice is the one of the translator, whose aim is not only to reconcile two antagonistic societies, but also in the long run to bring the stray Irish sheep into the British fold.

It should be noticed at the beginning that in Edgeworth's books for children, whenever the regional identity of her characters is mentioned, these are usually working-class children. The regional identity is then important to explain the curious accent of the characters appearing there, their quaint customs (for instance, celebrating Mayday in "Simple Susan") or jobs peculiar to a particular region. Children of the upper classes, like her most popular heroine Rosamond of "The purple jar" and other stories, seem to live in households that could be located anywhere in Britain. For this reason the choice of texts for this paper is rather limited: the texts included in this paper are "Angelina; or, L'amie inconnue" of The moral tales (1801) and "The orphans" and "The white pigeon" of The parent's assistant (1796). I am also going to refer occasionally to "Limerick gloves" and "Rosanna", two texts from The popular tales (1804), which were not intended for children but for working-class "young adults"--readers placed, as Richard L. …

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