The Anglo-Irish author Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849) was the most commercially successful novelist of her age and one of Jane Austen's favorite writers. Yet a comparatively small number of her letters have been published. There are at least 10,000 extant sheets of Edgeworth’s correspondence, and this fact – coupled with the increasing reluctance of scholarly presses to underwrite major editorial projects – means that Edgeworth’s letters will almost certainly never appear in a complete print edition. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary and historical scholars have thus been deprived of an important female literary voice. We, the multi-institutional editors of The Maria Edgeworth Letters project (https://mariaedgeworth.org/), Jessica Richard (Wake Forest University), Susan Egenolf (Texas A&M University), Hilary Havens (University of Tennessee), and Robin Runia (Xavier University), seek to remedy this gap in scholarship by creating a digital space where Edgeworth’s full correspondence is made available, searchable, and is eventually annotated through a collaborative open-access project.
Maria Edgeworth was born on 1 January 1768 to the Irish landowner Richard Lovell Edgeworth and his first wife, Anna Maria Elers. Edgeworth and her family removed to Edgeworthstown, Ireland in 1782 where she began to collaborate with her father on literary and educational projects, as well as assisting with rents and estate business. Her earliest published works were treatises on women’s and children’s education (Letters for Literary Ladies  and Essays on Practical Education , co-written with Richard Lovell), stories for children (The Parent’s Assistant ), a regional Irish novel (Castle Rackrent ), and a domestic novel (Belinda ). Four of Edgeworth’s novels, Castle Rackrent, Ennui (1809), The Absentee (1812), and Ormond (1817) are set in Ireland and critique Anglo-Irish relations. Edgeworth continued to write and publish prolifically in multiple genres through the early decades of the nineteenth century until her death on 22 May 1849. For information about other members of the Edgeworth family, please see the Edgeworth Family entry in the Field Guide.
Spanning the end of the eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, Edgeworth’s letters contain important contexts for her novels and educational texts and also provide key narratives of literary and historical figures (among them Sir Walter Scott, Madame de Staël, William Wordsworth, Elizabeth Inchbald, Frances Burney, and other correspondents in Europe, North America and India), places (including Ireland, London, and Paris), and events (such as the French invasion of Ireland, the 1798 Rebellion, the aftermath of the Act of Union, and the Great Famine). The letters also reveal Edgeworth’s own engagement in nineteenth-century scientific discourse and her astonishing liberal-mindedness, which can be seen in her positive inclusion of an interracial marriage in her novel Belinda, and also in her atonement for her early anti-Semitic characterizations after receiving a letter from a Jewish-American woman named Rachel Mordecai. In a letter of 7 August 1815, Mordecai lamented “that she, who on all other subjects shows such justice and liberality, should on one alone appear biased by prejudice.” Rachel Mordecai’s letter was, if not the inspiration for, a strong influence on Edgeworth’s composition of Harrington (1817), an important nineteenth-century novel that criticizes religious prejudice and contains a heroine of Jewish extraction.
Edgeworth's correspondence reveals her deep engagement in contemporary scientific discoveries and practices: she writes of her interest in astronomy and view of Saturn on 29 March 1831; she cogently assesses an article on scientific institutions in a letter to her stepmother Frances Edgeworth written after June 1826; and she describes, second-hand, the dissection of a mummy in a letter of 10 December 1830, again to Frances. There has been hitherto little work on Edgeworth’s interest in and promulgation of scientific diction and knowledge because her correspondence has been little read, something the Maria Edgeworth Letters project seeks to remedy. In short, our project seeks to provide access to the mind of an extraordinary woman writing at the turn of the nineteenth century whose ideas on gender, race, religion, education, and science have important ramifications today.
The Maria Edgeworth Letters Project as a Collaborative Venture
The platform is designed to enable scholars, students, and the general public to access, contribute to, and eventually annotate its contents. The solicitation of public contributions and the open-access nature of the website attest to the project’s truly collaborative nature. Up to this point, many of the digital facsimiles of Maria Edgeworth’s manuscript correspondence are located behind the paywalls of Adam Matthew’s “Women, Education and Literature: The papers of Maria Edgeworth 1768-1849” collection within their larger “Women’s Studies” database. Free and wide access to Edgeworth’s correspondence is not yet available, though other open-access databases devoted to Edgeworth’s contemporaries serve as models for our project. Through our use of the Zooniverse platform, “the world’s largest and most popular platform for people-powered research…made possible by volunteers…who come together to assist professional researchers,” we hope to expand the scope of our project and emphasize its public-facing quality. By creating the first-ever comprehensive scholarly edition of Edgeworth’s correspondence, Maria Edgeworth Letters will freely, fully, and electronically publish letters previously available only in manuscript form or in incomplete and incorrect print editions. Educators, literary scholars, historians, and the greater public will benefit from the Maria Edgeworth Letters project, which will illuminate networks between nineteenth-century literary and historical figures and provide an important perspective on Great Britain and key events in the early decades of the nineteenth century.
Drawing on the expertise of Edgeworth scholars, digital humanists, librarians, and technology specialists, the Maria Edgeworth Letters project aims to create a standard digital edition of letters written by Maria Edgeworth that is as complete as possible, accessible to all, and fully searchable. Additionally, the project will provide a corpus of plain-text transcriptions of all of the letters for data mining, text analysis, and visualization. In providing this open access digital resource, we will be able to locate Edgeworth in her historical and social context and demonstrate her importance for studies of gender, race, religion, education, and science of and beyond the period.
The Maria Edgeworth Letters Project would like to thank Sam Blickhan, Evan Roberts, Ben Wiggins, and Trevor Winger, the conveners of the National Endowment for the Humanities: Institute for Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities, Building Capable Communities for Crowdsourced Transcription, 2021-22. They have helped us build and refine our Zooniverse page and develop strategies for ethical and engaged crowdsourcing.
The project received a 2022-24 National Endowment for the Humanities: Humanities Collections and Reference Resources Foundations grant to assist with planning and development. The team gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Wake Forest University, University of Tennessee, Texas A&M University, and Xavier University of Louisiana. We also wish to acknowledge the Davy Notebooks Project on Zooniverse for providing an excellent model for building out our site.
We are also thankful to all of the Zooniverse volunteers who have contributed to our project. Usernames of contributors will be posted in the coming months, but in the meantime and alternatively, you can share your name, username, and/or affiliation through a Google form. Users who share their information will be acknowledged through Zooniverse, our website https://mariaedgeworth.org/, and here.
We would like to thank the following institutions for contributing their Edgeworth holdings to our project:
Beinecke Library, Yale University
Bibliothèque de Genève
Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Chawton House Library
Claremont Colleges Library
Firestone Library, Princeton University
Houghton Library, Harvard University
King’s College Library, Cambridge University
Morgan Library and Museum
National Library of Scotland
New York Public Library (Pforzheimer Collection)
Pennsylvania State University
Royal College of Surgeons
Trinity College Library, Dublin
University College, London
University of Iowa
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
University of Oxford
University of Pennsylvania
University of Reading
University of Virginia
Statement on Maria Edgeworth’s Views
Although Maria Edgeworth was often ahead of her times in her liberal-mindedness, some readers may be offended by some of the material - especially that discussing gender, class, nationality (Ireland), and race and slavery - that may be found in these letters, many of which have not been transcribed before. By proceeding beyond this statement to the transcription task, you are agreeing to potential exposure to such material. Should you encounter such material, feel free to reload the page in your browser to generate a new letter.
Maria Edgeworth Letters Project Consent Statement