Jane Austen’s Admiration for Maria Edgeworth

This month, we’ve really enjoyed reading and discussing The Absentee by Maria Edgeworth. Neither of us had read the Anglo-Irish writer before, but we’d long heard of her as an influence on Jane Austen. This is particularly interesting since Edgeworth held progressive views for her time, her novels exploring issues such as inter-racial relationships, feminism and same-sex desire.

‘The authoress of Pride and Prejudice has been so good as to send me a new novel just published, Emma’
‘The authoress of Pride and Prejudice has been so good as to send me a new novel just published, Emma’
Jane Austen
Jane Austen greatly admired the novels of Maria Edgeworth. Both these images are in the public domain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Austen singled out for praise one of Edgeworth’s most controversial books, Belinda, in her own novel, Northanger Abbey:

“And what are you reading, Miss –?” “Oh! it is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”

Austen so prized her fellow novelist’s good opinion that in 1816 she asked her publisher to send a precious presentation copy of Emma to Edgeworth in Ireland.

You might remember that a presentation copy of Emma cropped up in our post on Austen’s radical bond with the family governess and amateur playwright, Anne Sharp. Just as Sharp was the only friend whom Austen singled out to receive these rare volumes, so Edgeworth appears to have been the only professional author.

Maria Edgeworth's presentation copies of Emma, sent to her by Jane Austen
Maria Edgeworth’s presentation copies of Emma, sent to her by Jane Austen. This image is used with permission from Sotheby’s.
Anne Sharp's presentation copies of Emma, sent to her by Jane Austen. This image is used with permission from Bonham's.
Anne Sharp’s presentation copies of Emma, sent to her by Jane Austen. This image is used with permission from Bonham’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In our recorded conversation, we talk about Edgeworth’s and Sharp’s wildly different responses to Austen’s gift and their respective reactions to the novel itself. We also share our reasons for believing that Edgeworth’s The Absentee played a crucial and illuminating role in the unlikely friendship between Austen and Sharp.

Sisters Under the Skin

One of the unexpected pleasures afforded by running this site is the chance to speak about female literary friendship on stage as well as write about it on screen, so Emily and I are particularly looking forward to our October 15th Festival Fringe event at the Ilkley Playhouse.

Ilkley Literature Fringe Festival

On account of their skin colours, author friends Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings could not have appeared together in their local theatre: an injustice that we find particularly resonant since we too are from different ethnic backgrounds.

Gainesville Theatre, Florida, was not desegregated until the late 1960s, decades after Hurston and Rawlings became friends. When these authors met in 1942, in many parts of the United States the pair could not have sat in the same railroad waiting room, ridden the same bus, sunbathed on the same beach, eaten at the same restaurant table or drunk from the same water fountain.

Demonstration in front of a segregated theatre in Florida in 1962.  State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/4528
Demonstration in front of a segregated theatre in Florida in 1962.
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/4528

What’s more, Florida was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold. The state’s barbarous white supremacists lynched more people per capita than anywhere else in the country. Just two years into Hurston’s friendship with Rawlings, a fifteen year old black boy was brutally murdered in the city of Live Oak in Florida for having dared to pen a love note to a white girl. Willie Howard wrote in his Christmas card to Cynthia Goff: ‘I love your name. I love your voice. For a S.H. [sweetheart] you are my choice’. For this, he was kidnapped along with his father, driven to the banks of the Suwanee River, his hands and feet bound, and instructed either to jump or be shot. His father was forced to watch at gunpoint while his son drowned.

Played out against such a vicious backdrop of racism, the friendship between Hurston and Rawlings was radical indeed. Rawlings’s love and admiration for Hurston caused her to confront her own deeply entrenched prejudices, and both women ended up lending their support to racial equality campaigns. However, their efforts did not meet with a huge level of success during their lifetimes. The racism that their friendship defied hounded them even in death: both women’s bodies were buried in segregated cemeteries.

Thankfully, we have never faced racially motivated opposition to our friendship. Some people actually consider us so alike that they have even mistaken us for sisters. And yet, our own society is far from colour blind. The UK’s literary scene is a case in point. Just 4% of people in the publishing industry in England and Wales are Black/Asian/Minority/Ethnic (BAME), while 14% of the population of England and Wales are BAME (UK 2011 census). Such lack of diversity among the gatekeepers has resulted in a woeful lack of publishing opportunities for BAME authors.

We are particularly proud that our Ilkley Festival Fringe event follows the SI Leeds Literary Prize ceremony, since this award ‘aims to act as a loudspeaker for Black and Asian women’s voices, and a platform to discover exciting new talent, from a group largely under-represented on our bookshelves’.

Emily was a runner-up in 2012, so we also have personal reasons for feeling delighted to continue our relationship with Soroptimist International. And yet we cannot help but wish for a world in which their prize would be unnecessary – a world in which all our sisters’ voices would stand an equal chance of getting heard.

Sharing the Knocks and Knockouts: Emily Bullock & Ann Morgan

Emily Bullock & Ann Morgan
Emily Bullock & Ann Morgan

In this month’s guest blog, long-time writer friends Emily Bullock and Ann Morgan take up the June challenge to send each other a book with a dedication inside.

Emily Bullock

Ann and I first met on the interview day for UEA’s Creative Writing MA… So she tells me, and over the years I’ve come to think of her memory as my own. We were then lucky enough to be in the same writing workshop. Was I first drawn to the person or the pen? I no longer recall that either. But I do know that I liked both a great deal. Ann spent some nights on my airbed, which sealed the new friendship, and all these years later we are still friends.

The book I have chosen for Ann was inspired by her Year of Reading the World. Through this project, she came across a writer who didn’t get to read a novel until she was a teenager. The anecdote stayed in my mind because Ann is such a good storyteller. The first novel this writer got to read also seems the right selection for Ann because of her adventures in reading a book from every country, and the writing journey we have both been on, which will finally result in our debut books coming out next year.

In the words of all the best DJs – Ann Morgan, this one’s for you: Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne.

Around the World in Eighty Days
Image used with the kind permission of Penguin Pocket Classics

And my dedication:

‘What had he brought back from this long and weary journey?’

The airbed has deflated but we go on: friends and writers. I feel fortunate to have you as a travelling companion.

Ann Morgan

Emily’s right: we did meet at the interview day for our master’s. I can even remember the book she was reading – Salt: A World History by Mark Kulansky.

If it seems a bit freaky that I can recall so much, it’s no doubt testament to how well we got on. Almost from the word go, we were chatting easily and seemed to understand each other’s take on books and writing. The friendship was particularly important for me as I was commuting from London to study on the course in Norwich – hence the airbed (in case you were wondering).

Ten years on, we remain great friends. We’ve seen each other change, grow, struggle and succeed, and it’s lovely that our debut books, The Longest Fight and Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf, will be coming out at roughly the same time in 2015.

In recognition of this, I’ve chosen a novel that links together our projects: Seconds Out by Martín Kohan.

Seconds-Out
Image used with the kind permission of Serpent’s Tail

It’s the book I read from Argentina during my Year of Reading the World and centres on boxing, which is the subject of Emily’s novel. The story also seems appropriate because I think both of us would agree that the journey to publication has been a bit like a battle on occasions. As a result, my dedication reads:

‘It has felt like the longest fight at times, but it’s been great to share the knocks and knockouts with you. Here’s to the next bout.’

 

Emily Bullock’s novel The Longest Fight will be published by Myriad Editions in spring 2015.

Ann Morgan’s non-fiction book Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf will be published by Harvill Secker, also in spring 2015.