When Jane Austen published her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, in 1811, there was no doubt who was the leading novelist of the day. Maria Edgeworth was not only the most widely admired writer of fiction in English but also the best remunerated. In a famous vindication of fiction in Northanger Abbey, Austen herself names Edgeworth's Belinda (1801) as one of those works that have proved the intellectual power and the wit of the best novels. Edgeworth kept a tally of her earnings, believing that copyright prices were the best measure of an author's standing: at the peak of her fame in 1814, the year in which Austen published Mansfield Park, Edgeworth received more than £2,000 for her novel Patronage – this in an age when £500 might be a good annual income for a professional gentleman with a family to support.
Helen by Maria Edgeworth 544pp, Sort Of Books, £7.99 Buy Helen at the Guardian bookshop Her fame and earnings as a novelist would eventually be eclipsed by Sir Walter Scott, a rival who became a close friend. (Scott dubbed her "the Great Maria" and claimed that he had been inspired to compose Waverley by reading her fiction.) She remained the leading woman novelist of the early 19th century. And more than this, she was a literary celebrity: as well as Scott, she knew Wordsworth and Byron, Jeremy Bentham and Sir Humphry Davy. Those who know of Austen's rural anonymity might assume that this was the typical lot of the ambitious female writer at this time, but Edgeworth flourished as a woman of letters. Fluent in French, she was as renowned for her somewhat stern intelligence in the salons of Paris as she was in London literary circles. She was also a renowned educationalist, and it is surprising that her advocacy of women's education in works such as Letters for Literary Ladies (1795) has not helped to save her from her present obscurity.
As a young woman, Edgeworth was encouraged and much influenced by her father, the politician and self-styled intellectual Richard Lovell Edgeworth. He was friends with Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood and Matthew Boulton, members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham. She inherited her interest in education, a belief in progress and a cosmopolitan bookishness from her father, who had four wives and 22 children. He disapproved of novels as essentially frivolous.
Edgeworth's career as a novelist began with the hilarious Castle Rackrent, written in secret and published in 1800. Narrated by Thady Quirk, aged retainer of the Irish Rackrent family, it chronicles the misadventures of the clan, as each new head of the household finds different ways to run through its assets. Thady can see nothing but good in the eccentricities of the various drunkards, rakehells and spendthrifts he serves down the years. He was based, Edgeworth said, on her father's steward, whose voice the novel wonderfully brings to life. Over the two decades after this brilliant debut there followed a series of successful novels – some, like The Absentee, dramatising Anglo-Irish society; some, like Belinda, following the travails of young English ladies as they tried to choose the right husband. She also had a successful line in children's fiction of a somewhat moralistic cast.