Meet the Edgeworths Back

The Bodleian Libraries hold a rich and varied collection of papers related to the Edgeworth family from the 17th to the 19th century. Only a tiny percentage of the material contained therein is available in print and even less has been subject to scholarly editing.

The Edgeworth collection is little known but of great significance, providing important manuscript evidence about the literary career of one of the most important novelists of the early nineteenth century, Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849); the educational, agricultural and political theory and practice of Richard Lovell Edgeworth  (1744-1817); the ways in which the extended family with connections in Ireland, England, France and India, communicated and collaborated in the production of art, literature, and scientific knowledge; and the history of Anglo-Irish relations in a period of political contestation and transformation.

The Proscholium exhibition space is in the Old Bodleian Library, near the centre of Oxford, a five-minute walk from the Park and Ride bus stops. The exhibition is open to the public and is wheelchair accessible.

The backdrop of the exhibition is an excellent family tree, clearly laying out the extraordinarily complicated family relations (Richard Lovell Edgeworth of course had four wives and twenty-two children). Before it are an interesting range of exhibits including original family correspondence, literary manuscripts, and other family artifacts, with clear descriptions and transcriptions of manuscripts where needed. Of particular note are items 6 and 7:

Items 6 and 7 (Meet the Edgeworths exhibition, Bodleian, Oxford). Reviewer’s own photograph.

No 7 is the copperplate used to print Maria Edgeworth’s calling cards circa 1820, an extraordinary survival, and No. 6 is believed to be Maria’s own hand-embroidered pocket (bag) perhaps made by Maria herself from printed patterns also held in the Bodleian collection.

The exhibition does not limit introductions to the humans of the family. We also get to meet Maria’s pet dog, ‘Foster’, a happy and appropriate inclusion. The family’s letters are often filled with long descriptions of each individual’s health in fine detail and Foster is no exception. In fact his health, ailments, and latest exploits often seem to consume space at the expense of longer reports on other family members.

‘Foster the Dog’, in the Bodleian, available under Creative Commons licence. Pencil portrait by Colonel Stevens of Foster in front of Edgeworthstown House (MS Eng Misc c.901, fol.90).

This Oxford display came about as part of a one-year research project, ‘Opening the Edgeworth Papers’, with the aim to investigate ways to raise the profile of the Bodleian Edgeworth collection through public engagement and knowledge exchange activities as well as scholarly and digital editing.

The project, funded by Oxford University’s Fell Fund, is a 12-month collaboration – from the beginning of March 2019 to the end of February 2020 – between Professor Ros Ballaster (PI) in the Faculty of English and Catriona Cannon (Deputy Librarian and Keeper of Bodleian Collections), with the support of Dr Anna Senkiw and graduate intern, Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull.

From left to right: Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull, Dr Anna Senkiw and Professor Ros Ballaster.

The long-term goal is to promote further study of the collection and make it more accessible for future scholarship; the immediate aim is to scope a future, external application.

The electronic catalogue and Libraries’ platform for digitized content will provide the basis for development into a digital resource. The project models ways of doing this with a portion of the material: correspondence and other evidence related to the year 1819-1820 tracked in punctual blogs. These should allow reflection on the history of relations between Ireland and England – especially pertinent in light of the UK’s likely departure from the European Union. Other activities include a performance of unpublished manuscript dramatic material by Maria Edgeworth, which was presented at a workshop early in December 2019.

I hope that a permanent site for these materials will be found, maybe one of the Edgeworth buildings at Edgeworthstown, and the display could be added to and enhanced with other Edgeworth portraits and pictures from other Edgeworth collections. I would certainly put forward for inclusion my portrait of Anna Edgeworth (1773-1824) and a copy of the portrait of Emmeline Edgeworth (1770-1848) by Edward Bird.

The Bodleian’s newly energized promotion of its Edgeworth collections makes it a welcome addition to other places with Edgeworth interest open to the public around the British Isles. (If you have an interest in Maria Edgeworth, a visit to Chawton House in Hampshire, is worthwhile, since it holds Maria’s ink wells; and, for the traveling Maria enthusiast, a trip to Edgeworthstown in County Longford, Ireland, to see the Maria Edgeworth Centre is a must.)

On leaving, I enquired about security for the valuable display, thinking that I had seen a large security camera fixed to the top of the cabinet. This, I was told by a reliable source, was not a security device but was a head count machine and recorded the number of visitors as part of administrative statistics monitoring. I joked that I had been back and forth in front of the display for much of the morning taking photographs and may have been counted several times!

Meet the Edgeworths is open in the Proscholium until January 26th 2020. I can certainly recommend a visit – and maybe more than one, if not just for you, then also for the statisticians!