Moralizing tales

I was in the course of doing research for the latest WIP doing some research on the moralizing tales of Miss Maria Edgeworth. Who? I hear you say. As indeed you might: this once enormously successful authoress (as she styled herself) of the early 19th century has vanished from our ken. Even from our barbie (Which as all Australians will assure you is a good thing. We hardly ever cook people anymore, we know where they’ve been. Shrimp may be detritivores but better to put on your barbie). If you consider that she was better selling than her very successful peers – Jane Austen, and Sir Walter Scott… both much more likely to be remembered, that’s worth thinking about.

Her books were very successful in starting a number of subgenres. She was Anglo-Irish, and used this and history to set her first novel – which became a family saga, set in ‘the big house’. All of this was a whole new set of concepts, and was very well received. Think about it… all of those — the regional novel, the historical, the saga, the DOWNTON ABBEY type and a fair number of Heyer books – (THE QUIET GENTLEMAN, THE UNKNOWN AJAX, THE CONVENIENT MARRIAGE) – and many others. That’s… quite something for an author who gave birth to these, and has effectively vanished.

Which leaves me wondering why?

She was considered ‘politically correct’ for her time and social order. PC is a new name, but hardly a new concept. She believed the purpose of her books was… to teach. Well, at the time that was considered the only legitimate excuse a novel – as a teaching device, and novel reading, particularly among females, was considered a vice in some circles. Interesting how much things change… and how much they have stayed the same.

Her good characters… were very good. I mean in the goody-two-shoes sense, because the reader was supposed to model on that perfection and could not be on their own relied on to tell the good from the OK, let alone bad. Of course, things have changed somewhat from when she was at the center of what the establishment of her time – the progressive side of it, considered ‘PC’ and unchanging and unchangeable. But I think the single thing that stands out is that… it was ‘teaching’ not entertainment.

24 thoughts on “Moralizing tales

  1. To amuse and to instruct was the medieval rule. One medieval author observed that as a writer his only job was to amuse but as a human he wanted to instruct as well.

    Then chivalric romances were as bad as novels in that era.

    1. I remember being surprised when I learned something about how, well, I’m not sure if ‘diverse’ is the right word for it — how bizarre those chivalric romances could get? I know a lot of people who think that anthropomorphized animals or werebeasts as heroes are something new, but they were both showing up in the romances a few hundred years ago.

      There was a werewolf who appeared in some Arthurian stories, I think named Marrok or Melion. And years ago I read some passing reference in a Daniel Cohen book about an Italian romance with a knight who serves the King of the Griffons for a year in exchange for a magic feather.

      Sorry, a bit off topic there.

          1. Nah. But there are a good number of plots in common. More elaborate in the romances, of course, and with some shifts in tropes.

  2. has 28 of Maria Edgewort’s books for those curious enough to want to read them.

    (We are living in the golden age of public domain access.)

  3. I used to love _The Little Princess_ By F. H. Burnett. I didn’t catch the overly-sweet depiction of the “poor but determined orphan” trope, because Burnett wrote well enough that her baddies were really bad – human, but bad – and that sort of leavened the over-the-top goodness of the protagonist. And the protagonist breaks, which is a bit unusual for the genre. All ends well, but I don’t really care for the book the way I did as a teen. When it preaches, it PREACHES!!

    1. I still love it.

      Gene Stratton Porter’s “message” fiction with a young (vs teenage) child protag (Michael O’Halloran) is equally preachy about orphans, newsies, rural reform, etc., but the characters carry the story. All her fiction is message-y — issues of the day (illegitimacy, poverty, orphans, immigration) but all bad situations are improved in the story by (unobjectionable) preachy advice (hard work, toughness, stubbornness, self-control, self-driven education, charity, morality), so I think they’ve earned their keep as good stories — no different in their way than, say, Little Women. (Even in spite of their now unfashionable soap box issues now abandoned, e.g., the Yellow Peril.)

      It’s just a style of the time. These works are now mostly abandoned to pre-teen readers, but that’s not their original audience. We’ve developed too much of an allergy to the style to look at it fairly, I believe. Gene Stratton Porter’s works were extraordinarily popular with their adult audience:

      “Only 55 books published between 1895 and 1945 sold upwards of one million copies. Gene Stratton-Porter wrote five of those books—far more than any other author of her time.”

      Those readers were adults (many soldiers), not all that distant from us. That style of sentimental story still has a place, if we want to fill it. Plucky orphan books are probably better for our character than the trashy woke Romance industry.

      1. One other comment on A Little Princess…

        Books like this are about “building character”, especially in adversity, not about the “doing of good deeds” — those not the same thing.

        For Edgeworth (and her period), behavior is seen from a Christian point of view (reward in heaven, not necessarily on earth), but not long thereafter this becomes more secularized. The little princess doesn’t pray for strength, any more than the Stratton-Porter heroes do. She resolves on finding it within herself. The happy ending is the reward that now strikes us as treacly, but the growth of the character is very much the point we should still approve of.

        1. The hilarious thing is that a lot of Burnett is based (sort of) on her mom remembering and retelling Gothic novels. But when she grew up and read some of her mom’s favorite stories, they turned out to have been different. (She really disliked the original version.of Fatherless Fanny, and yet that is quite a good and funny novel, IMHO.)

    2. I loved “The Little Princess” (and the Secret Garden). It took me to the second reading to spot the big plot hole in it. (The next-door neighbor may not have known the name, but he *should* have been able to talk to the solicitors.)

  4. I am of the thought that yes, it is OK to try and impart lessons to the reader, in telling a ripping good yarn … but the writer had better be subtle about it. And imbed the moral of the story in a ripping good yarn.

    1. Me too. It’s from ”Cautionary Tales for Children” by Hillaire Belloc, which is all parody.

  5. Those stories might be, okay, were definitely a struggle to get through. But I’d take them over any of the ‘uplifting proper Christian literature’ certain good-hearted relations foisted off on me as a boy in the 80’s. Let alone the ‘downtrodden ethnic gets supernatural powers and sticks it to whitey’ vaguely-SF books that my high school library seemed to be buried with. The teachers and library staff who knew me always wanted me reading those rather than the Norton and Anderson and Wellman books they had.

  6. I am absolutely willing to put up with some amount of teaching/preaching, as long as enough stuff gets blown up.
    If you shoot somebody, it’s okay to say it’s because they are Cosmopolitan Progressives, even though that’s preachy. If you DON’T stipulate the reason they get croaked, then their death is meaningless, and unless your story is preaching about meaningless deaths, it’s a bummer.
    Just don’t engage the safety on a Glock, or commit other egregious firearms errors.

  7. Maria Edgeworth had a lot of uncomfortable things to say about how the English treated the Irish, IIRC. I know there were modern Irish reprints of her novels, and I think some Irish novelists liked them a lot.

    The third section.of Fatherless Fanny (the section where she gets kidnapped to Ireland to an evil Lord’s Gothic castle, and ends up being rescued by goodhearted Irish Catholic peasants) was apparently cribbed from Maria Edgeworth or something. But I don’t know that myself.

  8. Oh, holy cow. I have just started reading Castle Rackrent, after putting it off for years, and it is obvious that The Moonstone got its butler narrator from Castle Rackrent’s steward narrator.

    Going back to Castle Rackrent now…

  9. Miss Maria Edgeworth has a mention on Georgette Heyer’s The Reluctant Widow.

    And Saki has many anti-PC stories pre-WW1, eg

    “THE STORY-TELLER” with punch-line.

    “A most improper story to tell to young children! You have undermined the effect of years of careful teaching.”

    “At any rate,” said the bachelor, collecting his belongings preparatory to leaving the carriage, “I kept them quiet for ten minutes, which was more than you were able to do.”

    “Unhappy woman!” he observed to himself as he walked down the platform of Templecombe station; “for the next six months or so those children will assail her in public with demands for an improper story!”

  10. There’s a fine line between writing to instruct and writing that organically reflects your values and maybe, for the religious, includes elements of what my parents sometimes call theological speculation (basically where they file most of C. S. Lewis’s fiction and the more esoteric parts of Tolkien).

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