At least until Virginia Woolf, the art of the essay was a predominantly male tradition with the essay seen as a form in which the learned man (often in middle or old age) addresses his readers as if conversing at a table during dinner among friends.
While the last hundred years have seen the rise of a long series of brilliant female essayists (for example, Zadie Smith, Susan Sontag, Adrienne Rich, as well as Woolf, Didion and Dillard, who have already been reviewed on this blog), between Montaigne in the 16th century and Woolf at the beginning of the 20th century, well-known and influential female essayist were rare.
Maria Edgeworth (1768—1849) is perhaps an exception, though, during her life, she was more well-known for her romantic Irish stories, Castle Rackrent, The Absentee, and Ormond, than for her essays. Overshadowed by her more illustrious contemporary, Jane Austen (1775-1817), Edgeworth is a writer who shows a similar neo-classical bent as well as great dexterity of wit, irony and satire. Her writing is often didactic, and she also wrote children’s books as well as pedagogic texts which may be considered innovative at the time as she emphasized independence of thought and the adoption of a variety of teaching methods beyond repetition.
If not the writers or essays, women were often the subject or the addressee in the 17th and 18th century, and when Edgeworth writes ‘An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification’ (1795), she seems to be intervening, irreverently and subversively, in a tradition of essay writing aimed at educating women. The conception of women that is created in this tradition is of dependent beings driven more by fashion and passion than sense and reason (see for example, Steele’s essay on love, in which men are given advice on how to woo women).
What is particularly impressive about Edgeworth’s ‘An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification’ is the way in which her writing operates at various levels. At a surface level, the essay addresses female readers and instructs them in how to ‘prosper in the practice of an art peculiar to your sex’, by which she means the idea of women justifying their own opinions in a variety of ways and using a range of tricks, none of which based on reason:
Right and wrong, if we go to the foundation of things, are, as casuists tell us, really words of very dubious signification, perpetually varying with custom and fashion, and to be adjusted ultimately by no other standards but opinion and force. Obtain power, then, by all means: power is the law of man; make it yours.
Edgeworth seems to tell women that there are a number of rhetorical strategies that women may use to gain the upper hand in discussions with their husbands, including: boring him to death through repetition; admitting that they do not seek reason but have the right to have an opinion; instilling doubt in their husbands even in the face of proof; denying all facts even if self-evident, and many more. For instance:
As a supplement to reasoning comes recrimination: the pleasure of proving that you are right is surely incomplete till you have proved that your adversary is wrong; this might have been a secondary, let it now become a primary object with you; rest your own defence on it for further security: you are no longer to consider yourself as obliged either to deny, palliate, argue, or declaim, but simply to justify yourself by criminating another: all merit, you know, is judged of by comparison. In the art of recrimination, your memory will be of the highest service to you; for you are to open and keep an account-current of all the faults, mistakes, neglects, unkindnesses of those you live with; these you are to state against your own: I need not tell you that the balance will always be in your favor. In stating matters on opinion, produce the words of the very same person which passed days, months, years before, in contradiction to what he is then saying. By displacing, disjointing words and sentences, by misunderstanding the whole, or quoting only a part of what has been said, you may convict any man of inconsistency, particularly if he be a man of genius and feeling; for he speaks generally from the impulse of the moment, and of all others can the least bear to be charged with paradoxes. So far for a husband.
At this level, Edgeworth may be read as reproducing some of the most common stereotypes about women and the differences from men in the way they talk and think. But this reading may be missing the subtlety of Edgeworth’s writing. For what she seems to be aiming at – as she uses the device of an ironic persona, very much in the style of Jonathan Swift, for example, in ‘A Modest Proposal’ – is that for women to engage in rational debate, they need to have the power to do so. In the context of marriages or other social situations in which women are not treated as equal, women have to resort to other strategies (which Edgeworth seems to be teaching), but the real aim should be equality of the sexes. Hear the sarcasm in the next few lines, for example:
Should a man with persevering temper tell you that he is ready to adopt your sentiments if you will only explain them; should he beg only to have a reason for your opinion – no, you can give no reason. Let him urge you to say something in its defence: – no; like Queen Anne, you will only repeat the same thing over again, or be silent. Silence is the ornament of your sex; and in silence, if there be not wisdom, there is safety. You will, then, if you please, according to your custom, sit listening to all entreaties to explain, and speak – with a fixed immutability of posture, and a pre-determined deafness of eye, which shall put your opponent utterly out of patience; yet still by persevering with the same complacent importance of countenance, you shall half persuade people you could speak if you would…
Feminism is a term that starts becoming relevant later in time, but there is more than a hint of proto-feminism in Edgeworth’s essay. What makes it even more powerful is how she adopts a peculiarly masculine style (a style of reason and wit) in order to subvert simple oppositions such as that men are rational while women are emotional. After all, the writer who seems to be telling women to use all those devious strategies of persuasion can write in a very sensible and rational way. And she is a woman.