Maria Edgeworth on Citizenship: Rousseau, Darwin, and Feminist Pessimism in Practical Education

Anne Chandler, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale
Vol. 35, No. 1 (Spring 2016), 93-122

This essay challenges prevailing assumptions about the particular stance toward gender equality that emerges in Maria Edgeworth’s Practical Education (1798), a matter of importance as the treatise is now being used to shed light on the political nuances of Edgeworth’s fiction. Despite countering Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile (1762) on logistical and feminist grounds with accounts of her family’s home-schooling methods, Practical Education is neither the simple rejoinder to Rousseau nor the simple affirmation of Edgeworth’s feminism that critical consensus suggests. Rather, it is a densely written set of exploratory essays in which Edgeworth tests a gender-neutral ideal of civic training against the conflicting imperatives of early and adolescent education. Her investigations reflect her understanding of Emile as a work of political philosophy in which Rousseau imagines the education of the ideal citizen; centrally she endorses Rousseau’s contention that communities are best served by members who have grown up with a robust sense of self-worth. She supplements Rousseau’s political theory with principles of cognitive and behavioral psychology set out by Erasmus Darwin in Zoonomia; or, the Laws of Organic Life (1794, 1796). Darwin likewise urges the importance of self-reliance to individual and social health. He additionally offers a gender-neutral model of learning that Edgeworth cites extensively in her descriptions of the enlightened classroom, where individuals’ aptitudes take precedence over gender and where girls and boys alike are encouraged to view themselves as contributors to civil society. Thus Edgeworth’s synthesis of Rousseau and Darwin sets the conditions for a complete overhaul of gendered epistemology and ethics. Edgeworth’s final chapters, however, implicitly cast doubt on the possibility of extending her most cherished pedagogic and civic ideals to the later education of adolescent girls. Therefore, an analysis of Edgeworth’s Rousseau-Darwin dialogue simultaneously raises the stature of Practical Education as a work of ideas and complicates its relevance to the thread of feminist satire running throughout her novels.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]