A very Promising Boy’



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A Very Promising Boy’
In 1808, in his mid-sixties, the Anglo-Irish inventor and educationalist Richard Lovell Edgeworth began to assemble memories of formative events from his early life, for an embryonic autobiography. One such episode was his introduction at the age of seven, in the workshop of a Dublin instrument-maker, to an orrery: a heliocentric device that illustrated the relative positions of the solar system’s planets and moons. Edgeworth later described how, ‘from the pleasure I received, and the impression made upon my mind that morning, I became irrecoverably a mechanic.’1 This inspirational moment set Edgeworth in hot pursuit of scientific originality, and his Memoirs list the myriad innovations to which he dedicated his twenties and early thirties: an enormous hamster wheel designed to transport humans at high speed across the ground; a sail affixed to a carriage, whose terrifying velocity spooked Edgeworth into abandoning the project; a wooden horse with eight legs to clamber over walls, in a premonition of modern caterpillar-tracks; an umbrella for keeping haystacks dry; and a machine for cutting turnips, like a large-scale food processor.

In his Memoirs, Edgeworth charts these and other successes with self-congratulatory assurance. But occasionally another note is audible beneath the bravado; a less confident, wavering tone, troubled by its own contradictions. Similarly, a 1785 portrait of Edgeworth shows a serious, penetrating stare resting incongruously among a collection of otherwise refined, playful features: delicately curved eyebrows, fashionably curled hair, and a small, sensuous mouth. His enduring mischievousness – an accomplished dancer, at the age of sixty he liked to show off his agility by bounding over the dining-room table – was counterpointed by a tendency to introspection. Thus suspectible to the Romantic preoccupation with subjectivity, Edgeworth decided to trace in his autobiography, alongside his scientific progress, the outlines of his inner life, his emotional development. He wanted to offer, like Wordsworth in The Prelude, an account of ‘the growth of my own mind’. His Memoirs situated the beginning of his own emotional journey in an episode that occurred when he was ‘a boy of between five and six years old’ and in a fury ‘had thrown a red-hot iron at his elder brother Thomas.’ His mother had calmly but firmly admonished him that ‘you have naturally a violent temper: if you grow up to be a man without learning to govern it, it will be impossible for you then to command yourself; and there is no knowing what crime you may in a fit of passion commit, and how miserable you may in consequence become.’ Startled by this prophecy, the young Edgeworth determined ‘from that moment...to govern my temper,’ and subsequently boasted that this resolution was ‘thenceforward uniformly kept.’2

A decade later, Edgeworth encountered another landmark in his ‘biography of the passions’. A family friend, Lord Longford, gave the charismatic fifteen-year-old five guineas to gamble in a card-game called Faro. Over the course of an evening, Edgeworth increased that stash to a small fortune, nearly a hundred guineas. The following night Lord Longford challenged the young man to risk his winnings on another game. Edgeworth readily agreed, and predictably lost ninety-nine of his hundred guineas. Longford offered to lend him more, but Edgeworth ‘declined this offer, rose from the table, and continued to look on during the rest of the evening.’ The next day Longford explained to Edgeworth that this challenge had enabled him to look into his inner character: ‘“I observed,” said he, “that you were never too eager, or too indifferent; that you were not elated when you won, and that you kept your temper when a rapid run of ill-luck reduced you to poverty; I therefore congratulate you upon your being in all probability exempt from the vice of gaming.”’ Edgeworth himself reflected a half-century later that, whether Longford’s prophecy was self-fulfilling or genuinely insightful, ‘it is certain, that in my subsequent life I never felt an inclination for cards, dice, or lotteries.’3

But Edgeworth’s self-assured statements of his lasting emotional continence and resistance to gambling inadequately gloss over moments of genuine passionate upheaval and reckless speculation in his life. Within just six or seven years of Longford’s prophecy one of his most enduring projects was born during a bet. He wagered the enormous sum of £500 on a seemingly fantastical claim that he would receive news of the winner of a race at Newmarket long before any bookmakers in London. Edgeworth thus set about devising a system of telegraphic communication that would relay this information four hours faster than the swiftest messenger on horseback. Winning the bet, Edgeworth chivalrously refused to accept the prize money; but the episode ignited his conviction of the military and civil utility of telegraphs, an idea that would absorb his attention for the next fifty years. And the episode also intimated that, despite his protestations to the contrary, the potent adrenaline hit of gambling, the exhileration of projecting faith into an unknown future, continued to hold heady attractions. Indeed, within just a decade of Longford’s confident claim that he would never be susceptible to the ‘vice of gaming’, Edgeworth threw himself into the gamble of his life, with the ultimate stake: his own son’s ‘body and mind’.


Richard Lovell Edgeworth’s first marriage was a sham. At a ball, when he was fifteen years old, a friend, dressed in a white cloak, aping a priest, ‘married’ Edgeworth to his dancing-partner. Concerned about the imprecise nature of mid-eighteenth-century marital laws, his father failed to see the joke and hauled the pair before an ecclesiastical court ‘to annul these imaginary nuptials.’ ‘It was before I was sixteen, that I was thus married and divorced,’ Edgeworth summarised in his Memoirs, with amusement. But his next marriage (there would be five in total) was a more serious affair. While an undergraduate at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, he flirted with the daughter of a nearby family friend, sincerely enough for both lovers to assume a commitment had been made. But a vacation spent soon afterwards in Bath temporarily detached Edgeworth from his putative fiancée, introduced him to ‘several agreeable young ladies’ and provided an instructive immersion in ‘female manners and character.’ His prior engagement prevented him from taking advantage of this seductive education, however: ‘I had paid my court to her, and I felt myself insensibly entangled so completely, that I could not find any honorable means of extrication.’ As he had not yet come of age, Edgeworth and Anna Maria Elers had an initial clandestine marriage in Scotland, and were later legitimately married in England with his father’s grudging consent. Within a year the couple had moved to the family estate at Edgeworthstown in County Longford in Ireland, where his ailing mother gave Edgeworth some perceptive advice. ‘My son, learn how to say NO,’ she cautioned. ‘Your inventive faculty...will lead you eagerly into new plans; and you may be dazzled by some new scheme, before you have finished, or fairly tried what you had begun. – Resolve to finish, never procrastinate.’ She died later that same afternoon.

On 29 May 1764, Richard and Anna’s first son, Richard, or ‘Dick’, as he was affectionately known, was born, two days before Edgeworth’s twentieth birthday. In the autumn of the following year, the young family moved back to England, staying first with Anna’s relations in Oxfordshire, then moving to Hare Hatch in Berkshire, where Edgeworth waited to be called to the Bar in London. It was during this period, spent idling at home with a young infant, that he ‘formed a strong desire,’ in his words, ‘to educate my son according to the system of Rousseau.’ He explained that Rousseau’s ‘Emile had made a great impression upon my young mind...His work had then all the power of novelty, as well as all the charms of eloquence; and when I compared the many plausible ideas it contains, with the obvious deficiencies and absurdities, that I saw in the treatment of children in almost every family with which I was acquainted, I determined to make a fair trial of Rousseau’s system. My wife complied with my wishes, and the body and mind of my son were to be left as much as possible to the education of nature and of accident.’

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile; ou, de l’éducation had been published in France in 1762, two years prior to Dick’s birth. Thanks to a controversial section on natural religion in the fourth book, it was promptly banned, and Rousseau himself fled France for Britain three years later. The first English translation appeared in the same year as its initial French publication, and over the following three decades the book’s influence in Europe and America was so profound that Immanuel Kant likened it to the French Revolution. Indeed, some thinkers directly attributed that event to ‘the opinions of Rousseau,’ who was proclaimed by certain members of the National Assembly to be ‘le premier fondateur de la constitution française.’4 Edmund Burke described the Assembly’s delegates’ efforts to ‘resemble’ Rousseau in vivid terms: ‘His blood they transfuse into their minds and into their manners. Him they study; him they meditate; him they turn over in all the time they can spare from the laborious mischief of the day, or the debauches of the night. Rousseau is their canon of holy writ;...he is their standard figure of perfection.’5 And Emile was enthusiastically read in Britain as well as France, right from the first moment of its publication. By the end of the 1790s, Edgeworth described the book as being ‘in every body’s hands.’ ‘Rousseau is in full possession of public attention,’ he observed gleefully.6

Emile is ostensibly a treatise on education. It uses the word in its widest sense, indicating the cultivation of all human faculties – not just reading and writing – and it ultimately voices a belief in the ‘perfectibility’ of man or, more specifically, of the child. Rousseau conjures up a fictional male pupil, Emile, over whose development he acts as sole preceptor from birth to adulthood. Rousseau considers education to comprise five stages: the period from birth to toddling; from infancy to pre-adolescence (around twelve years old); the short phase during which children first become capable of reason (between twelve and thirteen years, according to Rousseau); adolescence, when the teenager awakens emotionally; and young adulthood, during which weighty decisions are made concerning his future career, home and, most importantly, marriage. The tutor, whose natural incarnation is in the father, must devote himself solely to the child’s development through all five stages until Emile himself becomes a parent and the responsibility of education is transferred to a new generation. Rousseau rests the success of his scheme on the closeness of this relationship between ‘preceptor’ and child, ‘even want[ing] the pupil and the governor to regard themselves as so inseparable that the lot of each in life is always a common object for them.’7

Like Rousseau’s political tract The Social Contract, which was published in the same year, Emile professes faith in the innate goodness of ‘natural’ – solitary, primitive – man, and the corresponding corruption of collective civil societies. Both books begin with resounding epithets. ‘Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man,’ Emile proclaims, a sentiment which is echoed in The Social Contract’s initial declaration that ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.’8 Emile’s advice seeks to preserve the independence, strength, and adaptability of ‘natural man’ throughout childhood, and to ingrain these modes of behaviour deeply enough to withstand the young adult’s inevitable immersion into corrupt society. Rousseau emphasises that the ‘first of all goods’ is freedom, and urges that the tutor’s initial object must be to render the infant strong and independent. Physical exercise is therefore the sole focus of the child’s early education. Babies must not be swaddled, but dressed in ‘loose and large diapers which leave all [their] limbs free,’ and breastfed by their mothers, instead of wet-nurses.9 Emile grows strong by eschewing hats; becoming hardened to the cold; sleeping in uncomfortable beds; feeling at home in ‘all the elements,’ water and air as well as land; refining his visual faculty to a surveyor’s level of precision, and his sense of touch to the sensitivity of a blind man; and cultivating a ‘natural’ appetite for bland, simple flavours. He is allowed to sleep for long periods to recover from his exertions and, with no rules imposed by his tutor on the amount he can eat, he learns to regulate his gluttony. But Emile is not allowed to become complacent in his increasing physical abilities. Rousseau constantly reminds him of his relative weakness, encouraging him to atune his needs and desires to the level of his capabilities. Whenever the child’s ambitions exceed his ability to fulfill them himself, he becomes dependent on other people and therefore, in Rousseau’s mind, weak. ‘Whoever does what he wants is happy if he is self-sufficient; this is the case of the man living in the state of nature,’ Book Two of Emile states. ‘Whoever does what he wants is not happy if his needs surpass his strength; this is...only an imperfect freedom, similar to that enjoyed by men in the civil state.’10

Up to the age of twelve, Rousseau is adamant that children are incapable of reasoning beyond what relates ‘to their immediate and palpable interest.’ Emile’s education until this point consists of exposure to a plethora of ‘sounds, figures’ and physical ‘sensations’, so as ‘to form in him a storehouse of knowledge which serves his education during his youth.’11 But at this stage, the implications of that knowledge remain out of reach. Images are almost the sole focus of Emile’s attention during his first twelve years. Regarding ideas, his education is ‘purely negative’ and his tutor shields him from intellectual and moral notions that may be vulnerable to confusion in Emile’s ‘childish’ mind. It is better to know nothing at all, than to acquire wrong impressions: even in adulthood, Rousseau feels that ‘the more men know, the more they are deceived.’12 By the end of this phase of development, Rousseau hopes that Emile’s ‘ideas are limited but distinct. If he knows nothing by heart, he knows much by experience. If he reads less well in our books than does another child, he reads better in the book of nature.’13

The subsequent short period of early or pre-adolescence, between the ages of twelve and thirteen, is dominated by the child’s emergent curiosity and an ‘ardor to know.’ Emile’s infancy was spent engaged in exhausting physical exercise, and these pre-adolescent years are given over to similarly stringent mental training. But Rousseau stipulates that the tutor should not indiscriminately direct Emile’s attention towards any objects of potential curiosity, but instead only to what is ‘useful to know.’ ‘What is that good for?’ the child and tutor must continually ask of themselves and each other. And rather than committing facts to memory, Emile’s principal task is to cultivate his innate ability to learn: ‘the goal is less to teach him a truth than to show him how he must always go about discovering the truth.’ The tutor must resist the temptation to provide Emile with facts, instead offering the child the means to divine answers for himself. It is this emphasis on the practical aspects of education that will ultimately prepare Emile for a career in those ‘art[s] whose use is the most general and the most indispensable.’ ‘Of all the occupations which can provide subsistence to man, that which brings him closest to the state of nature is manual labour’, Rousseau proclaims, recommending a career in agriculture for Emile, closely followed in preference by ironworking and woodworking.14 By the end of this third stage of development, Emile, in his early teens, has ‘become aware of himself as an individual...After having begun by exercising his body and his senses, we have exercised his mind and his judgment. Finally, we have joined the use of his limbs to that of his faculties. We have made an active and thinking being. It remains for us, in order to complete the man, only to make a loving and feeling being – that is to say, to perfect reason by sentiment.’ 15

The construction of a ‘loving and feeling being’ is the most precarious and tumultuous period of the child’s education. It constitutes a ‘stormy revolution’ in Emile’s life, a second birth through which he becomes acutely, and sometimes painfully, aware of his emotional relations with others (a description of teenagehood familiar to most). ‘It is now that man is truly born to life and now that nothing human is foreign to him,’ Rousseau writes. ‘Up to now our care has only been a child’s game. It takes on true importance only at present.’16 The principal passion to be awakened in the teenager is self-love, amour de soi, which for Rousseau ‘is always good and always in conformity with order,’ as it derives from the instinct of self-preservation. However, a different form of self-love called amour de propre also emerges at this time. Amour de soi is founded on Emile’s inherent sense of his own value, but amour de propre rests on ‘the judgments of others.’ It is the basis for bonds between Emile and his fellow citizens, and the development of his moral self. But Emile’s tutor must teach the teenager to control the value he accords to amour de propre, in order to preserve his emotional and moral independence and freedom. Ultimately the ability to manage his passions and ‘inclinations without limits’ will enable Emile’s entry into adulthood and marriage. His discovery of an inner ‘law which regulates’ the emotions allows him to ‘be free and in command of himself,’ and to resist becoming ‘the slave of [his own] desires.’17 By this concluding stage in Emile’s development, Rousseau congratulates himself on having created a man who is ‘well formed, well constituted in mind and body, strong, healthy, fit, skillful, robust, full of sense, reason, goodness, and humanity, a man with morals and taste, loving the beautiful, doing the good, free from the empire of cruel passions, exempt from the yoke of opinion, but subject to the law of wisdom and submissive to the voice of friendship, possessing all the useful talents and some of the agreeable ones, caring little for riches, with his means of support in his arms and not afraid of lacking bread whatever happens.’ Equally importantly, the adult Emile is now ‘master of his own person and his caresses.’ He is emotionally, physically and intellectually capable of beginning the tuition of his own son, at which point his tutor is finally able to ‘take [his] rest.’18

The extent to which Rousseau intended Emile to be a practical manual is questionable. He described it as ‘a new system of education the plan of which I present for the study of the wise and not a method for fathers and mothers,’ and reassured a correspondent that ‘you are right that it is impossible to make an Emile. But I cannot think that you could possibly interpret the eponymous book as a real educational treatise. It is a semi-philosophical work on the principle that is proposed by the author in writings elsewhere, that man is naturally good.’19 Rousseau certainly did not follow the precepts laid out in Emile himself. His first five children, born to Thérèse LeVasseur in the 1740s and 50s, were swiftly ‘placed in the Foundling’s Hospital, and with so little thought of the possibility of their identification that,’ in Rousseau’s words, he ‘did not even keep a record of their dates of birth.’20 But despite the philosopher’s emphatic statement in private that ‘it is impossible to make an Emile,’ some of his more optimistic readers nevertheless determined to follow his educational advice in practice, in the hope of bringing a child to a state of natural perfection. Of these disciples, Richard Lovell Edgeworth’s gamble with his son Dick’s ‘body and mind’ is one of the most poignant.


Two years before Edgeworth’s death in 1817, he formed a pyre from thousands of letters, notebooks, and journals, hoping to limit and control the nature of any posthumous reflections on his life. Among these papers were his records of Dick’s education. So all that we now possess, from which to trace the nature of that child’s upbringing, are Edgeworth’s own Memoirs and a few letters retained by his less censorious correspondents. Edgeworth himself had been brought up by a parent in thrall to the educational principles of John Locke, whose Some Thoughts Concerning Education became the most important pedagogical text in Britain for around a century after its initial publication in 1693. Unlike Rousseau, Locke stressed that children possessed a capacity of rational thinking that should be cultivated into a ‘habit’ by their parents, to help instill virtue. Edgeworth remembered that his mother, ‘even while I was but a child of eight years old, was in the habit of treating me like a reasonable being. She began to point out to me the good or bad qualities of the persons whom we accidentally saw, or with whom we were connected.’ But despite his proud boast that ‘to the influence of her instructions and authority I owe the happiness of my life,’ Edgeworth adopted a very different educational system for his own son.21 ‘I see nothing more stupid than these children who have been reasoned with so much,’ Rousseau wrote contemptuously. ‘Use force with children, and reason with men. Such is the natural order.’22

Rousseau’s preference for physical force over reason in the treatment of children was paralleled by his emphasis on the importance of exercise and his distaste for impractical, restrictive fripperies in clothing. Accordingly Edgeworth dressed Dick ‘without stockings, with his arms bare, in a jacket and trowsers...which were at that time novel and extraordinary’. Thus exposed to all the variations of the British and Irish seasons, Dick’s father ‘succeeded in making him remarkably hardy.’ Rousseau detested some parents’ tendency to mollycoddle their children and aspired that ‘my pupil will often have bruises’: a rough-and-tumble upbringing duly ‘succeeded in making [Dick] fearless of danger, and, what is more difficult, capable of bearing privation of every sort.’23 To stimulate the pre-adolescent’s abilities in deduction, Rousseau recommended that the tutor should not be afraid of confessing his own ignorance. ‘“I don’t know” is a phrase which goes over so well with both of us and which we repeat so often that it no longer costs either of us a thing,’ Rousseau wrote of his relationship with the imaginary Emile. Edgeworth also maintained that ‘children should not be discouraged’ from proffering ‘puzzling questions and observations,’ but ‘on the contrary, according to the advice of Rousseau, parents should fairly and truly confess their ignorace.’24

By pre-adolescence, in many respects Dick appeared to have realised his father’s, and Rousseau’s, hopes. ‘He had all the virtues of a child bred in the hut of a savage,’ Edgeworth proclaimed proudly. Although ‘of books he had less knowledge at four or five years old, than most children have at that age’ – an ignorance of which Rousseau emphatically approved – ‘of mechanics he had a clearer conception, and...more invention, than any child I had then seen.’ At the age of thirteen, Dick even won a medal marking his ‘early mechanic genius’: despite their radically different upbringings, he appeared to be following in his father’s footsteps. Moreover, his proud parent boasted that ‘he was bold, free, fearless, generous; he had a ready and keen use of all his senses, and of his judgment...He was, by all who saw him, whether of the higher or lower classes, taken notice of; and by all considered as very clever.’ All this had been achieved in the face of widespread ridicule and opposition to Edgeworth’s utopian scheme, some even deriving from ‘friends and relations.’25

But there was one friend whose response to his pedagogical undertaking was far from contemptuous. Edgeworth was enthusiastically encouraged in his endeavour by his great friend, Thomas Day, a dishevelled wealthy eccentric who he had first met during a university vacation; a moment Edgeworth subsequently referred to as the beginning of a ‘new era in my life.’26 A man who had repeatedly come up against, in his own words, ‘reiterated disappointments in love’ – a circumstance not ameliorated by his pockmarked skin, heavily lidded eyes, dumpy physique, and penchant for washing his ‘raven locks’ in the stream – Day had become ‘suspicious of the female sex, and averse to risking his happiness for their charms or their society.’ The two men were equally enchanted by Rousseau’s Emile, and Day declared rapturously that ‘were all the books in the world to be destroyed,...the second book I should wish to save, after the Bible, would be Rousseau’s Emilius. It is indeed a most extraordinary work,’ he exclaimed. ‘Rousseau alone, with a perspicuity more than mortal, has been able at once to look through the human heart, and discover the secret sources and combinations of the passions. Every page is big with important truth.’27



Prompted by Edgeworth’s apparent success with Dick, and his own failure to find a wife who would meet his high Rousseauvian standards and accept his amorous advances, Day decided to begin his own Pygmalion scheme. In the winter of 1769, he and his dissolute, unmarried friend John Bicknell paid a visit to the Foundling Hospital in Shrewsbury. There Day selected a auburn-haired twelve-year-old girl ‘of remarkably promising appearance,’ and took her home, naming her Sabrina Sidney after the republican politician Algernon Sidney. A few days later, Day went to a second Foundling Hospital, on Brunswick Square in London, where he identified another hopeful ward, an eleven-year-old he called Lucretia. He intended to bring up both girls strictly in accordance with Rousseau’s principles of female education, as laid out in the final book of Emile. This stipulated that ‘women ought not to be robust like men, but they should be robust for men, so that the men born from them will be robust too,’ and accordingly recommended that young girls should eschew constrictive clothing such as corsets, and all the trappings of fashion. But Rousseau replaced sartorial constraint with significant behavioural restrictions. He recommended that women should be educated in gentleness and docility (‘she ought to learn...to bear a husband’s wrongs without complaining’), wit, beauty, decorative arts, and ‘to cultivate pleasing talents that will entertain her future husband with as much care as a young Albanian cultivates them for the harem of Ispahan.’ Whereas men should be brought up to despise amour propre, Rousseau felt that women’s entire worth depended upon the opinions of others: they ‘never cease to be subjected either to a man or to the judgments of men and they are never permitted to put themselves above these judgments.’ For this reason, Rousseau and Day were adamant that ‘dependence is a condition natural to women, and thus girls feel themselves made to obey.’28 The orphan who responded most pleasingly to this manner of education, Day intended to marry.
Before long, both men’s Rousseauvian utopias began to crumble. In the spring of 1770, Day decided to take his two embryo wives to Avignon, where he hoped they would enjoy a respite from the suggestive remarks that he found were frequently levelled at a single man in sole charge of two teenage girls in Britain. In Avignon, he wrote to Edgeworth, offering a few words of advice about his increasingly worrisome son. ‘Never trouble yourself about Dick’s reading and writing,’ he commented breezily. ‘He will learn it, sooner or later, if you let him alone.’ About his own pupils, Day initially expressed nothing but delight; the romantic disenchantments of the past seemed forgotten. ‘I am not disappointed in any one respect,’ he enthused. ‘I am more attached to, and more convinced of the truths of my principles than ever...I have made them, in respect to temper, two such girls, as, I may perhaps say without vanity, you have never seen at the same age. They..are always contented, and think nothing so agreeable as waiting upon me (a moderate convenience for a lazy man).’ Sabrina and Lucretia appeared to assent readily to Rousseau’s maxim that ‘woman is made specially to please man.’29 But Day’s Victorian biographer tells a very different story. He describes how, despite all Day’s ‘prudence and forethought, his scheme failed...These children teased and perplexed him continually, they frequently quarrelled, and at length fell ill with the smallpox...They kept him to their bedside, and would not be left for the space of ten minutes without screaming and making the house ring with their noises.’ Certainly something went wrong in Avignon. On the trio’s return to Britain in spring 1770, Day summarily dismissed Lucretia, ‘finding her invincibly stupid, or at the best not disposed to follow his regimen.’30 He apprenticed her to a Ludgate milliner, and provided her with a dowry of £300 that paved the way for a marriage to a London linen-draper.31 She never heard from Day again.

A year or so later, when Dick was eight years old, Edgeworth and Day decided to pay a trip together to France. Against Rousseau’s advice that ‘up to the age of twelve or fifteen [no] child, prodigies apart, has ever truly learned two languages,’ Edgeworth nevertheless ‘hoped to teach the child to speak French with a proper accent, and without his being obliged to learn it as a dead language.’ When passing through Paris, he decided to take Dick to meet Rousseau himself: the little statue would finally come face-to-face with his Pygmalion (a myth that, tellingly, the philosopher dramatised in the same year as the publication of Emile). Rousseau took the young boy for a two-hour walk, and on their return he reported back to Edgeworth that ‘he thought him a boy of abilities, which had been well cultivated...“But,” said Rousseau, “I remark in your son a propensity to party prejudice, which will be a great blemish in his character.”’ Edgeworth described how Rousseau ‘told me that, whenever my son saw a handsome horse, or a handsome carriage in the street, he always exclaimed, “That is an English horse, or an English carriage!” And that, even down to a pair of shoe-buckles, every thing that appeared to be good of its kind was always pronounced by him to be English.’32

Dick’s patriotism was the least of his and his father’s problems. Rousseau was not fond of notions of obedience and duty, and Emile advocated the principle that ‘your child ought to...do a thing not out of duty but only out of necessity. Thus the words obey and command will be proscribed from his lexicon, and even more so duty and obligation.’ Edgeworth had to admit that Dick certainly ‘was not disposed to obey: his exertions generally arose from his own will...he had too little deference for others, and he shewed an invincible dislike to control.’ Dick’s apparent wilfulness and excessive amour de soi may have proceeded, not just from his preceptor’s distaste for ideas of duty, but also from the chaotic and unpredictable nature of his upbringing. Rousseau was implacably opposed to what he conceived to be the stultifying effects of custom and urged that ‘the only habit that a child should be allowed is to contract none.’33 Dick evidently grew up without any sense of clear boundaries or routine dictating his own behaviour or his father’s. (On a visit to Ireland in 1768, Edgeworth and Day decided, for fun, to adopt the respective roles of affected servant and misanthropic master in front of any strangers. Dick, who was then four, was assigned the part of Day’s ‘son, who was to be a most extraordinary child’. Drunk on hilarity at their own joke, the pair were sprung when they coincidentally met a mutual friend on their travels, the doctor and natural philosopher Erasmus Darwin, who was bemused and unimpressed at the two men’s immature antics. The episode may have reinforced Dick’s early impressions of his father’s changeable, irreverent nature; Edgeworth’s childishness must have rendered him a confusing role model for his young son.) Perhaps even more distressingly, Rousseau’s manual shows little concern for the child’s emotional wellbeing before the onset of adolescence. We can imagine that Dick, evidently curious and intelligent, experienced frustration at the lack of intellectual hurdles placed before him; disorientation at the wildly fluctuating schedules of his days; and bafflement at his father’s changeable persona and temperament. Any natural expressions of stress and upset were likely to have been met with bemusement and irritation by the unwaveringly cheerful Edgeworth, of whose undemonstrative nature his daughter commented exasperatedly ‘my Father will never [express] Love.34 Moreover, Edgeworth negated to fulfill perhaps the most important stipulation of Rousseau’s scheme: that the preceptor must dedicate himself exclusively and unswervingly to his child’s education. Gradually Dick’s troubled reaction to these disruptive aspects of his upbringing was increasingly expressed in a combination of lonely resentment and a desperate, unfulfilled desire to please his father that endured until his death.

By the time that Dick reached adolescence, his father had given up on him. Edgeworth was by then referring to ‘the mistaken principles of Rousseau’ and Thomas Day to ‘the warnings he early gave a fond father about his son.’ Edgeworth even apportioned some of the blame for his son’s ‘corruption’ to his friend’s ‘having given Dick a taste for fun.’35 The boy appeared to be incorrigibly unruly, perhaps demonstrating the antagonism towards his father that Rousseau – as many since have done – identified as characteristic of early teenagehood. Edgeworth was ‘persuaded by [his] friends’ to send Dick away to a boarding school when he was around twelve years old, but he later admitted that, ‘unfortunately for my eldest son,’ he had not ‘sufficiently prepared him for the change [from] the Rousseau system.’ Dick found it difficult to adjust to the rigid routines of his new institutionalised life after the extreme liberalism of his early upbringing, and ‘his application was not regular, nor was his mind turned to scholarship.’ His childish disobedience steadily metamorphosed into a violent temper that one day erupted fatally: he killed a friend in a duel. In the aftermath, Edgeworth expressed ‘a wish that Dick should not stay in Ireland’ and his son duly ‘acquired a vague notion of the happiness of a seafaring life’ and ‘went to sea’. After cutting him out of his Will, Edgeworth wrote thankfully to his sister that ‘my mind is now relieved from a very heavy care, by Dick[’]s going to sea after behaving as ill as usual.’ He consoled himself with the thought that ‘his hardihood and fearlessness of danger appeared to fit him for a sailor’s life.’36



Thomas Day’s disillusionment with his romantic manifestation of Rousseau’s scheme took longer to materialise. After a few hiccups, during which Day briefly switched his amorous allegiances to other women (including Edgeworth’s sister and sister-in-law), by 1774 he was expressing full commitment to Sabrina. The seventeen-year old’s resiliance was tested by having pistols fired at her petticoats and hot sealing-wax dropped on her skin, but her devotion to Day did not waver. ‘He certainly was never more loved by any woman,’ Edgeworth reflected retrospectively, and ‘I was persuaded, that he would marry her immediately.’ However, one final test brought about a terrible disappointment. Day ‘had left Sabrina at the house of a friend under strict injunctions as to some peculiar fancies of his own; in particular, some restrictions as to het dress. She neglected, forgot, or undervalued some thing...She did, or she did not, wear certain long sleeves, and some handkerchief, which had been the subject of his dislike, or of his liking; and he, considering this circumstance as a criterion of her attachment, and as a proof of her want of strength of mind, quitted her for ever!’ The bewildered girl was sent packing, to live alone with ‘a lady in the country’. Many years later, Day’s dissolute and ailing friend John Bicknell, with whom he had first selected Sabrina from the Foundling Hospital, began to consider ‘that it would be a comfort to secure a companion for middle life, and a friend, perhaps a nurse, for his declining years.’ He remembered Sabrina, located her promptly, and proposed. With Edgeworth’s ready approval, and Day’s sulky consent, the pair were married. But within three years, Bicknell’s health failed and he died, and ‘poor Sabrina, after this short period of felicity, was left unprovided for, with two infant sons.’37
Edgeworth and Day dealt with their respective disappointments in insouciant fashion. Bearing out his mother’s warning that ‘your inventive faculty...will lead you eagerly into new plans; and you may be dazzled by some new scheme, before you have finished, or fairly tried what you had begun,’ Edgeworth cheerfully and swiftly turned his attention from education to clock manufacture. It is striking that, in the wake of the failure of his momentous gamble, Edgeworth resorted to playing with timekeepers: a hobby in which the passing of time, the nature of the future, is certain and measured. Immediately after his Rousseauvian disillusionment, he appeared not to give his failed protegé a second thought: on one of Dick’s brief visits home from his seafaring life, Edgeworth wrote to Day that ‘I never felt the partiality you speak of towards my son,’ and Day even accused his friend of ‘choos[ing not] to have [Dick] to his own house.’ (Day too was reluctant to host the teenager, protesting that ‘I may have company to whom I may not choose to introduce him until the taint of his past conduct yet is mask’d.’38)

In the aftermath of his disappointment with Sabrina, Day too moved on quickly. His notice was directed by his friend William Small to a promising heiress from Chesterfield, a Miss Esther Milnes. At first, Day applied his strict Rousseauvian criteria to the prospect. ‘But has she white and large arms?’ he questioned Small. ‘She has,’ he replied.


‘Does she wear long petticoats?’

‘Uncommonly long.’

‘I hope she is tall, and strong, and healthy.’

‘Remarkably little, and not robust. – My good friend,’ added Dr. Small, speaking in his leisurely manner. ‘Can you possibly expect, that a woman of charming temper, benevolent mind, and cultivated understanding, with a distinguished character, with views of life congenial with your own, with an agreeable person and a large fortune, should be formed exactly according to a picture that exists in your imagination?’

...

‘My dear Doctor,’ replied Mr. Day, ‘the only serious objection, which I have to Miss Milnes, is her large fortune. It was always my wish, to give to any woman whom I married the most unequivocal proof of my attachment to her, by despising her fortune.’



‘Well, my friend,’ said the Doctor, ‘what prevents you from despising the fortune, and taking the lady?’
Persuaded by Small’s logic, Thomas Day and Esther Milnes were married at Bath on 7 August 1778. Edgeworth commented that ‘I never saw any woman so entirely intent upon accommodating herself to the sentiments, and wishes, and will of a husband.’ Day had found his Rousseauvian Eliza Doolittle. But his happiness did not last long. Within eleven years he was dead, thrown from his horse, on which, inspired by a romantic compassion for wild animals, he had refused to impose a formal breaking-in. A few months later, his distraught widow wrote to Edgeworth that ‘I seemed born to love and admire [Thomas Day]; ...all the real felicity I ever enjoyed, was owing to that connection, & I am willing to believe that your friend was, in spite of all my weaknesses, indebted to it for the happiest portion of his life.’39 She died only three years after his death.
In the light-flooded dome of the National Library of Ireland’s Reading Room, sat at a Victorian leather-topped desk, I was startled to turn over one of thousands of Edgeworth’s letters, all scrawled in his usual hurried, peremptory script, to find a neat letter from his adult eldest son. Amid all Edgeworth’s descriptions of his initial hopeful pedagogical ambitions for Dick, his agonisingly slow realisation of the project’s impending failure, his swift renunciation of the Rousseauvian creed and his retrospective denunciation of his son’s character, there is something heart-rending about finally hearing Dick’s own voice piping up above the din.

In November 1791, aged twenty-seven, after at least half a decade’s separation from his father, he attempted a reconciliation. At the top of a letter to his sister, Edgeworth scribbled a hasty, excited note that ‘I have this moment heard from...S[outh] Carolina – Dick is alive, married, & has made me a Grandfather! & will probably be here or with you soon.’ Dick had arrived in Virginia in the late 1780s; by the end of the decade he had managed to purchase land in Cheraw District, South Carolina and Anson County, North Carolina. The latter he subsequently renamed Sneydsborough, after his step-mother Honora Sneyd. He obtained work as a tutor in the household of the Huguenot colonist Claudius Pegues, and married a Methodist called Elizabeth Knight, with whom he had three boys, Nathaniel Lovell, Achilles Sneyd and Richard. Edgeworth evidently wrote back encouragingly to his son on receiving this news, as Dick replied on 28 February 1792 that ‘the more I think of your letter, your kindness, and your desire of establishing me in this country the stronger is my desire to see you....I find my affections are too strong and that I shall never be happy till I see you,’ he continued. ‘I again promise you that I never will ask or think of living in Europe...but I hope my being there a short time would not be disagreeable to you.’ Edgeworth responded to his ‘dear son’ that his letter ‘gave me inexpressible pleasure – I now not only give you my permission but I earnestly request that you will come to see me as soon as possible.’ He signed off ‘your affectionate father.’40

Dick immediately set off for Britain upon receiving Edgeworth’s letter, and spent the early summer with his family. The reunion with the prodigal son was a joyful success, and when Dick came to leave in August 1792, his sister Maria wrote that ‘we could not part with him without great pain and regret for he made us all extremely fond of him.’ Edgeworth’s early hopes for Dick’s ‘perfectibility’ resurfaced in the form of enthusiastic optimism about his colonial prospects. He gave his son £1000 ‘with which Rich[ar]d says He shall do better than any Body in the part of America where he is settled,’ and Maria commented proudly that ‘My Father seems to have no doubt of his success.’ Between themselves, the family speculated excitedly whether Dick would use the money to clear ‘land for a plantation either of rice or indian corn or for planting peach orchards for peach brandy’ or ‘to farm cattle’: he seemed destined for Rousseau’s preferred career of manual labour. Dick promised to visit again in four years time, and – without a hint of irony – he announced his intention to ‘send over to [his father], who has promised to educate him his eldest son Lovell, who is between three & four years old & as he says a very sprightly fine child.’41

Within six months, Dick appeared to be realising his family’s hopes. He wrote that he had used his father’s money to purchase cattle, and ‘his farm is going on bonnily...and that his Lady improves & pleases him.’ ‘I wish we had a telescope that could reach to the Backwoods of America,’ Maria wrote wistfully, ‘but then if that wish were accomplished I should wish still more for a speaking trumpet; for to see without speaking would be worse than not seeing at all.’ In autumn 1795, Dick made the long voyage to the British Isles again, where he threw himself into his father’s enduring endeavour to construct an Irish telegraph network. ‘Richard has been in perpetual Tellegraphic action ever since [his arrival],’ Maria wrote, ‘& in all his actions he has been so happy as to please my father Mother & every Individual in the family beyond even my sanguine expectations – but what is of rather more consequence my father thinks him much improved since he was last in England.’ After briefly visiting his brother-in-law, Dr Thomas Beddoes of Clifton, in Bristol, for treatment for a lingering illness, in spring 1796 Dick set sail again for America.

In June, Edgeworth received a distraught message from his eldest son. A badly water-damaged, mouldly letter in the Edgeworth archive describes how Dick had returned to America to find that, in his absence, his crops had been destroyed by a flood, his workers drowned, and his horses killed by an epidemic. After begging a basic annuity of £50 from his father, Dick promised to turn his attention to law in the wake of his failed colonial dreams. But within two months, he was dead. In August 1796 his friend, John Hardwick, wrote from North Carolina to Edgeworth in Ireland, informing him that Dick had ‘never got over the complaint he had at Bristol. I believe the remains of that disorder fell on his lungs and was the occasion of his death...he appeared to grow weaker every day but seldom complained except now & then, of a pain in his breast, & a choaking in his throat, which prevented him from breathing at times.’ Edgeworth replied to renage on the plan of educating one of Dick’s sons in Ireland, expressing his opinion that the children would be better off educated in America. He concluded stoically that Dick’s ‘way of life was become such as promised no happiness to himself or his family – it is therefore better for both, that he has retired from the scene – [he was] a very promising boy!’

Twenty-one years later, in the wake of Edgeworth’s death in 1817 at the age of seventy-four, his eldest daughter, the novelist Maria Edgeworth, was charged with completing her father’s Memoirs. Wanting to include the history of his and Day’s Rousseauvian adventures, she tracked down Sabrina Sidney to seek her permission. After her guardian’s death, Sabrina, who was then a thirty-two year old widow, had ‘put herself into deep mourning’ for Day, and her heartfelt expressions of grief had prompted his widow to ‘reflect that the circumstances which deprived Miss Sidney of Mr Day’s confidence, were the means of all my happiness, [and] she appears to me doubly entitled to my pity & assistance.’ Esther announced her ‘firm intention to do something for Mrs John Bicknell’ and gave ‘her an annuity, not less than thirty, or more than fifty p[oun]ds a year.’42 Almost thirty years later, when Maria located Sabrina in late 1818, she was sixty-one, in ill health, and working as a housekeeper to the Greek scholar Charles Burney, brother of the novelist Frances Burney. After having perused the manuscript of Edgeworth’s Memoirs, Sabrina replied politely but firmly to Maria that ‘you must pardon me when I confess that I do wish the life of my very dear & excellent friend your father could have been compleat without introducing the events of my childhood & adventurous history.’ She begged Maria to omit ‘to mention the circumstance of my having been taken from the Foundling Hospital & I will also thank you to say as little as possible respecting Mr. Day’s having given me the name of Sabrina Sydney. These romantick fancies do well enough in youth,’ she reflected, ‘but in age they are repugnant & distressing to ones feelings.’43 But despite Sabrina’s ardent entreaty, the stories of her and Dick’s upbringings were nevertheless narrated thoroughly and enthusiastically in the published edition of Edgeworth’s Memoirs. The two children may have temporarily disappointed Edgeworth and Day, but the effects of the disappointments they in turn suffered at the hands of their guardians were dreadful and long-lasting.




1 Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Maria Edgeworth, Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth: Begun by himself and concluded by his daughter Maria Edgeworth (Shannon, 1969), I, 44.

2 Edgeworth, Memoirs, I, 28.

3 Edgeworth, Memoirs, I, 72-3.

4 Essai sur l'opinion consideire comme une des principales causes de la Revolution de 1789 (Paris, 1789), 35; Moniteur, 30 August 1791; for a consideration of Rousseau’s influence on the French Revolution, see David Williams, ‘The Influence of Rousseau on Political Opinion, 1760-95’, English Historical Review, 48: 191 (1933), 414-30.

5 Edmund Burke, A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, 46-7.

6 Maria and Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Practical Education, 2 vols (London: 1798), I, pp. 191, 167. For discussions of the availability and impact of Emile on the British book-buying public, see Williams, 161-2; and William St Clair, The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, 670.

7 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile: or, on Education, trans. Allan Bloom (London, 1979), 53.

8 Rousseau, Emile, p. 37; Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract in The Basic Political Writings, trans. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis, 1987), 141.

9 Rousseau, Emile, 60, 48.

10 Rousseau, Emile, 84-5.

11 Rousseau, Emile, 108, 112.

12 Rousseau, Emile, 204.

13 Rousseau, Emile, 160.

14Rousseau, Emile, 195.

15 Rousseau, Emile, 204, 205, 203.

16 Rousseau, Emile, 211-2.

17 Rousseau, Emile, 359, 443.

18 Rousseau, Emile, 418-9, 477, 480.

19 ‘Vous dites tres bien qu’il est impossible de faire un Emile. Mais je ne puis croire que vous preniez le Livre qui porte ce nom pour un vrai traitte d’Éducation. C’est un ouvragé assez philosophique sur ce principe avance par l’Auteur dans d’autre ecrits que l’homme est naturellement bon.’ Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Letters Written from the Mountain V (Oeuvres Complètes, III, 783); Rousseau to M. Philbert Cramer, October 1764, Rousseau 1929: 339. Cited in Jeffrey Sworowski, ‘Condorcet’s Education: Haunted by the Ghost of Rousseau’, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 14: 4 (1995), 320-330.

20 Jean-Jacques Rousseau; cited in J. Guehénno, Jean-Jacques (Paris, 1948-52), II, 57f. For a discussion of Rousseau’s treatment of his own children, see William Kessen, ‘Rousseau’s Children’, Daedalus 107: 3 (1978), 155-66.

21 Edgeworth, Memoirs, I, 37, 105.

22Rousseau, Emile, 89, 91.

23 Edgeworth, Memoirs, I, 178-9.

24 Rousseau, Emile, 206; Edgeworth, Memoirs, I, 35.

25 Edgeworth, Memoirs, I, 178-9.

26 Edgeworth, Memoirs, I, 180.

27 Thomas Day to Richard Lovell Edgeworth, December 1774, in Edgeworth Papers, National Library of Ireland, MSS 22470 (1), f. 1; Edgeworth, Memoirs, I, 181, 226.

28 Rousseau, Emile, 366, 370, 374, 370.

29 Edgeworth, Memoirs, I, 226, 224; Rousseau, Emile, 358.

30John Blackman, A Memoir of the Life and Writings of Thomas Day, Author of Sandford and Merton (London, 1862), cited in Peter Rowland, The Life and Times of Thomas Day, 1748-1789 (New York, 1999), 20; Edgeworth, Memoirs, I, 217-8.

31 Rowland, Life and Times of Thomas Day, 21.

32 Rousseau, Emile, 109; Edgeworth, Memoirs, I, 257, 258-9.

33 Edgeworth, Memoirs, I, 179; Rousseau, Emile, 89, 63.

34 Maria Edgeworth, note on letter from Richard Lovell Edgeworth to Margaret Ruxton, 14 October 1790, Edgeworth Papers, National Library of Ireland, P. 9026, f. 69.

35 Richard Lovell Edgeworth to Thomas Day, 8 July 1784, Edgeworth Papers, National Library of Ireland, P. 9026, f. 52.

36 Edgeworth, Memoirs, I, 353-4; Richard Lovell Edgeworth to Thomas Day, 5 February 1787, Edgeworth Papers, National Library of Ireland, P. 9026, f. 57; Richard Lovell Edgeworth to Margaret Ruxton, 4 January 1780, Edgeworth Papers, National Library of Ireland, P. 9026, f. 17; Richard Lovell Edgeworth to Margaret Ruxton, 9 March 1781, P. 9026, f. 43.

37 Edgeworth, Memoirs, I, 339; II, 109-11, 113.

38 Richard Lovell Edgeworth to Thomas Day, 8 July 1784, in Edgeworth Papers, National Library of Ireland, MSS P. 9026, f. 52.

39 Esther Day to Richard Lovell Edgeworth, 21 January 1790, Edgeworth Papers, National Library of Ireland, MSS 22470 (2), f. 5.

40 Richard Lovell Edgeworth to Margaret Ruxton, 3 November 1791, Edgeworth Papers, National Library of Ireland, MSS P. 9026, f. 85; Edgar E. MacDonald, The American Edgeworths: A Biographical Sketch of Richard Edgeworth (1764-1796) with Letters and Documents pertaining to the legacy of his three sons (Richmond, Virginia, 1970); Dick Edgeworth to Richard Lovell Edgeworth, 28 February 1792, copy included in letter from Maria Edgeworth to Margaret Ruxton, 20 April 1792, Edgeworth Papers, National Library of Ireland, MSS P. 9026, f. 91.

41 Maria Edgeworth to Margaret Ruxton, 13 December 1792, Edgeworth Papers, National Library of Ireland, MSS P. 9026, f. 99; Maria Edgeworth to Sophy Ruxton, 14 August 1792, Edgeworth Papers, National Library of Ireland, MSS P. 9026, f. 94.

42 Richard Lovell Edgeworth to Esther Day, 29 November 1789, Edgeworth Papers, National Library of Ireland, MSS 22470 (1), f. 11; Esther Day to Richard Lovell Edgeworth, 21 January 1790, Edgeworth Papers, National Library of Ireland, MSS 22470 (2), f. 5.

43 Sabrina Bicknell to Maria Edgeworth, 29 October 1818, Edgeworth Papers, National Library of Ireland, MSS 22470 (4), f. 8.



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