‘We have had a most happy – and narrow escape [from] having the whole house burned – Most fortunately the fire broke out by day – if it had been in the night, nothing could have saved us – and nothing would have saved us either by day or night but the extraordinary courage, zeal, activity, steadiness & obedience of the people who came to our assistance – 30 men & boys who went on unremittingly for above 3 hours from 7 o’clock in the morning till half after 10 carrying water up, up, up ladders & staircase & pouring continually, continually down the chimney till at last the fire was got under and extinguished – the total extinction & complete safety was not effected till half after seven in the evening…
Lovell & I first met in the study, he carrying the tin box with the title deeds – I undertook the carrying out of all the papers with 2 men he left me – Mrs Smith’s son and Dargan – most steady they were – in less than an hour’s time they had carried out all the presses of leases, etc, boxes of surveys & every rent book – The top of Mr Hind’s [the land agent] in which were his accounts & I know not what & it was impossible to open the locks –
First I tried to get the things out of the study window – impossible opening from top – too high up – weight of presses – breadth of table – imposs – The men actually carried the who alcove mentioned through the hall – down the stairs – while every instant bucket men were ascending – how it was done Heaven knows – Honora and I carried out all my papers & Lovell’s – and my mother’s – letters – (pigeon holes) money accounts, books all laid on the grass before library window –my father’s picture on the veranda – all the library side of the hall pictures, Mr Dat etc.
The quiet at front of house seemed most extraordinary! – as if it knew nothing & nature knew nothing of what was going on – But what is still more extraordinary, my dear Fanny, believe me if you can – I whom you have seen such an egregious coward in small or no danger in a carriage felt all the this time without fear – absolutely as if the magnitude of the danger swallowed up fear – I was absolutely bereft of feeling & could think & did think as coolly as I do now – and more clearly – I cannot understand it but it is a fact…’
Extract from a letter of May 14th 1828 written by Maria Edgeworth to her half-sister Fanny and describing a fire that damaged but did not destroy the family home at Edgeworthstown, County Longford. Dating from 1791 and painted by Mrs Mary Powys the upper picture shows the house as it was after improvements carried out by Richard Lovell Edgeworth. The lower picture shows the same building in the late 1850s, some ten years after Maria Edgeworth’s death. The little bow window to the left gave light to her equally modest bedroom – but it fell off the wall some years later. Thankfully the greater part of the house still stands, although altered to serve as a nursing home. Both images and the letter are included in Maria Edgeworth’s Letters from Ireland most skilfully selected and edited by Valerie Pakenham, and just published by Lilliput Press.
Those lovely descriptive letters of bygone days – a far cry from our terse, 128 character missives of today!
I never saw this loose but persuasive rendering of the manor house in which perspective of the roofs and windows are all distinctly wonky, but the tonal rendering of the figures and the surrounding shrubs and trees are very convincingly done by Mary Powys. This is a great discovery and will be a new ornament to future publications.