Maria Edgeworth is now more or less part of the Romantic-era canon, at least from a pedagogical standpoint. Her novels are taught in numerous undergrad courses because of her importance to various aspects of the development of the novel in English. Yet there are still pieces missing in the bigger picture of Edgeworth scholarship. The 1980s and 90s saw a surge of scholarly interest in the notion of sensibility and its importance in eighteenth-century British culture and literature, and several influential book-length studies and numerous articles were published on the subject. However, Edgeworth has, for the most part, been omitted from that discussion.
Edgeworth's attitude toward sensibility varied widely at different points in her career. In her non-fiction writing, she was skeptical of its importance and perhaps even its existence. This quote comes from Edgeworth's Practical Education, which she wrote with her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth:
On sympathy we cannot depend, either for the correctness of a man’s moral sentiments, or for the steadiness of his moral conduct. It is very common to talk of the excellence of a person’s heart, of the natural goodness of his disposition; when these expressions distinctly mean any thing, they must refer to natural sympathy, or a superior degree of sensibility. Experience, however, does not teach us, that sensibility and virtue have any certain connection with each other.
In her novels, on the other hand, the signs of sensibility are often the markers she uses to designate her characters as exemplary or superior or virtuous. Conversely, a character lacking in sensibility cannot be the hero or heroine of the story. As an example, here's a quote from her novel Helen, in which the narrator comments on a shallow and vicious character:
There are things which no man of real generosity could say or do, or think, put him in ever so great a passion. He would not be harsh to an inferior – a woman – a protégée on whom he had conferred obligations; but Mr Churchill was harsh – he showed neither generosity nor feeling; and Helen’s good opinion of him sank to rise no more.
Of this, however, he had not enough of the sympathy or penetration of feeling to be aware.
In spite of Edgeworth's assertions in her non-fiction works that education trumps every inclination of nature, it is in fact Mr. Churchill's nature that marks him as inferior. His behavior is merely an expression of that nature.
Why the discrepancy? Edgeworth's declared purpose in writing novels was didactic, so the facile explanation that the novel is simply fiction and does not reflect the author's views can reasonably be dismissed. It could be that she changed her mind over time - Practical Education was written before any of the novels I'm examining. However, I suspect that the answer is more complex. I think that part of Edgeworth's project was to reclaim sensibility from the realm of the sentimental, and return it to a more Shaftesburian notion of "moral sense" mediated by education or self-refinement.
I think I finally have an argument.