Maria Edgeworth was famous in her day as the author of seven novels and as a writer interested in the education of children. She shared this interest with her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, an Irish landowner who settled his large family in Ireland in 1782 when Maria was at the impressionable age of fifteen. He was an intellectual and a believer in social and political reform. Throughout his life, Edgeworth deferred to his tastes, seeking not only his guidance but also his collaboration in much of her writing.
Castle Rackrent is the author’s first novel, written sometime between 1797 and 1799 and published in 1800. It is a distinguished piece of work in several ways. A successful first novel, generally regarded as her best, it is also one of the few works in which her father had no part. The author herself declared that “it went to the press just as it was written.”
In addition, Castle Rackrent holds a distinction in the history of the English novel as the first regional novel, a significance noted by Sir Walter Scott in the preface to his first historical novel, Waverley (1814), in which he stated his purpose of creating a Scottish milieu with the same degree of authenticity as “that which Miss Edgeworth so fortunately achieved for Ireland.” In her own preface, Edgeworth takes pains to indicate the realistically Irish quality of the novel. Her first-person narrator, Thady Quirk, is a character based on her father’s steward; he speaks in Irish idiom because “the authenticity of his story would have been more exposed to doubt if it were not told in his own characteristic manner.” Moreover, the subject is peculiarly Irish: “Those who were acquainted with the manners of a certain class of the gentry of Ireland some years ago, will want no evidence of the truth of Honest Thady’s narrative.”
In the use of certain devices, Edgeworth anticipates the historical novel later developed by Scott—for example, in the historicity suggested by the early subtitle: “An Hibernian Tale, Taken from Facts, and from the Manners of Irish Squires, Before the Year 1782.” More explicitly, Edgeworth assures her readers that “these are ’tales of other times’; . . . the manners depicted . . . are not those of the present age: the race of the Rackrents has long been extinct in Ireland.” Similar to the kind of documentation Scott was to employ is her anecdotal glossary of Irish “terms and idiomatic phrases.” The convention of the “true story,” of course, is an eighteenth century legacy, and, like many eighteenth century novels, Castle Rackrent purports to be an original memoir for which the author is merely the editor.
The theme of the novel adumbrates Scott’s characteristic theme, the conflict between a dying culture and one coming into being; the resemblance, however, stops there. Lacking historical events and personages, the Rackrent story is not too remote in time from the date of composition. Although the Rackrents indulge in gloriously absurd deeds—such as the sham wake staged by Sir Condy to spy on his own mourners—there are no heroic deeds in their past. The name Rackrent, referring to the exorbitant rents exacted by landlords from their tenants, reveals their main trait.
The novel is a satire on the Irish ruling class. With the sustained irony behind Thady’s blind “partiality to the family in which he was bred and born,” the author presents one Irish...
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