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 family’s reprehensible history. Except for Sir Murtagh, who wastes his fortune in lawsuits, all the Rackrents ruin themselves and their estates through extravagance and dissipation. Whether they are squires in...
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residence or absentee landlords dealing through agents “who grind the face of the poor,” they increase the misery of the common Irish people. Concealed behind Thady’s comical anecdotes is the judgment that the Rackrents represent the destructive arrogance and irresponsible stupidity of landowners who answer to no one except, eventually, moneylenders such as Thady’s ruthless son Jason, who finally takes possession of the Rackrent estates.
The novel is centered on Thady himself, however, despite the title of the novel and Thady’s own unwavering focus on the Rackrents, despite even several unforgettable comic episodes of Rackrent peccadilloes. His voice reveals his self-importance: Having out of friendship for the family, upon whose estate, praised be Heaven! I and mine have lived rent free time out of mind, voluntarily undertaken to publish the Memoirs of the Rackrent Family, I think it my duty to say a few words, in the first place, concerning myself.
His self-importance is based on his illusions of living in the family’s reflected grandeur and glory. If he lives by his professed loyalty, he acts on the example of his masters, exploiting his privileges as they do and just as blind to the inevitable outcome. Throughout the novel, for example, Thady boasts of various strategies to push forward “my son Jason,” who acquires his first lease on Rackrent land because “I spoke a good word for my son, and gave out in the county that nobody need bid against us.” As the opportunistic Thady comments, “Why shouldn’t he as well as another?” Yet he complains bitterly of Jason grown rich that “he is a high gentleman, and never minds what poor Thady says, and having better than 1500 a-year, landed estate, looks down upon Honest Thady, but I wash my hands of his doings, and as I have lived so will I die, true and loyal to the family.”
Thady’s praise of the Rackrents is often coupled with his appreciation of money. When a new heir neglects Thady, the old man is hostile, but the first casual attention produces a characteristic response: “I loved him from that day to this, his voice was so like the family—and he threw me a guinea out of his waistcoat pocket.” Another trait incompatible with honest devotion is Thady’s evasive habit of silence at crucial moments, a silence very much at odds with his characteristic garrulity. There is a self-serving tone in the recurring motif, “I said nothing for fear of gaining myself ill will.”
On the other hand, Thady’s talkativeness, urged by vanity, contributes to the downfall of his favorite, Sir Condy, the last of the Rackrents. It is Thady’s son who seizes the property, but it is Thady who made the young Condy his “white-headed boy” and fed his imagination with the disastrous “stories of the family and the blood from which he was sprung.” He proudly takes credit for the adult Condy’s unfortunate gambling habits, boasting, “I well remember teaching him to toss up for bog berries on my knee.” The ultimate irony is that his teachings indirectly bring about Sir Condy’s death; for the family legend of Sir Patrick’s prodigious whiskey-drinking feat, which the last Rackrent fatally duplicates, is “the story that he learned from me when a child.”
Torn between his son and his master and called by his niece an “unnatural fader,” he confesses, “I could not upon my conscience tell which was wrong from the right.” He is unaware, even as he explains it, that Rackrent rights derive from money just as Jason’s pretensions do. Even the designation “ancient” is not appropriate for the Rackrents, since the estate came into “the family” in Thady’s great-grandfather’s time when Sir Patrick, by act of Parliament, took the surname to receive the property. Thady’s dilemma is treated comically, but there is also pathos in the position in which he finds himself in the end: “I’m tired wishing for any thing in this world, after all I’ve seen it—but I’ll say nothing; it would be a folly to be getting myself ill will in my old age.”
Thady is a masterful characterization, requiring none of the apologies that Edgeworth as fictitious editor appends to his memoirs. However, those remarks serve the purpose not so much of the author of fiction but of the daughter of Richard Lovell Edgeworth when she offers her thoughts concerning a political resolution as her last word on the moral dilemma so convincingly portrayed in this short novel: “It is a problem of difficult solution to determine whether an Union will hasten or retard the amelioration of this country.” Scott later praised her fictional Irish, England’s “gay and kind-hearted neighbours,” as having “done more towards completing the Union” than any subsequent legislation. Fortunately, Thady lives on as a fictional character, independent of the long-standing tumultuous relations between England and Ireland.