Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 233

Through its representation of a long line of inept (and hard-drinking, litigious, abusive, and so on) owners, this short novel pokes fun at the Anglo-Irish, a class of people living in Ireland who are descended from the English. They participated in the Ascendancy: the era extending from the seventeenth century...

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Through its representation of a long line of inept (and hard-drinking, litigious, abusive, and so on) owners, this short novel pokes fun at the Anglo-Irish, a class of people living in Ireland who are descended from the English. They participated in the Ascendancy: the era extending from the seventeenth century through the beginning of the twentieth century when Protestant English landowners held all economic and political power in Ireland. The novel also seems to herald this group's eventual and inevitable demise, as the Rackrent estate is eventually sold by Sir Condy, the final family owner of the estate, to the son of the steward who narrates the text. Thady Quirk's son, Jason, eventually exploits the financial situation in which Sir Condy finds himself when he runs out of money (due, in part, to his generosity), and his wife's father refuses to help them financially. The castle itself falls into disrepair, an appropriate symbol of the future breakdown of the Anglo-Irish. Jason purchases both the castle and the land around it, waving golden guineas in Sir Condy's face, knowing that the nobleman who has not had cash in a long time will be unable to resist. The fact that the nobility no longer has money while Jason, an attorney, is flush with it also seems to point to the idea that, at some point, a new social and political order will arise in Ireland.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 805

While Maria Edgeworth’s name was not unknown to the reading public when Castle Rackrent was first published, nothing that she had previously written could have prepared even her most devoted reader for her first novel. In theme, tone, and form, Castle Rackrent is entirely original, and its originality is not merely a matter of fashion but endures so as to make this work a landmark in the development of fiction as not only an art but also a powerful form of cultural discourse. Even the story of Castle Rackrent is one that had either been taken for granted or inadequately handled. The political and economic decline of the Irish landlord class, the ramshackle and unproductive lives that this class allegedly lived, and the rather miserable country in which all this took place featured in English fiction largely as clichés. While Edgeworth handles the subject satirically, there is an intimacy between author and subject that created a permanent change in the way such material could be approached.

Two features of the story merit special attention. The first is the representation of decline as a gradual, generational phenomenon. The mismanagement and recklessness of successive generations of Rackrents, from Sir Patrick to Sir Murtagh to Sir Kit and culminating in the extended treatment of Sir Condy, the last of the line, is not merely one of the novel’s satirical strategies. It also facilitates the introduction of a historical component to the text, which the author’s editorial apparatus supplies. This inclusion of such material draws attention to the fact that Edgeworth’s intention is not to deride the Rackrents but to represent them as an object lesson from which a new social dispensation among Irish landlords may be drawn.

The novel’s second noteworthy feature is its impersonation of the family retainer, Thady Quirk. This feat of mimicry gives at least the semblance of a presence to the class dependent on the landlords. Such an act of recognition also articulated Edgeworth’s didactic intent. In this case, the lesson is one of harmony between master and man, with an emphasis on the desirability of integration between the classes and a tacit belief that such an outcome would do nothing to impair or diminish the human qualities of the dependents. Edgeworth’s attachment to those beneath her on the social scale is conveyed in her fidelity to Thady’s language, which she reproduces with keen attention to and obvious fondness for its color, range, and distinctiveness.

The full title of Castle Rackrent is in the style of novels of its time: Castle Rackrent, an Hibernian Tale: Taken from the Facts, and from the Manners of the Irish Squires, Before the Year 1782. Several relevant emphases, which the novel goes on to explore, are contained in this title. These include a hint about its narrative character in the mention of “an Hibernian tale,” its sociological interests in the references to facts and manners, and a historical dimension invoked by the citation of a specific date. The novel shows how all these features are interdependent.

Of the various allusions in the title, the historical one is the most decisive in providing the author with a specific perspective. For almost a hundred years prior to 1782, the fate of Ireland was in the hands of a virtual oligarchy of landlords, whose political cause had triumphed as a result of the Battle of the Boyne in 1691. The result was the consolidation of a landowning ruling class answerable to none but itself and to those who espoused its version of loyalty to the British Crown in Parliament. Out of this consolidation grew the distinctive cultural presence known as the Anglo-Irish. Yet it is the moral character of this class in its earliest embodiment that Castle Rackrent dares to expose.

The year 1782 is decisive because it saw the culmination of the efforts of the Anglo-Irish to assert themselves in the name of the country in which they lived. Inspired by the American Revolution, Anglo-Irish politicians began to conceive of their own juridical and legislative independence. Not the least of the historical ironies in which Castle Rackrent is implicated is the fact that the novel was published in the year in which the Anglo-Irish cause ended in the Act of Union, which, by abolishing parliamentary representation in Ireland, tied the landowning class more firmly than ever to the fortunes of British politics.

The reformist frame of mind that came to the fore after 1782 provides the immediate context and perspective for Castle Rackrent. Edgeworth’s didacticism ultimately aims to persuade the reader that the bad old days are gone, when rents charged to tenants were so exorbitant as to be considered the economic equivalent of being placed on the rack—days typified by the novel’s title and the family name on which it is based.

Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438

The complicated relationship between Maria Edgeworth and her father, and the latter’s frequently heavy-handed editorial participation in her work, is crystallized in the composition of Castle Rackrent, Edgeworth’s most celebrated but least typical work. Written without her father’s supervision, the main body of the text possesses a sprightliness and subversive perspective that are found much less rarely in her later works. The amendments to the text that supply its documentary flavor are interesting and revealing in their own right, but they bear the impress of a different cast of mind. Without particularly intending to do so, Castle Rackrent represents an important moment in the evolution of the power and autonomy of women’s authorship.

In addition, as the gender-role component of the novel suggest, part of the claim for social responsibility that Castle Rackrent advances is that women be equal partners in the work of discharging the duties of one’s class. Edgeworth herself, in her educational work and in the role she played on her father’s Irish estate, demonstrated not only her belief in being a worthy social partner but also the relevance and viability of women’s participation in economics, agricultural improvement, and political thought. Her literary interests were informed by her broad experience of matters considered to be the sole domain of men, a domain whose extent is sketched convincingly in Castle Rackrent. As a result, her work is explicitly aware of some of its own ideological preconditions and implications, so that it may be seen as a particularly illuminating instance of the potential and ambition of the kind of intellectual liberation of women envisaged by those English contemporaries of Edgeworth who made up the bluestocking movement.

Edgeworth’s life as both author and daughter illustrates some of the tensions that talented women of her day experienced. There is little evidence in Edgeworth’s works of her efforts to confront those tensions. Not only did she live a productive and stimulating intellectual life, but also, in later works, she showed how women of ability, culture, and self-possession are always rewarded. The absence of such women from Castle Rackrent very much reflects landlordism’s dilapidated morality and trivial culture. Alertness to the implications of this absence initiates the development of means to characterize women’s distinctive contributions to culture and society, not only in Edgeworth’s own work but also in that of many later nineteenth century women writers. For this initiative, as well as for inaugurating the themes and thought structures of much of Irish fiction, Castle Rackrent is an important part of the history of women’s power as authors.

Places Discussed

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Castle Rackrent

Castle Rackrent. Irish home of the Rackrent family, the novel’s primary setting. The castle symbolizes the relationship of England and Ireland during a historical period when a harsh debate over union of Ireland with Great Britain creates a split among the Irish upper classes.

Regarded as the first regional novel in English, Castle Rackrent spans four generations of the Rackrents, an Anglo-Irish landed gentry family. Although the class of people known as the Anglo-Irish, the wealthy protestant landowners, had ruled Ireland for generations, many spent their lives in England and on the European continent living in luxury while reaping profits from their agricultural lands in Ireland. They often left the management of their estates in the hands of corrupt overseers who failed to keep up the property. This absentee landlord system, coupled with a greedy emerging Irish middle class exploited the disenfranchised and aggravated the impoverishment of Ireland’s peasant class.

Rackrent Castle’s very name emulates the sound of disintegration: The rack was a medieval instrument of torture on which victims were physically stretched past the limits of their endurance; rent is a word for splitting apart. Indeed, the castle literally disintegrates as the novel develops. At the same time, the Rackrent family, a picture of four generations of the absentee landlord system, sinks into decay as each generation uses dishonesty and trickery (directed particularly toward victimized women) to acquire more money. Intent on realism, Edgeworth spares nothing in utilizing Castle Rackrent as a symbol to reveal the corruption inherent in the Anglo-Irish social system and to call for the overthrow of Ireland’s absentee landlord system.

Many late-eighteenth and early nineteenth century gothic novels feature castles, or castlelike houses, to characterize people who are locked within or without. The suggestive atmosphere of Rackrent Castle emphasizes the era’s popular gothic principle of imprisonment and the terrifying aspects of women’s place in society at the end of the eighteenth century. Sir Kit Rackrent’s wife—who, significantly, does not have a first name—is locked within the castle’s walls because she refuses to surrender her jewels, particularly a diamond cross, to the estate after she marries into the family. Ultimately, after being imprisoned in a room for seven years, she escapes only because Sir Kit dies. The theme of imprisonment, all-pervasive in nineteenth century literature, is spoken of as ordinary by the novel’s unreliable and irrationally loyal narrator, Thady Quirk. After Sir Kit dies, he blames all the trouble on Lady Rackrent’s refusal to do her duty, especially when her husband made no secret of the fact that he married her for her money. After the Rackrents go bankrupt, Thady’s son Jason, a sharp attorney, exploits the family’s weaknesses and winds up with their land.

Moneygawl estate

Moneygawl estate. Home of Isabella Moneygawl, whose father locks her in her chamber when she disobeys him. The novel’s second estate, Moneygawl re-emphasizes Edgeworth’s political view of the decaying Anglo-Irish social order and her pervasive gothic theme of incarceration. Although Isabella is freed after Sir Condy Rackrent marries her, her marriage only traps her once again—this time at Castle Rackrent, which has become a tumbledown eyesore.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 277

Butler, Marilyn. Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography. London: Oxford University Press, 1972. The standard biography, eloquent and reflecting scrupulous research in Edgeworth family papers and correspondence. Includes information on the Edgeworth family’s relationship with their retainers and tenants, and on the reception of the novel.

Flanagan, Thomas. The Irish Novelists: 1800-1850. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959. An elegant and witty discussion of Maria Edgeworth that places her in the context of her Irish contemporaries. The analysis of regional and native elements set the standard for much subsequent discussion of Castle Rackrent.

Harden, Elizabeth. Maria Edgeworth. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A fine survey of Edgeworth’s life and work that stresses her theme of “the education of the heart” through the various phases of her development. Close analysis of the narrative strategies of Castle Rackrent. Includes a useful annotated bibliography.

Kowaleski-Wallace, Elizabeth. Their Fathers’ Daughters: Hannah More, Maria Edgeworth, and Patriarchal Complicity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Contains a substantial discussion of Edgeworth’s life and works and her place in literary history, considered from the perspective of her place in the history of women’s writing.

McCormack, W. J. Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literary History from 1789 to 1939. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1985. Contains a consideration of Castle Rackrent in the light of the ideological implications of its treatment of social class. A sophisticated contribution to the sociology of the Irish novel.

Owens, Coílín, ed. Family Chronicles: Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent. Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1987. A compilation of previously published critical views of Castle Rackrent, covering the work’s genesis, its contexts, and some of its critical dimensions. Contains a full bibliography of other sources on the novel.

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