Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

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...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

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.