Form and Content
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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