The importance of the anecdote and the voice of the teller to the development of Irish short narrative can be seen most readily in a single work of fiction credited with beginning Irish literature in English—Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, published in 1800. Although usually characterized as a novel, the work is actually a novella focused more on regional particularities than on the social generalities that held together the heftier English novel. A number of critics have noted that the distinctive feature of Castle Rackrent is its imitation of a speaking voice telling a tale. What was new about Castle Rackrent was the colloquial voice of the teller of the story, the trusted retainer Thady Quirk, whose natural flow of talk created an ambiguous mixture of self-deception and self-revelation unmatched in England and not to be equaled in America until Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).
Although ostensibly Castle Rackrent is the history of four generations of the Rackrent family as told by the servant Thady, Edgeworth announces in the preface that her interest is not in epic history but on anecdotal revelation. She notes that although the public taste for anecdote has been ridiculed by critics, if considered properly, such a taste reflects the profound good sense of the times. However, in spite of Edgeworth’s insistence that her storyteller is an illiterate but honest and innocent old retainer who tells the history of the drunken Sir Patrick, the litigious Sir Murtagh, the fighting Sir Kit, and the slovenly Sir Condy, many readers have always suspected that Thady is artful, shrewd, and calculating. By making Thady Quirk such an ambiguous point of view, Edgeworth created a new technique of fiction.