Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth
I was looking forward to Castle Rackrent as soon as I saw it on my syllabus for my Irish literature class. Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda has been on my list per Eva’s recommendation for quite some time, and it looked like an interesting novel to write a paper on. I was warned, however, that Castle Rackrent and Belinda are very different. When I opened up my copy on computer, I was taken aback, until I realized there was a lengthy introduction that was not by Maria Edgeworth. I was expecting a very long novel, rather than the short novel that fell into my hands. (Well, metaphorically speaking; it was a digital book.) The experience was… interesting.
Castle Rackrent follows the fortunes of the last four heirs to the Rackrent estate in Ireland in the 1700s, as told through the eyes of Thady Quick, their devoted steward, to . Over the course of several years (the Rackrent men die off in a timely manner), the Rackrents manage to run the estate into the ground, despite exploiting their Irish laborers. But is Thady’s dewey-eyed devotion to the Rackrents sarcasm or is he truly one of the gratefully oppressed?
I was really thrown by the introduction included in this edition, which is, by the way, written by Anne Thackeray Ritchie, the eldest daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray. I can’t find anything about her involvement with Castle Rackrent other than the fact that she wrote this introduction. It’s a brief sketch of the Edgeworth family, Edgeworthstown in Ireland, and Maria’s life. Warned by Wikipedia that Castle Rackrent, one of the few of Maria’s novels that her father did not edit, was still padded with sections to seem less anti-English, I scoured Ritchie’s introduction for signs of defanging the novel. It was a fulfilling search, but I was still a little embarrassed when I realized Ritchie, who was born thirty-seven years after this novel was published, couldn’t be possibly have written the padding Wikipedia had mentioned. That would be the Edgeworths themselves. Whoops. I do have a sneaking suspicion that the reason the Ritchie introduction is included in most public domain versions of Castle Rackrent is to make it seem longer—there’s a beautifully angry review on Amazon where the reviewer likes the book just fine, but is insulted by being charged fourteen dollars for a ninety-two page book.
The story itself is very straight-forward—heir does something awful, dies, next heir does the same, rinse, repeat. For the first half, it’s mostly a laundry list of the terrible things they did—for instance, Sir Kit locks his wife up for several years, although her pride and determination keeps her from betraying her religious vows. We feel the most sympathy for the last heir, Sir Condy, although he’s the one that finally runs the estate into the ground, so we can’t feel too sorry for him. Thady’s son Jason ends up purchasing the estate, a move Thady regards as a heinous betrayal. But, for its shortness and straight forward action, it’s a hard novel to digest, because it’s difficult to get a thread on Thady. Is Thady truly a sentimental old man who loves his masters and sees his son, who has gotten into the upper classes but remained Irish rather than becoming Anglo-Irish, as a traitor, or is he presenting all of this with vicious sarcasm? Despite his self-effacing and kind tone, the Rackrents certainly come off in the worst light, so it’s very ambiguous.
Anglo-Irish identity—the identity that the Edgeworths shared—is important here. There’s a clear distinction between the Irish working class the Rackrents exploit, such as Thady, and the Anglo-Irish aristocracy that spends like mad, dresses like mad (at one point, Thady notes that one of the Lady Rackrents does exactly that), and generally conducts themselves wildly, despite their supposedly noble and genteel natures. Jason is the one anomaly in the cast, being the son of an Irish peasant who works his way up to the middle class—well, he ends up in control of the estate, anyway. He’s the only character who does so. Sir Kit is in love with an Irishwoman at one point, being essentially raised among the Irish peasantry, but, after an ill-fated roll of the dice, marries an Anglo-Irish noblewoman instead, whose mad spending drives him to drink and certainly speeds the ruin of the estate. The wives, which I’ll probably write my paper on, are interesting, but none so interesting as the first Lady Rackrent we meet, a British Jew that exposes Thady’s xenophobia. She sticks close to her vows—she’s the one that’s locked up, because Sir Kit refuses to keep kosher and she’s not about to preside over a non-kosher table—and escapes from the estate. Lady Isobella Rackrent is not as fortunate; she does escape, but ends up disfigured for life in a carriage accident. (Not that either woman is presented as innocent victims; they both are flawed.)
As you may be able to guess, this isn’t exactly a novel you read for fun. While Thady’s voice, especially as he valiantly tries to put his increasingly worse masters in the best light, can be very funny and the writing is much more readable than I expected, it’s much too short and thin for these strengths to really hold their ground. Edgeworth was making a point here, rendering a historical situation comedically into order to expose how exploitative it is. In fact, Castle Rackrent is often considered the first historical novel. Reading it gives me hope for Belinda, although I don’t think I’ll revisit this one in the future, although I did enjoy writing on it.
Bottom line: Castle Rackrent is a remarkably short novel, rendering a historical situation in order to expose the exploitative system beneath—hence the introduction and other padding that does its best to defang it. Edgeworth’s writing is readable, witty, and funny, but Castle Rackrent is too short for it to really take hold. An enjoyable academic read, but don’t go out of your way.