Castle Rackrent (1800) is one of the most important Irish novels in the English language and, from the very first, generated considerable debate among readers and critics. In part, this was due to the fact that the novel was published at a particularly significant moment in Irish and British history, the year 1800, which saw the dissolution of the Irish parliament in Dublin and the enactment of the Union between Britain and Ireland. The publication of a fiction that implicitly took the relationship between Ireland and Britain as its subject was certain to attract considerable critical attention, and George III himself was reported to have read it and declared “what what – I know something now of my Irish subjects” (Butler, 359).
Although the publication date of Castle Rackrent seems to lend the text a particular significance, it is important to recognize both that the novel had a long period of gestation, and that Edgeworth did not initially conceive of it as an explicitly political work. As she recounted in an 1834 letter to a friend, Edgeworth initially began writing the text at the behest of her Aunt Ruxton, who was so amused by her niece's imitation of John Langan, the Edgeworth family steward, that she urged her to fashion a tale around this colourful character. The result of this request was Edgeworth's creation of Thady Quirk, a native Irish servant, who has purportedly “undertaken to publish the MEMOIRS of the RACKRENT FAMILY” (1: 9). In relating the stories of the various Rackrents, though, Thady at the same time tells his own and his son's story, and causes readers to wonder whether the interests of one “of the most ancient” families in Ireland were best served by their servants (1: 10). Edgeworth probably began work on the first half of Castle Rackrent – which deals with Sir Patrick, Sir Murtagh, and Sir Kit – sometime between 1794 and 1795, and finished the second half – which traces the history of Sir Condy – between 1796 and 1798. The novel was submitted to Joseph Johnson, the radical London publisher, by 1799, and, at this stage, included the preface, postscript, and footnotes to Thady's narrative. At the last minute, it seems, Edgeworth and her father became concerned that the text might prove inaccessible to English readers, and also that it might be read by them as an attack upon the imminent Union, and so they added the extensive glossary that appears at the novel's end (Butler, introduction to Castle Rackrent and Ennui, 4-5).
The recognition that Edgeworth wrote the novel during the 1790s is important, insofar as it invites us to consider how the Edgeworth family's experiences of these turbulent years in Irish history may have helped shape the narrative. The years between 1790 and 1800 witnessed both increasingly violent agitation by the Defenders and the failed United Irishmen's Rebellion of 1798, for instance, as well as that moment when Ireland was formally united with Great Britain and her parliament dissolved. Each of these events was of immense importance to eighteenth-century Ireland, but each also variously affected Edgeworth and her family, and the class they represented. As the descendents of Protestant settlers, the Edgeworths owed their origins in Ireland to James I's policy of “settling” Protestants of English descent on lands confiscated from Roman Catholics and, as such, were representative of a class that much of the native population – still predominantly Irish-speaking Roman Catholics of Gaelic stock – either silently resented or vocally despised. The political turmoil of the 1790s was therefore not something that the Edgeworth and her family could look upon unmoved; it affected – or had the potential to affect – them.
Castle Rackrent is variously marked by this recognition, and scholars such as Marilyn Butler, Seamus Deane, Tom Dunne, and W. A. Maguire, among many others, have explored the different ways in which Thady's account of the inexorable demise of the Rackrent family is informed by Edgeworth family history and their experiences of late-eighteenth-century Ireland. Most obviously, for instance, Edgeworth's novel is indebted to The Black Book of Edgeworthstown, a work that was written by her grandfather in the mid-eighteenth century and which functioned partly as a ledger and litigation record, and partly as an account of the Edgeworth family's attempts to hold onto their lands in county Longford in the Irish midlands. Edgeworth drew upon this work for inspiration when she wrote her tale, variously imbuing Sir Patrick, Sir Murtagh, Sir Kit, and Sir Condy with the habits and crucial failings of long-dead Edgeworth squires. Even more significantly, perhaps, she drew upon the fact that the history contained in The Black Book had supposedly been related to her grandfather by a 107-year old former servant of the family, having realized, according to W. J. McCormack, “The value of a narrator, less than ingenious, in holding together the details of a family's varied generations” when telling a story (105). Crucially, however, Edgeworth was also influenced by the theories and experiences of her own father when she drew the several elements of her family's history together in her narrative, encoding in her work the suggestion that Ireland's many absentee Anglo-Irish landlords were doomed to go the way of the Rackrents unless they emulated Richard Lovell Edgeworth, lived upon their Irish estates, and took proper care of their tenants.
As all of this suggests, Castle Rackrent is an extraordinarily complex work, and its “plot” revolves around Thady's relation of the (mis)adventures of the various members of the Rackrent family. Thady begins his tale with a description of the apostate Sir Patrick, who changes his family's name from O'Shaughlin to Rackrent, and dies as a result of his excessive (alcoholic) behaviour. Sir Patrick's successor is the litigious Sir Murtagh, and he and his “Skinflint” wife manifest an inexcusable delight “in driving and driving, and pounding and pounding, and canting and canting, and replevying and replevying” their unfortunate tenants (1: 12). The next Rackrent is the colourful Sir Kit, who disgraces himself in the first instance by living the life of an absentee in London, and then by returning home with an unsuitable “Jewish” wife who views his estates with a mixture of ill-disguised disgust and amusement (1: 18). This unfortunate lady pays a terrible personal price as a result of her marriage to Sir Kit, it must be noted, for he locks her way for over seven years when she refuses to give him her jewels. The final and most pitiable member of the Rackrent family is Sir Condy, who spends his childhood “running through the streets of O'Shaughlin's town, … playing … with the boys of the town”, including Jason Quirk (1: 25). It is, Edgeworth intimates, as a result of this inappropriate beginning that Condy proves incapable of distinguishing himself at the head of the Rackrent family, and his demise is sealed by both his marriage to Isabella Moneygawl, who spends “as if she [has] a mint of money at her elbow”, and by the machinations of Jason Quirk, who is always eager to “help” Sir Condy repair his misfortunes (1: 30). By the time Thady's narrative closes, Sir Condy has lost control of Castle Rackrent to Jason, and died as a result of his determination to emulate the outrageous (feudal) behaviour of his ancestor, Sir Patrick. Thady for his part concludes his narrative by noting, first, that Jason and Sir Condy's widow are about to go to law over the Rackrent possessions and, secondly, by stressing the essential truthfulness of his relation: “there's nothing but truth in it from beginning to end: that you may depend upon; for what's the use of telling lies about the things which every body knows as well as I do?” (1: 54).
Castle Rackrent is a significant work in that it is credited with being the first novel in English to introduce readers and writers alike to the concept of regional fiction: that is, to a kind of writing that celebrates local characters, idioms, and settings. (This was a feature particularly appreciated by Sir Walter Scott, who cited Edgeworth as an inspiration behind the Waverley novels.) Through her use of the servant Thady Quirk as the narrator of the “Memoirs” of an eighteenth-century Irish family, Edgeworth is able to conjure up a peculiarly evocative picture of rural Ireland and the Irish, foregrounding places and people in a way never accomplished in the past. Significantly, though, the editorial preface that precedes Thady's history stresses that the tales he relates “‘are of other times' … the race of the Rackrents has long since been extinct in Ireland”, in line with the novel's full title: Castle Rackrent: an Hibernian Tale, taken from facts, and from the manners of the Irish squires, before the year 1782 (1: 6-7). In this way, Edgeworth was simultaneously able to construct a complex critique of the landowning class to which she belonged without appearing to directly attack that class. The various devices Edgeworth drew upon to accomplish this became stock features in Irish fiction in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, with writers such as Somerville and Ross, and Elizabeth Bowen, among many others, drawing upon both the family saga and the Big House to symbolize a way of life that was under attack or on the point of collapsing.
The importance of Castle Rackrent extends also to its being one of the first novels in English to exploit the possibilities of the unreliable narrator in fiction, and it is upon this aspect of Edgeworth's work that most critical attention has focused. On the one hand, critics suggest, Thady Quirk may read as the entirely innocent native Irish servant of the Rackrent family, who fails to perceive the significance of the story he is relating; on the other, he may be a profoundly manipulative individual who fully appreciates the import of the events he describes. In telling the story of the Rackrents, then, Thady stresses the pride he feels at having being in the service of such an ancient family, while at the same time revealing how the deficiencies of the various Rackrents contributed both to the steady erosion of the Rackrents' fortune and the hardship of their tenants. Crucially, as we have seen, he reveals that the Rackrents' failings as landlords directly facilitated the steady rise of his own family's fortunes, allowing his son, Jason, to take control of the Rackrent estates at the narrative's end.
The fact that it is finally impossible to decide whether or not Thady is duplicitious is, perhaps, Edgeworth's greatest achievement in her narrative. When she came to write Castle Rackrent, she would later recall, Thady “seemed to stand beside me and dictate; and I wrote as fast as my pen could go” (Maria Edgeworth to Mrs. Stark, 6 September 1834, quoted in A Memoir of Maria Edgeworth, 3: 152). Edgeworth's image of near-possession here is appealing, but it must be remembered that Thady's is not the only voice in Castle Rackrent, and that his voice and that of the scholarly “Editor” of the Preface, footnotes, Postscript, and Glossary vie with each other for authority in the story. This obviously has many consequences for Castle Rackrent, but one of the most significant is that a peculiar gap opens up in the text. While the Editor seems to promise that the Act of Union will diffuse and contain all of the sociopolitical difficulties threatening to overwhelm Anglo-Irish relations and Ireland itself, Thady's narrative intimates that the native Irish are a powerful, resilient, and subversive race who will undermine the golden future envisioned by the more optimistic supporters of the Act of Union. In writing Castle Rackrent, therefore, Edgeworth produced a masterpiece whose competing narrative voices suggest that there are always many sides to any story that can be told, and any history that can be written. The novel has gone through numerous editions, in several languages, since the moment of its first appearance and, despite extensive recent re-evaluation of Edgeworth's achievement, remains the work on which the author's fame largely rests.
Butler, Marilyn. Introduction to Castle Rackrent and
Ennui. London: Penguin, 1992.
- - -. Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.
Edgeworth, Frances. A Memoir of Maria Edgeworth. London: privately published, 1867.
Edgeworth, Maria. The Novels and Selected Works of Maria Edgeworth. Volume 1. London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999.
McCormack, W. J. Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literary History from 1789- 1939. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985.
Citation: Murphy, Sharon Jude. "Castle Rackrent". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 31 May 2007 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=6131, accessed 14 July 2020.]