Edgeworth’s “Castle Rackrent” I have left the 18th century and
entered the 19th. Not a major shift there, but it does feel like
rounding a significant corner. It is therefore particularly pleasing that this
book also feels like a novelty compared to my previous reading.
This is, if
I remember right, the first book on the List to take place in Ireland and it is
also written by an Irish, albeit of the Anglo-Irish landowner class. That in
itself is interesting, I like when these books take me around the world, and I
did my share of travelling in Ireland some twenty years ago. The true novelty
however is that the first-person character who narrates the story is an Irish domestic
who narrates in his own tongue and mannerism. Edgeworth thus takes on a
different persona, which she was likely familiar with, but still a radically
different character from herself, and does it with conviction.
is steward to several generations of masters on Castle Rackrent (rackrent being
the term used for a cruel method of extorting the tenants on the land). He
tells us the story of four generations of Racrents, one is a spendthrift, a
second sues everybody and their mother over pittances and lose mighty sums in
the process. A third marries a Jewish girl for her wealth and locks her up
until she is ready to part with her diamonds and a fourth… well, the fourth, Sir
Condy Rackrent, takes up the major part of the story. He is well liked, cares
little for how he spends money and takes an interest in people around him.
Unfortunately for him, that means mismanagement of his estate and eventually he
loses everything to Thady’s thrifty son Jason (this is hardly a spoiler).
Thady is incredibly
loyal. No matter how absurd or cruel his masters, he is always ready to defend
them. He loves them to a fault and in his eyes, they are never truly to blame
for their error. Yet, it is not difficult to read between the lines that all
these masters of Castle Rackrent are terrible landlords. That they are invested
with a power they do not know how to administer and get away with it because
Ireland is a place of the jungle law, where anything is possible if you have
the means and the will and nobody are protected, least of all from themselves.
In these four
masters, Edgeworth manages to present to us the evils going on in an
uncontrolled Ireland and how unsuited the landed class is to take care of the
country. It is quite a subversive writ really. A plea to the British to step in
and reform the land.
Thady’s gushing defense of the Rackrents a number of other elements work in the
same direction. The Irish of the text itself are described as conniving
children, but just beneath the surface it is not difficult to see that they are
where the sympathy really lies. Additionally, the novel is equipped with
extensive, original notes which all seem to placate the English reader by
confirming all the demeaning stereotypes of the lazy and backward Irish, but
again, it actually contains a wealth of background information and cultural context
to demonstrate and understand the rich Irish culture.
is short, barely a hundred pages, but a very entertaining and informative read
and one I quite enjoyed. I would not say it changed my life, but I do feel a
bit smarter for reading it, and that is not a bad thing.
the novel was finalized, Ireland descended in turmoil and the English grip on the
country only worsened, culminating in the disaster of the mid-nineteenth
century. It is hard to think Edgeworth novel actually helped anything, but it
should have and maybe it did in the very long term.