Castle Rackrent: An Hibernian Tale (1800) Lecture Notes Author: Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849); in 1842, elected honorary member of then all-male Royal Irish Academy (country’s foremost academic organization) ••• Despite becoming most financially successful novelist of her time, Edgeworth skeptical of novel as genre: “Novel … so much folly, error, and vice are disseminated in books classed under this denomination” ••• Friend and influencer of best-selling Scottish novelist Walter Scott, among others ••• Edgeworth born in English home of maternal grandfather; accurate birth date 1768 (but you may see New Year’s Day 1767 in older texts) ••• Note that her death, as an octogenarian, occurred during final year of Great Hunger; she served as a conduit for famine relief (e.g., 150 barrels containing flour and rice arrived from children in Boston, Massachusetts, addressed “To Miss Edgewoth for her poor”) ••• Mother died when Maria six; father remarried three times, causing young Maria considerable distress; between his four wives, he fathered over 20 children ••• An educational theorist, inventor , and more — i.e. a philosophe or Enlightenment polymath — father Richard Lovell Edgeworth relocated family from England to his estate in Edgeworthstown (aka Mastrim), County Longford, in the Irish midlands in 1782 ••• The prior year, family friend Thomas Day almost blinded Maria by applying tar water to her diseased eyes ••• Edgeworths’ return to Edgeworthstown / Mastrim decoupled them from controversial absentee landlordism, a phenomenon Maria interrogated in novel The Absentee (1812) ••• Edgeworths — father Richard and daughter Maria — became reforming landlords, interfacing directly with tenants; later, when her half-brother Lovell nearly ruined estate, she intervened to rescue it ••• Inspired by JeanJacques Rousseau’s Émile; or, On Education (1762), Maria and father coauthored Essays on Practical Education (1798); however, three years earlier Maria (rebuffing Thomas Day’s opinions) had published defense of female education: Letters for Literary Ladies ••• Some of Maria’s narrative ideas derived from father’s performative tale-telling about a fictional clan: the Freeman family ••• Title page of Castle Rackrent claims that tale is “taken from the manners of the Irish squires [mid-sized landowners], before the year 1782” ••• In April 1782, Dungannon Convention — a meeting of the Irish Volunteers, a militia body — broadly welcomed moderate relaxation of Penal Laws that had restricted Catholic and Presbyterian rights in Ireland ••• Penal Laws designed to benefit members of the state-sanctioned or “Established” Anglican (Episcopal) church, known as the Church of Ireland, of which Edgeworths and most Big House Ascendancy families were members ••• Later, Belfast First Volunteer Company would lay groundwork for establishment of Society of the United Irishmen ••• With Volunteer backing in 1782, politician Henry Grattan was able to convince Irish Parliament in Dublin to declare itself an independent legislature ••• Under that new dispensation, Irish were bound only by laws enacted by Irish Parliament, not by Westminster (i.e. London-based British Parliament) ••• Set of legal changes that facilitated parliamentary independence known as Constitution of 1782 ••• Post-Constitution Irish Parliament informally called Grattan’s Parliament to honor Henry Grattan ••• Edgeworth’s father entered that body in Feb 1798; he would vote against Act of Union (see below), asserting that he opposed England’s assertion of right to do good to the Irish against their will ••• In response to bloody 1798 United Irish Rebellion, which sought sovereign Irish republic, British dissolved Irish Parliament and created new nation — United Kingdom of Great Britain [England, Wales, Scotland] and Ireland — with bicameral legislative body: House of Commons and House of Lords, meeting at Palace of Westminster, London ••• Piece of legislation that effected that outcome: Act of Union, passed in 1800
and “live” from 1 Jan 1801 ••• Later, Daniel O’Connell’s great Repeal Campaign used Monster Meetings and other non-violent strategies in attempt to dissolve Act of Union and restore independent Irish Parliament — i.e. constitutional nationalism ••• While set “before…1782,” Castle Rackrent was composed and first published, anonymously, in 1800, when Act of Union (i.e. loss of Irish parliamentary independence) was becoming inevitable ••• Original publisher: radical London house of Joseph Johnson ••• Production of Rackrent occurred under influence of Maria’s father’s sister, Margaret Ruxton, a woman amenable to novels; unusually, Maria seems not to have consulted father when writing Rackrent ••• Via first-person, native-Irish narrator, Thady Quirk — based on Edgeworth family servant John Langan — Rackrent critiques conditions in Ireland prior to beneficial changes of 1782 Constitution ••• However, due to being set over 18 years earlier than time of composition (1800), text can also respond indirectly to 1798 Rebellion and impending Union ••• Consciousness of 1798 Rebellion more apparent in concluding phase of Patronage (1814), Edgeworth’s longest novel ••• During conflict, Edgeworths had to flee home due to proximity of United Irish rebels, supported by French invasionary force ••• On 5 Sep 1798, Maria wrote Margaret Ruxton: We are all safe and well, my dearest aunt, and have had two most fortunate escapes from rebels and from the explosion of an ammunition cart. Yesterday we heard, about ten o’clock in the morning, that a large body of rebels, armed with pikes, were within a few miles of Edgeworthstown. … We were all ready to move, when the report was contradicted: only twenty or thirty men were now, it was said, in arms, and my father hoped we might still hold fast to our dear home. In effect, honest / old / poor Thady’s discourse — expressed in Hiberno-English idiom or dialect — acknowledges best route forward for Ireland not more physical-force nationalism, which British colonial regime could quash militarily, but rather exploitation of increasingly liberal laws by arriviste (i.e. emerging, strengthening) Catholic middle class to secure land-and-house ownership and educational and other benefits ••• Latter scenario transpires for retainer Thady’s son, Jason Quirk, who gains law degree: “attorney Quirk … a high gentleman” ••• Jason exploits knowledge of colonial law, plus weaknesses within Ascendancy (such as indebtedness and gambling), to gradually acquire Rackrent estate, including a notable homestead, the Lodge ••• “[W]hen things were tight with them [Sir Condy Rackrent and family] about this time, my son Jason put in a word again about the Lodge, and made a genteel offer to lay down the purchase-money, to relieve Sir Condy’s distresses. … So Sir Condy was fain [pleased] to take the purchase-money of the Lodge from my son Jason to settle matters; and sure enough it was a good bargain for both parties, for my son bought the fee-simple [outright ownership] of a good house for him and his heirs for ever, for little or nothing” ••• Quirks advance from subaltern Thady to proprietor Jason, as evidenced in conversation between Thady and grandniece Judy McQuirk: “Thady, pray now is it true what I’m told for sartain [certain], that Sir Condy has made over all to your son Jason?” “All,” says I. “All entirely?” says she again. “All entirely” says I.
“Then,” says she, “that’s a great shame; but don’t be telling Jason what I say.” Some commentators interpret Thady as possessing a slave mentality — e.g., John Cronin: “Edgeworth has given us … a magnificently realized slave, a terrifying vision of the results of colonial misrule. … [W]hat needs to be said [is] said through one of the submerged people” ••• Elizabeth Harden exemplifies the critics who see Thady as narrating with “unconscious naiveté”; by contrast, James Newcomer asserts, “If [Thady] is simple, he has the native shrewdness that may sometimes be the companion of simplicity” ••• Duane Edwards adopts an in-between position: “[Thady] is neither completely loyal nor completely disloyal” ••• Your instructor is in the Newcomer camp! ••• Jason’s comprehension of the law facilitates his near-acquisition of Castle itself: “Oh, Jason! Jason! how will you stand to this in the face of the county, and all who know you?” says I [Thady]; “and what will people think and say when they see you living here in Castle Rackrent, and the lawful owner turned out of the seat of his ancestors, without a cabin to put his head into, or so much as a potato to eat?” ••• The tale concludes with Condy (the fourth and final Rackrent) dead and his widow (Isabella MoneygawlRackrent) and Jason Quirk “going to law” over a jointure — that is, an estate settled on a wife for as long as she survives her husband ••• The editorial Preface, an integral part of Rackrent, enumerates various pathetic characteristics of the Rackrent men: “the drunken Sir Patrick, the litigious Sir Murtagh, the fighting Sir Kit, and the slovenly Sir Condy” ••• Rackrent complicates anticolonial narrative about British appropriation of Irish land and assets, for Rackrent family originally Gaelic O’Shaughlin clan: deliberate sonic resemblance to English word shock ••• Sir Patrick O’Shauglin becomes Sir Patrick Rackrent, a party animal who has the “chicken-house [at Castle] … fitted up for … accommodating his friends and the public in general” ••• Patrick succeeded by son, the parsimonious (Scrooge-like), irascible (hot-tempered), and litigious (“sue you”) Sir Murtagh Rackrent ••• Murtagh succeeded by younger brother Sir Kit Rackrent, who gambles in Bath, England — setting of Sheridan’s The Rivals — whence he brings to Castle Rackrent Jewish wife, Jessica, whose fortune he desires ••• “[S]he was a JEWISH by all accounts, who are famous for their great riches. I [Thady] had never seen any of that tribe or nation before, and could only gather that she spoke a strange kind of English of her own, that she could not abide pork or sausages, and went neither to church or mass. Mercy upon his honor’s poor soul, thought I; what will become of him and his, and all of us, with his heretic blackamoor [nonChristain black African (offensive term)] at the head of the Castle Rackrent estate?” ••• Perhaps Edgeworth indetified with Jessica: although a member of the Ascendancy, her gender marginalized her within that coterie; furthermore, she on occasion had to make attempts at being “head” of her family’s estate ••• Being “at daggers drawn” with Jessica, Kit cruelly incarcerates her for a Biblical seven years, until he dies in duel: [M]y lady shut herself up in her own room, and my master said she might stay there, with an oath: and to make sure of her, he turned the key in the door, and kept it ever after in his pocket. We none of us ever saw or heard her speak for seven years after that. Anti-Semitism in Castle Rackrent (1800) and The Absentee (1812) deliberately counterbalanced in Edgeworth’s novel Harrington (1817) ••• Kit succeeded by non-aristocratic distant cousin Condy (Thady’s “white-headed boy” or favorite), who apparently obtained a law degree and who chooses for wife Isabella Moneygawl, rather than Judy McQuirk, Thady’s physically attractive grandniece •••
Judy marries an estate huntsman who then enlists in the British army and is “killed in the [overseas] wars”: “Poor Judy fell off greatly in her good looks after her being married a year or two … being smoke-dried in the cabin, and neglecting herself like” (note the “like” in this and other Rackrent constructions; some linguistics claim that such usage in Hiberno-English is origin of present-day epidemic of “like” in American English) ••• While presented as “unvarnished tale,” Rackrent perhaps based on Thady as unreliable narrator, feigning loyalty to flawed Rackrent family while supplying inside information to opportunistic, fortune-hunting son Jason (e.g., “I spoke a good word for my son, and gave out in the country that nobody need bid against us [for lease of a Rackrent-estate farm]”) ••• Complicating text is editorial apparatus: Thady effectively obliged to share his two-part text (PatrickMurtagh-Kit; then Condy) with editorial voice, which offers Preface (“The prevailing taste of the public for anecdote…”); brief Epilogue (“The Editor could have made the catastrophe…”); Glossary (first entry: “Monday Morning”); and Footnotes ••• Although short (more novella than novel), Rackrent enjoys critical reputation as the first regional novel in English and Ireland’s first Big House novel ••• Individual episodes worth detailed interrogation ••• One of most famous occurs in second part of Thady’s narrative: Continuation of the Memoirs of the Rackrent Family: History of Sir Conolly [Condy] Rackrent ••• While Thady is using a roofing slate to stop up a hole once covered by a pane of glass in a “window … in the long passage, or gallery,” he observes “Mrs. Jane,” retainer to Condy’s wife Isabella, “doing her [Isabella’s] hair behind” while Isabella reads ••• One document is Goethe’s epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (first published in English in 1779), whose title-protagonist commits suicide due to a love triangle ••• Another document is a letter recently received by Isabella from her family (the Moneygawls of Mount Juliet’s Town) ••• Further complicating the scene is the presence of Condy, which precipitates the following exchange: “Well, what’s in your letter, Bella, my dear?” says he: “you’re a long time spelling it over.” “Won’t you shave this morning, Sir Condy?” says she, and put the letter into her pocket. “I shaved the day before yesterday,” said he, “my dear, and that’s not what I’m thinking of now; but anything to oblige you, and to have peace and quietness, my dear” — and presently I [Thady] had a glimpse of him at the cracked glass over the chimney-piece, standing up shaving himself to please my lady. But she took no notice, but went on reading her book, and Mrs. Jane doing her hair behind. “What is it you’re reading there, my dear? — phoo, I’ve cut myself with this razor; the man’s a cheat that sold it me, but I have not paid him for it yet. What is it you’re reading there? Did you hear me asking you, my dear?” “THE SORROWS OF WERTHER,” replies my lady, as well as I could hear. “I think more of the sorrows of Sir Condy,” says my master, joking like. This tableau captures some of the multiple viewpoints available in colonial Ireland, from Thady’s glassless window to Condy’s “cracked glass” (i.e. compromised mirror), in which everything appears reversed ••• Condy’s cutting himself in a “cracked glass” while gazing at his wife reading seems to reverberate in the first episode of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922), where Malachi (“Buck”) Mulligan challenges the protagonist Stephen Dedalus: He [Malahi (“Buck”) Mulliagn] folded his razor neatly and with stroking palps of fingers felt the smooth skin. Stephen turned his gaze from the sea and to the plump face with its smokeblue mobile eyes.
… … … He [Mulligan] swept the mirror a half circle in the air …. —Look at yourself, he said [to Stephen], you dreadful bard! Stephen bent forward and peered at the mirror held out to him, cleft by a crooked crack. Hair on end. As he and others see me. Who chose this face for me? This dogsbody to rid of vermin. It asks me too. —I pinched it [the mirror] out of the skivvy's [servant’s] room, Buck Mulligan said. It does her all right. The aunt always keeps plainlooking servants for Malachi. Lead him not into temptation. And her name is Ursula. Laughing again, he brought the mirror away from Stephen's peering eyes. —The rage of Caliban [character in Shakespeare’s Tempest] at not seeing his face in a mirror, he said. If [Oscar] Wilde were only alive to see you! Drawing back and pointing, Stephen said with bitterness: —It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked lookingglass of a servant. Buck Mulligan suddenly linked his arm in Stephen's and walked with him round the tower [exterior of their apartment], his razor and mirror clacking in the pocket where he had thrust them. Thady’s narrative opens with phrase “Monday Morning,” concerning which the Glossary comments disparagingly, in line with Stage Irish reductionism ••• However, one can see the undated time signal as intimating a genuine new beginning for Ireland: replacement of the dissolute landlord regime thanks to smart, educated natives, such as Jason •••