This year I have been joining in with Book Bingo hosted by Theresa, Amanda and Ashleigh, and in this round I am completing the Politics and Power square with Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth. At first glance Castle Rackrent appears to be a simple tale of the last generations of the Rackrent family narrated by their faithful Irish steward Thady Quirk. However, published in 1800 shortly after the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and in the midst of a heated debate about the forthcoming union between Great Britain and Ireland, the publication of Castle Rackrent was a political act in of itself.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestant English settlers had migrated to Ireland, confiscating the land from the Irish natives and setting themselves up as the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. In 1695 draconian laws were introduced that penalised, oppressed and impoverished the native Irish Catholic majority. They were prohibited from owning land, standing for parliament and even from voting. With little legal or political power, they had nothing to lose. Rebellion was only a matter of time.
One of the most interesting aspects of Castle Rackrent is the dual narrative set up between the narrator Thady and an unknown fictional English editor. While Thady tells the story of the Rackrents, the editor provides a preface, footnotes, concluding remarks and a glossary. It sets up a dialogue between the Irish voice of Thady and the English voice of the editor, but over the course of the story becomes a struggle for control. The editor’s role was to interpret Thady’s narrative for an English audience who were quite ignorant about Ireland and the Irish people. Assumed to be male, the editor regularly interrupts Thady’s narration to provide footnotes and directions to the glossary, all the while using a patronising and condescending tone, intent on depicting the Irish as simple and backward. But he tries too hard, interrupting so often and explaining things that should have been quite obvious from the context that he actually makes himself appear quite ridiculous. It all goes to show how anxious the English were about the Irish and how desperately they needed to be able to subdue and control them.
Thady on the other hand, in his own quaint matter of fact way, relates the history of the last four Rackrent masters. It is a tale of extravagance, corruption, mismanagement and degeneration. On the surface, Thady appears to be a simple servant, perhaps a little naive, but always loyal to the family. Yet he doesn’t hold back from detailing all the faults of his masters, from drunkenness and gambling to conjugal imprisonment and financial recklessness. So much for his high regard for the family’s honour! While Thady takes centre stage, his son Jason, an attorney and agent for Castle Rackrent, is quietly acquiring all the lands of the estate as they are sold off to settle the growing debts. By the end of the story, it is Jason, son of the simple Irish steward, who is now Lord and Master of Castle Rackrent. Talk about social upheaval! Thady knew what Jason was doing and said nothing. He witnessed the extravagance and mismanagement by the Rackrents and said nothing. He deliberately encouraged the final master, Sir Condy to emulate one of the previous lords, Sir Patrick, in generosity and extravagance. Simple steward or manipulative schemer?
Edgeworth apparently wrote Castle Rackrent to offer a more positive view of the Irish. From our point of view this can be a bit puzzling because it doesn’t seem like a very positive image – simple and backward or manipulative and subversive? Edgeworth and her family were part of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, and while the Edgeworths reportedly held quite liberal and progressive views for the time, they still saw the Irish as backward and ignorant and in need of a sympathetic, compassionate and paternal form of governance. An important thing to keep in mind is the timing of Castle Rackrent’s publication. Inspired by the French Revolution, the Irish peasants rose up in rebellion in 1798. The Rebellion was brutally suppressed and up to 30,000 were killed, which incidentally is apparently more than were killed in the entire French reign of Terror! But in the wake of the Rebellion, numerous narratives were written, published and widely circulated that testified to the brutality, savagery and violence of the Irish. In comparison then, the image of the Irish depicted in Castle Rackrent was somewhat more appealing. Additionally the Edgeworths saw the union with Great Britain as being economically beneficial to Ireland, so it was desirable for the English to view the Irish as somewhat simple, naive, childlike, subordinate…harmless.
Reading a classic text like Castle Rackrent can be a bit tricky, even puzzling. We might wonder why it is included in the literary canon when there are other authors who are better novelists, such as Jane Austen or the Brontes. It can be especially puzzling when we go in cold without knowing anything about the historical and social context. I found Castle Rackrent a little puzzling at first, until I did some reading into the Irish Rebellion. It is still a puzzling text, inspiring a range of different interpretations amongst critics and that is one of the reasons that it still speaks to readers today. As one critic said, it leaves readers in a “bog of uncertainty” (Hack 161). As we contend with Covid 19 and International tensions in 2020, we too might feel we are wading through a “bog of uncertainty,” and so perhaps we can relate to the anxiety and confusion that Castle Rackrent continues to arouse.
Hack, Daniel. “Inter-Nationalism: ‘Castle Rackrent’ and Anglo-Irish Union.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol 29, No. 2, 1996, pp 154-64.