Castle Rackrent is a basketful of firsts. It has been called the first regional novel, the first unreliable narrator-observer novel, the first “Big House” novel, the first Western lit family saga, and a plethora of other things. And if all that sounds boring, then I should add that it is short, silly, and gets straight to the point.
Castle Rackrent gets a bit of First Series Star Trek Syndrome in that it is old enough that all the motifs it pioneered have become old tropes. As a consequence, rather than feeling innovative, it reads like a thoroughly staid “classic”.
The book is very clearly a political satire even without history knowledge. However, if you’re into it, added background googling turns up some information that lends the book an undertone of deadpan seriousness.
The book was a response to the Acts of Union 1800 which came hot on the heels of the Irish rebellion. To summarize, the Irish wanted independence, but they didn’t get it, so London was like “lol all ur parliament are belong to us” and took away Ireland’s legislative independence. There was other stuff going on like the French Revolution and Mad King George having angry feelings about Catholics, but what was really contextually important was the Acts of Union.
A lot of people, Castle Rackrent’s author included, felt that the Acts signified an end to autonomous Irish identity. This theme, and the theme of class, are strong ones in Castle Rackrent. The Rackrents, savagely parodied in order of descendant, belong to the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. They are positioned at the top of a hierarchy that was beginning to crumble at the time the book was written. The narrator, Thady Quirk, is the family steward and even through the lens of his enthusiastic loyalty, the Rackrents are clearly villains.
What makes this representation so interesting is that, unlike in future parody chronicles, the author wasn’t a member of the commoner class predicting the downfall of the landed gentry.
She was a member of the landed gentry, predicting the rise of the commoner class.
Maria Edgeworth has been referred to as the “Irish Jane Austen”. Austen herself was said to be a fan of Edgeworth; in particular of Belinda, Edgeworth’s more famous second novel. Edgeworth was an early realist, writing her characters as if they were people and not symbols, though whether Castle Rackrent is a departure from this or just an especially stinging example of it could be left to speculation.
Edgeworth’s motivations for writing Castle Rackrent can be attributed to the Acts of Union 1800 as described above, but also to her views on the abusive pecking order between landowners and tenants.
Four successive heirs to the Rackrent estate, each in their own way, exploit the people in their service and in their care as they slowly but surely drive the estate into the ground. The family is primarily comprised of lawsuit-happy blowhards, alcoholics, abusive husbands, arrogant wives, and squandering idiots. Even a narrator as blinkered and devoted as Thady isn’t enough to make them likeable. In short, the novel has a clear agenda.
So, what is there to recommend Castle Rackrent to a contemporary reader who isn’t into colonially hegemonic Irish history? The short version is: the book is very short and funny. The long version is: it is short, funny, written by an educated and independent Irish lady who was not afraid to poke fun at her own social class, historically intriguing, and also free to read online at Project Gutenberg, or to listen to on LibriVox. Or, if you like that new book smell, you can grab a copy from BookDepository.