Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 5, 2015

Castle Rackrent, by Maria Edgeworth

Maria Edgeworth by John downman 1807, source: Wikipedia Commons

Maria Edgeworth by John Downman 1807 (source: Wikipedia Commons)

Castle Rackrent is a very short novel: I read the whole thing on the plane coming back from Queensland today.  It’s a satire first published in 1800, by Anglo-Irish author Maria Edgeworth, and it rates a place in 1001 Books You Must Read because it’s the first historical novel (because the sub-title tells us that it’s set before 1782), telling the tale of four generations of irresponsible Rackrents and how they lost their estates.   It’s also the first ‘Big House’ novel, and the first Anglo-Irish novel.

And it’s an early example of a very unreliable narrator.  It purports to be a transcription of an oral narrative by an illiterate butler, Thady Quirk.  Thady claims to be loyal to the spendthrift Rackrents to the point of being critical of his own son Jason Quirk, a lawyer who ends up taking over the bankrupt estate.  But the tale is riddled with ironies, and if you read between the lines you can intuit that Thady is actually rather proud of this son who has simply outsmarted the thoroughly undeserving Irish gentry.

Of all the Rackrents, only the last, Sir Condy Rackrent, has any redeeming features, but he is such an incompetent fool that his wife finally gives up altogether and leaves him.  (She was a bit luckier than Sir Kit’s wife, who gets locked up in the bedroom for seven years).   The first to take the Rackrent name, Sir Patrick O’Shaughlin was a boozy spendthrift;  Sir Murtagh Rackrent wasted his money in pointless litigation; and Sir Kit Rackrent gambled it away so that by the time Sir Condy inherits, things are in a parlous state. It is he who finally has to surrender the estate to Jason Quirk because there simply isn’t any money left – just detailing the bills takes up more than a page of text.

Truth be told, I think also that it had to be Sir Condy who loses the lot because the author had run out of steam and there wasn’t much more to say.  Castle Rackrent is obviously a significant work in the history of the novel, but it’s an early work more like an adaptation of a picaresque tale than a novel as we know it.  While droll here and there, it isn’t particularly satisfying reading in terms of either plot or characterisation, and there’s none of the subtlety that you find in an Austen novel.  Thady isn’t a character who has any agency in the novel, he’s merely an observer and of the other characters, none are well-developed.  And the plot is always a foregone conclusion.

There is also a rather ponderous Prologue and a glossary, for the edification of English readers not familiar with some of the Irish words and phrases.

An interesting book to read because of its place in the development of the novel, but I’m glad it wasn’t any longer than it was.

Author: Maria Edgeworth
Title: Castle Rackrent
Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Read on the Kindle.

 


Responses

  1. I read this and really liked it. I had the impression it was a gothic novel–partly due to the title I suppose and then the book tends to get lumped w/gothic novels for some reason.

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    • Last year I did one of those free online MOOC courses about the English Country House, so I was looking for the gothic. But I can’t say I picked up on any of that…. though, you know, planes, I’m sure they put something in the air to make the passengers stupid…

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  2. Dear old Thady – the best thing about this novel for me.

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    • Yes, I would agree with that. I wonder if he was the first stock ‘loyal old butler’ in fiction?

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      • Interesting thought. She would have beaten Sir Walter Scott.

        I don’t read much pre-19th century. Of course I have to think of Shakespeare – he’s responsible for so many new words, maybe a lot of firsts also?

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        • Bound to be!
          I don’t think I ever got round to reading Scott.

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          • I haven’t read a lot of Scott, but he has a wonderful butler – not sure but think it might have been The Bride of Lammermoor. When his impoverished noble had the throw a banquet, the trusty butler scrounged provisions from the villagers.

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            • That would be the Lammermoor that became the opera?? And *blush* I haven’t read it?? Off to Gutenberg now…

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              • Yes, that’s the one. I had forgotten about the opera. Whenever I am reminded of it, I remember that Emma Bovary saw it.

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  3. I think you summed it up perfectly. I think I appreciated it rather than liked it.

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    • Yes, good to read, so you know where you are, but mercifully short.

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  4. Hmmmm my experience with these very early novels hasn’t been wonderful so far. I find them rather laboured

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    • Yes, that’s what I find about picaresque, episodic-type novels in general. I think it’s because we read with years of experience of the-novel-as-we-know-it, and we are looking for connections that aren’t there.

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  5. I thought I’d reviewed this one but I now see that I read it in 2009 just before I started blogging. I’m with Guy in that I enjoyed it. A bit of a hoot, but very much of its era. And a good length as I recollect, Lisa!

    I do think we have to read novels from those early years of the novel with a different perspective. If I read a juvenilia work or an incomplete work or a very early period work, I think about them in that context, in terms of what they tell me about the author, the development of the form, etc. I don’t look to “enjoy” them the same way I might a fully-formed more traditional or modern novel, if that makes sense.

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    • Yes, that’s just as true for classic novels as it is for contemporary ones. Books like this one are read for a slightly different purpose, as you say.

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