Castle Rackrent (1800) by Maria Edgeworth: A great satirical romp

This trailblazer may be the first Anglo-Irish, historical and ‘Big House Saga’ novel

 Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849): an impressive figure, she wrote for children and adults, and held progressive views on education. Photograph of engraving:  Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849): an impressive figure, she wrote for children and adults, and held progressive views on education. Photograph of engraving: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

 

I cannot recall exactly when I first read Castle Rackrent but I clearly recall how much I enjoyed reading it. It’s been well described as a romp cum fable; on a more serious level, it’s a satire on Anglo-Irish landlords of the late 18th century and alludes to the rise of the Catholic middle class.

During that first enjoyable read, I little realised its – or Maria Edgeworth’s – importance in the evolution of the English novel. For the first 20 years of the 19th century, she was the most successful and celebrated living novelist writing in English. Castle Rackrent clocks up an impressive list of firsts: first Anglo-Irish novel, first historical novel, and the first in a series of what might be called “Big House Saga” novels.

Social issues

By any standards, Edgeworth is an impressive figure; significant in the evolution of the novel, she wrote for children and adults, was deeply interested in economics, politics and history and wove those interests into her grasp of social issues. She held progressive views on education, supporting and endowing co-ed schools to educate boys and girls together and in the same way.

On the social position of women, she was equally progressive. The women in Castle Rackrent are well capable of standing on their own. She defended women’s right to marry whom they wished, regardless of what society or their families expected of them; this, too, is evident in the novel.

Role of money

The four generations of gentry in the novel are hopeless with money: either they spend extravagantly when some sensible money-management would help the estate or they’re too tight-fisted to pay proper wages and are thus unable to find the sort of workers needed to make the estate pay its way.

The lively narration is the novel’s great strength but narrator Thady Quirk, who is the estate steward, cannot be taken at face value. Known as “Honest Thady”, according to himself, he frequently stresses his impartiality almost as often as reminding us he’s a good honest man who’s financially capable (comparing himself very favourably with the Rackrents), all the while claiming not to have any specific side to himself at all.

Enjoy the read and don’t worry about the literary-historical importance.

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