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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Castle Rackrent

Castle Rackrent
by Maria Edgeworth
176 pages
first published in 1800

For this year's 1% Well Read Challenge I decided to focus on older books. As I did last year, I chose books based solely on their titles - if they sounded interesting, they went on my list. For the most part my strategy works well; after all, it brought me Evelina, The Castle of Otranto, and Phineas Finn. Castle Rackrent is another matter though ...

About the Book

Here's what says: "Thady Quirk - or "honest Thady" - having lived on the estate of Castle Rackrent for most of his long life, takes it upon himself to "publish the MEMOIRS of the RACKRENT FAMLY." Speaking in Irish vernacular, he describes the masters he and his family have served under: Sir Patrick, who fills his house with guests and drinks himself to death; Sir Murtagh, his heir, a "great lawyer," who refuses - "out of honor" - to pay Sir Patrick's debts; and Sir Kit, who gambles and eventually sells his estate to Thady's son. Through Thady's memories of these landowners (and the tenants who all too often had to pay for the landownders' indulgences) we gain a picture of feudal life in Ireland before the Irish Revolution. Thady is an unreliable narrator who, it appears, cannot - or does not - tell the whole story. Which leaves a question. Is Thady a naive and loyal servant or is he a clever and self-serving man who knows how to get his point across and his plans accomplished without seeming to know what he is saying or doing? Adding to the underlying irony of the narrative is the contrast between Thady and the anonymous, condescending British voice of the mock glossary of terms. Humorous and biting, Castle Rackrent is a largely unrecognized jewel of social satire."

And later, "With her satire on Anglo-Irish landlords in Castle Rackrent (1800), Maria Edgeworth pioneered the regional novel and inspired Sir Walter Scott's Waverley (1814). Politically risky, stylistically innovative, and wonderfully entertaining, the novel changes the focus of conflict in Ireland from religion to class, and boldly predicts the rise of the Irish Catholic bourgeoisie."

According to wikipedia this book "is often regarded as the first historical novel, the first regional novel in English, the first Anglo-Irish novel, the first Big House novel and the first saga novel." That's a lot to attribute to one small book!

My Thoughts

Based on everything you've read above, you'd think this would be a pretty good book. Unfortunately it didn't like up to the hype for me. Thady tells his story in a very rambly way, relating anecdote after anecdote, conversation after conversation, and never really seems to have a point. I mean, his point is to tell the stories of the Rackrent heirs - which he does - but the whole thing seems rather pointless to me.

I did quite enjoy the snarky comments inserted by "the editor" though. There are even footnotes to help explain some of the Irish vernacular, and the footnotes are great! Below is an example of one of them - be sure to read it with a bit of snark:
English Tenants: An English tenant does not mean a tenant who is an Englishman, but a tenant who pays his rent the day that it is due. It is a common prejudice in Ireland, amongst the poorer classes of people, to believe that all tenants in England pay their rents on the very day when they become due. An Irishman, when he goes to take a farm, if he wants to prove to his landlord that he is a substantial man, offers to become an English tenant. If a tenant disobliges his landlord by voting against him, or against his opinion, at an election, the tenant is immediately informed by the agent that he must become an English tenant. This threat does not imply that he is to change his language or his country, but that he must pay all the arrear of rent which he owes, and that he must thenceforward pay his rent on that day when it becomes due.
That wasn't the best of them but it WAS one of the shortest and it gives you an idea of what I'm talking about.

I'm not familiar with the author but it seems she was well-respected in her day and afterward. The version I read (posted on included an introduction by Anne Thackeray Ritchie, daughter of William Thackeray, in which she praised Ms. Edgeworth's writing very highly. (Honestly, the introduction was almost better than the book itself.)

So yes, this book gets credit for being the first historical novel, etc., etc., but the story itself isn't all that great ... it's the snarky editor and the footnotes that are worth reading.


softdrink said...

How the heck did you ever come across this book? I've never even heard of it.

Heather J. said...

softdrink - HA! it was on the 1,001 books to read before you die list. :)

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