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Castle Rackrent: An Hibernian Tale Taken from Facts and from the Manners of the Irish Squires before the Year 1782

Castle Rackrent: An Hibernian Tale taken from facts and from the manners of the Irish squires before the year 1782

by Maria Edgeworth

THE LITERARY WORK

A novel spanning three generations; purported to be set before 1782 in an unspecified region of the Irish countryside; published in 1800.

SYNOPSIS

A servant narrates the downfall of the family he serves as they lose their ancestral estate through personal vice and gross mismanagement.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) came to live in Ireland at the age of 15. The year was 1782, the same one in which Ireland achieved a short-lived parliamentary independence from English rule, and a year earlier than the setting of her first (widely considered her best) novel, Castle Rackrent. The Anglo-Irish Edgeworth family had held Irish lands since the reign of James I, somehow managing to maintain them despite a history of inept Edgeworths who, in the manner of the Rackrents, did their best to gamble, drink, and mismanage the estate away. In contrast, Maria’s father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, was a conscientious landlord and a political progressive, reforming age-old feudal practices that oppressed tenants and made estates unprofitable. Richard Lovell Edgeworth was also a brilliant inventor and educational theorist who took great pains to educate his daughter. The two collaborated on works of educational theory (Practical Education; Professional Education) that are considered to be among the most important contributions to contemporary instruction. Also, based on her father’s ideas, Maria wrote stories designed to educate and improve children (The Parent’s Assistant, Early Lessons, Moral Tales, Popular Tales), and even her novels for adults show a strong didactic strain. Castle Rackrent, the first of four novels she would write concerning the Anglo-Irish in Ireland (including Ennui, The Absentee, and Ormond), instructs through counterexample, showing quite clearly how not to run an estate. But the novel can also be read as a nuanced commentary on relations between Irish and Anglo-Irish, Catholic and Protestant, tenant and landlord, servant and master, wife and husband.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Irish and English

Castle Rackrent is set in an Ireland under English rule. Before English rule, Ireland was a country of competing minor kings frequently engaged in warfare with one another; the “High King” of Ireland was so in name only. Internal strife and lack of central political authority made Ireland vulnerable to unified England. This chaos was, moreover, reflected in the structure of the Irish Church. The Irish Church was founded in the fifth century by the most famous of Irish missionaries, St. Patrick. Because of Ireland’s lack of central political authority, the Church in Ireland developed along lines different from those that delineated the Church in the rest of Europe; Irish ecclesiastic authority was divided between the abbots of Ireland’s many monasteries rather than being concentrated in a hierarchy of bishops as it was elsewhere. Following the fall of Rome, the Irish Church lost communication with the Roman papacy for 400 years, and Irish Christianity developed its own customs that ran counter to Roman law. In Ireland, priests could marry, abbots need not be ordained, and many ecclesiastic offices were hereditary. By the twelfth century, the papacy, claiming authority over all temporal rulers, had regained control of the Church in continental Europe and Britain, and now turned its attention to reforming heretical Ireland. Pope Adrian IV (the first English pope) realized that without a strong central political power there could be no guarantor of papal authority in Ireland. So in 1155, he issued a papal bull, entitled Laudabiliter, declaring that England’s King Henry II was “Lord of Ireland.” Fourteen years later, Henry II decided to assert this title.

In 1169 Diarmuid MacMurrough, an Irish king facing the rebellion of his subjects, sought the help of Richard de Clare, a powerful Anglo-Norman magnate residing in Wales. De Clare, more commonly known as “Strongbow,” came to MacMurrough’s aid and successfully put down the revolt, staying on afterwards to marry MacMurrough’s daughter and inherit his kingdom when the Irish king died a few years later. The gaining of an independent kingdom by a powerful vassal worried Henry II, and in 1171 the English king came to Ireland to finally claim his title as ‘Lord.’ Strongbow, along with the Irish kings, swore fealty to Henry, who demanded that henceforth the Irish kings pay him tribute. In return, Strongbow and other Anglo-Normans (English descendants of immigrants from Normandy, who had conquered England a century earlier) would be granted large tracts of land in Ireland, in return for which they had to render military service. Henry himself claimed the area around Dublin, which came to be known as the “English Pale,” as the exclusive province of the English Crown.

Henry met no resistance in his enterprise: the Anglo-Normans were glad to have the backing of the English Crown in the midst of Irish chaos, the Irish Church welcomed the strength that they believed closer ties to Rome and a powerful English king would bring, and most importantly, the Irish kings acquiesced. At this point, they had no sense that Ireland was a nation that should be ruled by the Irish. Their concerns were, rather, confined to the local level, with individuals focusing on the constant struggle to maintain authority over their small contested kingdoms. Henry II was just another more powerful king demanding fealty.

The Anglo-Irish

Anglo-Norman settlers continued to expand the territory that Henry II originally granted them, and by 1250 they controlled three-fourths of Ireland. These Anglo-Normans, along with other immigrants from England, established English-style feudalism in the lands they controlled, and in 1264 founded the first Irish Parliament, modeled on the English system but with limited representation only from the Anglo-Norman regions and the English Pale. Over time, the descendants of English settlers in Ireland developed a sense of identity as neither English nor Irish, but Anglo-Irish. Although the native Irish would always greatly outnumber the Anglo-Irish, the latter would dominate Ireland, owning most of the land and occupying all positions of power in the colonial government and the official Church.

Ireland under English rule was a classic colonial society fueled by racial tension. Although many Anglo-Irish intermarried with the Irish and adopted the native language and customs, for the most part the Anglo-Irish regarded their English heritage as a badge of superiority, holding the native Irish in contempt. Two factions developed within the ranks of Anglo-Irish: the so-called “Old English,” the original colonists who settled Ireland in the early days of Henry II, and the “New English,” the colonists who came to Ireland in later centuries. One of the main differences between the two was religion: by and large, the “Old English” were Catholic while the “New English” were Protestant, or more specifically, Anglican.

In Ireland as in Britain under Anglican rule, Protestants (Presbyterians, Quakers, Baptists, and others) who did not conform to the Anglican Church were labeled “Dissenters,” and suffered privations. In Ireland, Dissenters were not part of the power elite, but they did share to some extent in the privileges that distinguished Protestant from Catholic. In this entry, the term “Protestant” should be understood to refer to Anglicans in the main, but also to include, to a lesser degree, non-Anglican Protestants.

Catholic and Protestant

After Henry II established English rule, Ireland was left largely to its own devices. It was for a long time considered an unprofitable, backward colony, and the Wars of the Roses (1455-87) distracted English monarchs from affairs across the Irish Sea. Once Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church to form the Anglican Church, however, Ireland became a threat to English security. Because of their nation’s Catholicism, Irish rebels could attract powerful Catholic allies from the continent, and England’s Catholic opponents could always count on a safe harbor in Ireland as long as the Irish remained largely loyal to the pope. This situation led Queen Elizabeth I to bring Ireland under closer English control. She initiated a program of “plantation,” seizing the large landholdings of Irish Catholic rebels and giving them to loyal Protestant English subjects; the Catholic tenants on these lands were also replaced with Protestants. In the following centuries the native Irish were evicted out of hand, many exiled to the rocky and unproductive lands of Connaught in the west of Ireland, their plots given to Protestant British settlers. There were not enough British immigrants to work the land, however, and the native Irish slowly came back as tenants and laborers for the new Protestant Anglo-Irish landowners. The divide between Protestant and Catholic assumed a greater significance than in Britain or the rest of Europe. Like the Protestant settlers themselves, Protestantism was in Ireland an English import, associated with the colonial power. The vast majority of the native Irish resisted this power and remained Catholic.

In the Williamite War (1689-91), Irish Catholics supported England’s Catholic King James II, while Irish Protestants supported the Protestant contestant for the English throne, William of Orange. After James’s defeat, Catholics were punished for their support of James by the confiscation of yet more land, which Protestant immigrants received. Because of their ever-increasing land holdings, Protestants dominated the Irish Parliament and all other sectors of Irish public life, a situation known as the “Protestant Ascendancy”—the label was also applied to the Anglo-Irish Protestants who benefited from this situation. During the Ascendancy, the Irish Parliament passed Penal Laws similar to the anti-Catholic legislation that had been in effect for some time in England. These laws denied Catholics the vote, prevented them from holding government office, and barred them from the legal professions and armed services. Catholics were not allowed to bear arms, establish schools, or send their children abroad for an education. They could no longer buy land, and what lands they retained had to be divided equally among the owner’s sons when the owner died—thus the Protestant elite tried to break up Catholic estates into small, unprofitable pieces. Eldest sons could, however, gain possession of the entire family estate by becoming Protestant, and thus the Penal Laws led to the conversion of many “Old English” land-owning Catholics to Protestantism.

A subject people

The Irish Parliament came into being in the thirteenth century under the domination of the Anglo-Irish. One of its first acts was to prohibit wearing native Irish dress. Later centuries saw the passage of subsequent laws in a similar spirit, such as the Statutes of Kilkenny, which prohibited the Anglo-Irish from marrying Irish people and from speaking the Irish language. Such laws reveal an ongoing anxiety over the separation of Anglo-Irish and Irish; they also point to the existence of that which they prohibit—many Anglo-Irish, particularly the “Old English” who had come to Ireland in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, did intermarry with the native Irish, frequently adopting native language and customs. Yet despite this apparent cultural assimilation, on a political level, boundaries between Anglo-Irish and Irish were maintained. Only Anglo-Irish could serve in the Irish Parliament, and the court system was restricted to Anglo-Irish as well. Under Henry VIII in the mid-sixteenth century, Catholic priests were forbidden to perform the Mass, and prayer books in English replaced native-language worship in the official Irish Church. Thus, the native Irish were excluded by virtue of race, language, and faith from the Anglo-Irish colonial government, legal system, and Church.

Over the centuries of English rule, the native Irish resisted this situation, but for a long time the lack of unity among a people who had never considered themselves a nation made throwing off the English yoke impossible, though several attempts were essayed. In one such attempt, with help from Spain, a confederation of Irish chiefs headed by Hugh O’Neill sought to oust the English but were defeated by English forces in 1603. Facing punishment, many of these chiefs fled to France in the so-called “Flight of the Earls,” leaving behind large land holdings in Ulster that the English Crown quickly claimed. These lands were designated plantations, and British subjects were invited to settle them while native Irish were driven out. The Flight of the Earls left a vacuum in Irish leadership and is emblematic of Ireland’s plight under English rule. Native Irish families who held power in the days before English rule lost their lands piecemeal to Anglo-Norman settlers, or were deprived of them under anti-Catholic laws, or had them confiscated if they dared challenge British colonial power. To avoid persecution, many emigrated to France and other Catholic countries on the European continent. Native Irish had to abandon their homeland if they wanted to pursue careers in the Church, law, or politics. Thus by the eighteenth century, to be native Irish was for the most part to be poor, disenfranchised, and landless, a tenant or cottier on an estate owned by the English or Anglo-Irish.

The landlord system

By the eighteenth century, 5,000 Protestant Anglo-Irish families (like the Edgeworths) controlled 95 percent of Ireland’s profitable lands. Under this system, land was no longer Irish property, and Irish society was divided into relatively inflexible classes. There were the Anglo-Irish landlords and the Irish tenants, separated by differences in culture, religion, and language.

Many Anglo-Irish landlords acquired a bad name for themselves by choosing to spend the profits from their properties on luxuries and high-status homes rather than reinvesting in the land. Absentee landlords in particular were seen as parasites on (or rather off) the land. In Castle Rackrent, one such absentee landlord leaves the affairs of the estate in the hands of a middle man, a new class of tenant who “took large farms on long leases from gentlemen of landed property, and let the land again in small portions to the poor, as under tenants, at exorbitant rents” (Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent, footnote, p. 20). Middle men were common on Anglo-Irish estates. More common still were land agents (such as the novel’s Jason Quirk), representatives who collected rents, maintained records, and enforced the various property rights for both absentee and resident landlords. Both middle men and land agents served to widen the perceived divide between Anglo-Irish landlords and their tenants, lessening the sense of obligation felt on either side.

The situation of tenants under this system was varied, but for the most part poor. Only 5 to 10 percent of tenants were “strong farmers” with over 30 acres, enough to allow them a measure of prosperity. The rest of the tenants had less than 30 acres, most of them much less, and the majority of people living on the land were not even tenants proper, but rather cottiers. Cottiers received the use of a small piece of land in return for their services either to a tenant or to the landlord himself, and generally lived in conditions of wretched poverty. Large cottier families crowded into dilapidated one-room shacks and struggled to feed themselves off their meager land-holdings.

A population explosion between 1725 and 1785 increased the strain on this system. Taking advantage of the land shortage, landowners raised their rents, prompting tenant farmers, in turn, to sublease more of their land than in the past in hopes of earning enough to meet their financial obligations. The vicious cycle of runaway rent and the subsequent subdivision of the land had disastrous consequences for the Irish economy. The real productive value of the land declined while more and more people were trying to eke out a living on a fixed acreage.

Independence?

For much of its history, the Irish Parliament was beholden not only to the English Crown but also to the British Parliament, a situation that many Anglo-Irish deplored but lacked the power or unity to change. Then in the eighteenth century, the American Revolution necessitated the removal of English troops from Ireland to fight in North America. To defend themselves against possible invasion from France, who had joined the Revolution in 1778, the Anglo-Irish organized their own volunteer army in Ireland. With troops to back them up, Anglo-Irish demands for parliamentary independence were taken more seriously, and in 1782, a new constitution was ratified establishing the independence of the Irish Parliament. Maria Edgeworth sets her novel before this date, which at the time seemed to be a landmark in Irish history. High hopes attended the newly independent Irish Parliament, at least for the Protestant Ascendancy, who had orchestrated it and would be the only ones to receive greater power. Native Irish, Catholics, and Dissenters, on the other hand, had no share in the “independence.” Powerless, they would rise up to demand complete autonomy from Britain in the rebellion of 1798.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Thady Quirk, the novel’s narrator, presents himself as “honest Thady,” unquestioningly loyal retainer to the Rackrent family at Castle Rackrent, an Irish country estate (Castle Rackrent, p. 7). He proclaims the narrative that follows to be “the Memoirs of the Rackrent Family,” undertaken by himself “out of friendship for the family” (Castle Rackrent, p. 7). Thady’s gossipy narrative is divided into two sections: the initial one recounts the character and deeds of the first three masters of Castle Rackrent (Sir Patrick, Sir Murtagh, and Sir Kit) under whom Thady and his forebears have served; the second gives a more detailed description of the estate’s final Rackrent owner, Sir Conolly, and of how he loses everything through waste and mismanagement. The “editor” of Thady’s memoirs, in reality also the author, offers a preface, a postscript, a glossary of Irish terms, and scholarly footnotes throughout “for the information of the ignorant English reader” (Castle Rackrent, p. 4).

Thady’s tale begins with Sir Patrick, who had to change his surname from O’Shaughlin (“one of the most ancient in the kingdom”) to Rack-rent in order to inherit the estate from his cousin, Sir Tallyhoo Rackrent (Castle Rackrent, p. 8). Sir Patrick is a sociable spendthrift who fills his house with liquor and landed gentlemen and dies as he lived—inebriated and oblivious to his accumulating debts. His funeral draws nobility from near and far, but is interrupted by a group of creditors who seize the body for debt. Sir Patrick’s heir, Sir Murtagh, takes the opportunity to renege on his father’s financial obligations “on account of this affront to the body” (Castle Rackrent, p. 12). It is rumored, however, that Sir Murtagh himself orchestrated the seizure of the corpse so that he would have an honorable excuse for refusing to pay.

Sir Murtagh, who has inherited none of his father’s profligacy or generosity, soon proves to be not above such suspicions. Avaricious and litigious, he is a good match for his wife, whose maiden name is Skinflint. Between the two of them, they call in every age-old feudal obligation from their tenants, who are required to constantly supply the Rackrents with free labor and gifts of livestock, agricultural produce, and cloth—items owed, by ancient tradition, in addition to the stipulated rent. Meanwhile Sir Murtagh amuses himself by engaging in numerous lawsuits with the neighbors over property rights. One day, a volatile argument with his wife over a property issue causes Sir Murtagh to burst a blood vessel and die. His wife receives a generous jointure, or inherited yearly income, and exits the estate, leaving behind no children and not even a candle or a piece of linen cloth, for all had been purchased with her own money.

Sir Murtagh’s brother, Sir Kit, becomes new owner of the estate. Thady loves him at first sight, observing that “money to him was no more than dirt,” as the young squire tosses him a guinea (Castle Rackrent, p. 20). All will be well, Thady thinks, if Sir Kit stays, but when the sporting season is over the new master leaves for Bath, putting care of the estate into the hands of a ruthless middle man. The middle man squeezes the tenants for every penny he can get, while Sir Kit sends home increasingly desperate demands for cash to fund his taste for gambling. Meanwhile,

JEWS IN EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY IRELAND

Sir Kit marries a Jewish heiress in Castle Rackrent who stubbornly refuses to give him her diamond cross. She tenaciously holds onto this symbol of Christianity, a curious detail that makes one wonder if more than the cross’s monetary value is at stake. Reviewing the history of Jews in the British Isles provides clues to understanding her behavior. Expelled from Britain in 1290, professed Jews were allowed to return in the mid-seventeenth century and began to filter into England and then Ireland. By the mid-eighteenth century, about 8,000 Jews constituted .1 percent of England’s population. The community in Dublin grew to 40 families in the mid-to-late eighteenth century, most of them employed in the jewelry trade. Although Jews had been permitted to resettle in the region, hostility against them persisted, as reflected in the repeal eight months after its passage of the Jew Bill, or Jewish Naturalization Act of 1753, which would have allowed Parliament to naturalize professing Jews. More hostility surfaced as the century progressed. In 1780 in Dublin, Sir John Blaquiere introduced a bill for the naturalization of all foreign settlers except Jews, denigrating them as money grabbers who brought ruin wherever they went. The Irish Naturalization Act of 1784 specifically excluded Jews, remaining in effect through the time of the novel (it would be repealed in 1816). Dublin’s Christian society accepted some of the richer Jews into its fold, and a few Christian champions came to the fore who contested Blaquiere’s stereotype; an anonymous writer to Freeman’s Journal (March 23, 1780), for example, argued that the Irish Jews were hard-working and thrifty, and deserved respect. But such champions were outnumbered by the intolerant denigrators and proselytizers. Throughout the eighteenth century, missionaries prevailed on Dublin’s Jews to convert to Christianity. Certainly conversion allowed individual Jews to avail themselves of opportunities, rights, and privileges otherwise denied them. By the end of the century, Dublin’s Jewish community had neared extinction as a result of conversions, intermarriage, and emigration.

Thady’s son, Jason, begins to work with the middle man, helping him copy the accounts and learning the business. When a part of the estate goes up for sale, Jason makes a bid for it. With the middle man’s connivance and the help of Thady, Jason takes advantage of Sir Kit’s lack of knowledge in such matters, and gets the land at a bargain price. Sir Kit soon hits bottom, and in order to solve his financial woes marries a rich Jewish heiress in England and brings her to Castle Rackrent to live.

Sir Kit’s new wife proves stubborn, however, and will not relinquish a magnificent diamond cross for Sir Kit to sell, so, to make her more amenable, Sir Kit locks her in her room for seven years. Reports of a mysterious illness as the reason for his wife’s confinement make handsome Sir Kit an attractive marriage prospect, and three hopeful candidates vie for his attention. Sir Kit takes advantage of the situation to dally with all three, and in consequence is called out by three outraged brothers to a series of duels, in one of which he is killed. Afterward, Lady Rackrent, alive and well with jewels and fortune intact, is set free and returns to England, which concludes the first part of Castle Rackrent. Once again the master and mistress of Castle Rackrent have produced no heirs.

The second part of Castle Rackrent is the “History of Sir Conolly Rackrent,” Sir Kit’s distant relative (Castle Rackrent, p. 38). Also called “Sir Condy,” this new master of Rackrent springs from a less exalted branch of the family. He grew up playing in the streets with and receiving help in his lessons from Thady’s son, Jason. Having no fortune of his own, Sir Condy was educated for a career in law, but shows no aptitude for it or any other practical matter. Thady tells how Condy never really applied himself to his studies because, “seeing how Sir Kit and the Jewish lived together,” he set his hopes on inheriting the Rackrent estate, and even accepted loans from several tenants on the strength of this expectation (Castle Rackrent, p. 40). Sir Condy’s vices are drink and an unwillingness to apply himself to business matters. As owner of the estate, he lives up to the family tradition of falling into debt.

Unlike his two predecessors, however, Sir Condy does not make a marriage calculated for monetary gain. Such concerns play no part in his decision between the two women who want to be his wife: Isabella Moneygawl, a young Anglo-Irish woman for whom Sir Condy feels little affection, but who flatters his ego by defying her wealthy family for him; and lowly but attractive Judy M’Quirk, Thady’s relative, a native Irishwoman who won Sir Condy’s heart some time ago. In a drunken moment, Sir Condy settles the matter with a coin toss, which turns out in Isabella’s favor. Though her family is rich, they withhold her dowry, disapproving of the match, but Isabella anyway maintains the costly lifestyle to which she is accustomed, adding to her husband’s mounting debts. Just before he is to be arrested for debts outstanding to the local wine merchant, Sir Condy manages to win a seat in Parliament, which gains him temporary legal immunity.

At the election celebration, Thady falls into conversation with the man sent to arrest Sir Condy, happening to mention to him the full extent of his master’s financial embarrassment. The man connives with Thady’s son, Jason, who by this time has become agent of the Rackrent estate and an attorney, to buy up all of Sir Condy’s outstanding debts and enforce them simultaneously, compelling Sir Condy to sign over Castle Rackrent to Jason. Facing the protests of an angry mob of tenants who fear the methods of their new landlord as much as they regret the ruin of Sir Condy, Jason makes a minor concession. He allows Sir Condy to stay on at the hunting lodge, a small building on the estate. Isabella deserts her husband for the comfort of the Moneygawl home, while, “grieved and sick at heart for my poor master,” Thady follows Sir Condy into a life of reduced circumstances (Castle Rackrent, p. 77).

It turns out, however, that Jason does not have complete title to Castle Rackrent. Before signing the estate away, Sir Condy stipulated that Isabella receive a jointure of £500 yearly from the estate before any payment of his debts. It seems this act of generosity might save Sir Condy, for Isabella is ill, and should she die before him, the jointure will pass back to Sir Condy. Hearing of this monetary prospect, Judy M’Quirk makes another bid for Sir Condy’s affections. Sir Condy, however, demonstrates his lack of business savvy once again. He sells Jason his right to the jointure for a mere 300 guineas up front, at which point Judy M’Quirk tries to attract Jason, but to no avail.

Finally, in a reckless drinking bout with old friends, Sir Condy bets his last guinea that he can consume in one draught all the whiskey punch that Sir Patrick’s great drinking horn can contain. Sir Condy is, alas, no Sir Patrick and, after swallowing the drink, he drops dead. Thady wraps up the fall of the Rackrent family in typically understated fashion—“He had but a very poor funeral, after all” (Castle Rackrent, p. 96).

Duplicity and subversion in Castle Rackrent

Much is made of the mantle “honest Thady” wears in the opening paragraph of Castle Rackrent. In a lengthy footnote, the editor gives an account of the mantle’s antiquity as an item of apparel in the great nations of Israel, Greece, and Rome, then goes on to quote Edmund Spenser, who describes the mantle as “a fit house for an outlaw, a meet bed for a rebel, and an apt cloak for a thief (Castle Rackrent, p. 8). The mantle is also a fitting symbol for the duplicity that many readers have ascribed to “honest Thady” and his narration of improbable praise for the series of pathetic and culpable landlords who comprise the Rackrent family.

Citing Thady’s assistance to his son in obtaining his first piece of Rackrent property, and Thady’s supposedly inadvertent betrayal of Sir Condy by revealing the full extent of his master’s debts to the wine merchant’s man, literary critic James Newcomer sees Thady as a willing agent conspiring in the Rackrents’ downfall. After all, the Quirk family ultimately benefits from the Rackrents’ loss. Likewise, Robert Tracy does not take Thady’s memoir at face value: “Thady presents himself as another literary cliché, the faithful Irish servant. In inventing him, Edgeworth examined the process by which the colonized subject simultaneously feigns loyalty, manipulates his rulers, and subverts their control” (Tracy, p. 17). Tracy even suggests that Thady makes Sir Condy the inept landlord he becomes. In the second part of Castle Rackrent, Thady mentions that he once told tales about the family to Condy when he was a boy, and Tracy speculates that the first part of Castle Rackrent is a specimen of the sort of stories Condy heard, stories praising the various vices and foolish acts of former Rackrents and encouraging young Condy to emulate them, to his ruin and the Quirks’ gain.

Other literary critics challenge the validity of such interpretations. Vera Kreilkamp, for example, insists that “Thady’s behavior and speech do not suggest that he is a master of irony and a calculating opportunist,” but rather that he has “a deeply impaired sense of identity and is torn by his loyalties to conflicting worlds” (Kreilkamp, p. 40). In a similar vein, Elizabeth Harden explains Thady’s praise of folly in the following terms: “Thady’s loyalty to the family is the honor of a peasant’s code of values, and his opinions of the landlords depend on their treatment of him” (Harden, p. 101). Readers may find it difficult to understand Thady’s praise, but, according to these critics, this does not mean that praise is false.

Critics also point to Edgeworth’s own duplicity, because she presents the novel as set “Before the Year 1782,” while incidents in the novel indicate that it actually treats a later period. We may deduce from the fact that Thady “thought to make him a priest,” that Jason Quirk is Catholic, and yet his purchase of any portion of the Rackrent estate would have been impossible in Ireland before 1782, since the Penal Laws still prohibited Catholics from buying land at this time. If Jason converts to Protestantism somewhere along the way, it is strange that Thady passes over this significant event in silence. Anthony Mortimer suggests that this inconsistency reflects Edgeworth’s desire to deny the influence of Ireland’s past on Ireland’s future. It is the very absence of the Catholic question from Castle Rackrent that calls attention to the importance of the Protestant/Catholic dichotomy in the Irish landlord system, and the inability of the Anglo-Irish, or at least the liberal Anglo-Irish, to face the fact that their own power stemmed from the persecution of Irish Catholics. It should be remembered that Edgeworth presents the mantle as simultaneously a venerable cultural object linking Ireland with the very foundations of Western civilization, and as a tool of subversion used by outlaws, rebels, and thieves. This dual image may reflect Edgeworth’s own assessment of the qualities of duplicity and subversion then considered intrinsic to the native Irish. Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales), twelfth-century historian and apologist for the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland, expresses the stereotype thus:

For this hostile race is always plotting some kind of treachery under cover of peace.… This wily race must be feared far more for its guile than its capacity to fight, for its pretended quiescence than for its fiery passions, for its honeyed flattery than for its bitter abuse, for its venom than for its prowess in battle, for its treachery than for its readiness to attack, and for its feigned friendship than for its contemptible hostility. (Giraldus Cambrensis in Ranelagh, p. 39)

If Thady is indeed two-faced, this trait may be morally deplorable, but it enabled his family to survive and prosper, just as the traits of duplicity and subversion were necessary for the survival of native Irish culture under English rule.

Sources and literary context

Maria Edgeworth based her novel’s narrator, Thady Quirk, on John Langan, the Edgeworth family steward whose native Irish dialect and character so struck Maria that she began to write a family history as he would tell it. “He seemed,” she said, “to stand beside me and dictate; and I wrote as fast as my pen could go, the characters all imaginary” (Castle Rackrent, p. xi). Although the rest of the characters in the novel are supposed to be imaginary, they could easily have been based on Maria Edge-worth’s own ancestors, whose vice and mismanagement is documented in a family memoir, The Black Book of Edgeworthstown. The imprisonment of Sir Kit’s wife was based upon a real event about which Maria Edgeworth read in Gentleman’s Magazine of 1789: Elizabeth Malyn, Lady Cathcart, was imprisoned by her husband Colonel Hugh Macguire in their house in the Irish countryside for 20 years (a legal practice until 1891) for refusing to surrender her property and jewels.

The reality that the book is supposed to mirror, however, is general rather than specific. Maria Edgeworth offers Castle Rackrent as “a specimen of manners and characters,” which she was in an excellent position to observe in the Ireland of her day (Castle Rackrent, p. 97). Edgeworth’s experience as her father’s accountant would have exposed her to the harsh economic realities of tenants and cottiers, while the discussions of contemporary politics she and her father shared gave her a depth of understanding of class conflict and national events that distinguishes her fiction from that of many other contemporary women authors. Castle Rackrent is considered the first regional novel in the English language. It is also regarded as the first Anglo-Irish novel, the first “Big House” novel, and the first colonial novel, all of which would become important genres in English literature as the nineteenth century progressed.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Insurrection of 1798

Maria Edgeworth started writing Castle Rackrent’s first section sometime in the mid-1790s, completing it by the end of 1797. She completed the second section sometime between 1797 and 1799, adding the preface and glossary in 1799, and publishing the novel in 1800. In 1798, before she wrote the preface or glossary, and possibly before she completed the second section of Castle Rackrent, an event occurred that had profound significance for the course of Irish history, and perhaps for the course of the novel: the rebellion of the United Irishmen.

The United Irishmen were originally a nationalist group of Dissenters and radical Anglicans led by Theobald Wolfe Tone in the north of Ireland. They formed in the late eighteenth century, driven by the desire for independent nationhood and an egalitarian society, drawing inspiration from the American and French Revolutions. The United Irishmen called for independence from Britain and an end to religious persecution for all Irish people, ideas whose time had apparently come, as the group quickly spread throughout the country, expanding its ranks to include Catholics as well as Protestants. Confronted by growing unrest, the Anglo-Irish government made a concession, and in 1793 passed the Catholic Relief Act, giving the right to vote and enter the professions to those Catholics who owned property. This was clearly not enough, and when later that year the leaders of revolutionary France vowed to come to the aid of any people who wished to overthrow a tyrannical government, the United Irishmen began to plot a revolution. In 1798 government spies got wind of the group’s plans and conducted mass arrests, torturing those even suspected of belonging to the rebel organization. In protest the United Irishmen killed government officials, landlords, and sometimes those who were guilty merely of being Protestants. The rebellion was soon put down, but the atrocities had been great on both sides.

Due to Richard Lovell Edgeworth’s humane landlordship and liberal politics, his family and their estate were spared the depredations of the United Irishmen, but the Edgeworths were forced to flee the battle that spilled onto their lands, taking refuge in the county town of Longford. There, Richard Lovell Edgeworth was accused of conspiring with the rebels, and barely escaped being lynched by a terrified loyalist mob. Edgeworth was an exceptional man in many ways and he deplored the brutality of the British troops in putting down the uprising, yet, as a member of the Anglo-Irish gentry, even he could not support the rebels in their cause. He supported an end to religious persecution, to be sure, but he, like the rest of the Protestant Ascendancy, could not endorse a complete break with England. Ireland in the eyes of the Anglo-Irish was in many ways a savage land of superstition, violence, and ignorance. They thought that without England, Ireland would be chaos, and the Edgeworths, who placed high value on the human ability to reason and to improve the condition of society, could not countenance chaos.

Maria Edgeworth made a conscious decision not to represent in fiction the political turbulence she had witnessed in life. “The people,” she observed in 1834, when the strife worsened, “would only break the glass, and curse the fool who held the mirror up to nature—distorted nature in a fever” (Edgeworth in Harden, p. 94). Yet the rebellion of 1798 is reflected in Castle Rackrent. Before publishing the novel in 1800, Edgeworth and her father had just returned from a tour of England and doubtless saw that English opinion in the wake of 1798 was already too inclined against the Irish, and that the depictions in Castle Rackrent would only add fuel to this negative fire. Thus her placement of the novel’s setting to the period “before 1782,” and her constant insistence that the novel treats former times and manners, implies that the ills of Ireland under the landlord system belonged to the bad old days prior to parliamentary independence. The first part of the novel, completed before the events of 1798, depicts corrupt landlords who stay in power despite their faults. In the second section, however, which may have been completed after the uprising, the Rackrents are replaced by the native Irish. The spirit of feudalism, represented by Thady’s obsequious worship of “the family,” with its sentimental appeal and its devastating flaws, is likewise replaced by a straightforward capitalist relationship between the tenants of Castle Rackrent and their new, completely practical landlord, Jason Quirk.

Union with England

The 1798 display of revolutionary violence convinced many members of the Ascendancy that independence from England, even the parliamentary independence they had achieved in 1782, was folly. To maintain their power, the Anglo-Irish needed English support. The Ascendancy was split between those who desired Union with England, which meant abandoning the Irish Parliament as an institution and instead sending representatives to the English Parliament, and those who believed Ireland must maintain parliamentary independence despite the internal threat. Although Richard Lovell Edgeworth supported Union, he voted against it on principle, because the vote had been so obviously rigged with bribes in Union’s favor. Nonetheless, the Act of Union passed, and in 1800 the 500-year-old Irish Parliament was dissolved.

Those, like Richard Lovell Edgeworth, who supported the union with England, had hoped it would remove Ireland’s colonial status, elevating Ireland to an equal partnership with England. Such hopes were not fulfilled. Even after Union, Ireland maintained a second-class colonial status with respect to England, and the vast Catholic native-Irish majority of the population remained excluded from power. In contrast to her father’s unremitting optimism, Maria Edgeworth expresses some prescient doubt as to the ultimate outcome of the impending union in the postscript of Castle Rackrent: “It is a problem of difficult solution to determine, whether an Union will hasten or retard the amelioration of this country” (Castle Rackrent, p. 97).

FROM THE GENERAL PREFACE TO THE 1829 EDITION OF THE WAVERLEY NOVELS

Without being so presumptuous as to hope to emulate the rich humor, pathetic tenderness, and admirable tact, which pervade the works of my accomplished friend, I felt that something might be attempted for my own country, of the same kind with that which Miss Edgeworth so fortunately achieved for Ireland—something which might introduce her natives to those of the sister kingdom in a more favorable light than they had been placed hitherto, and tend to produce sympathy for their virtues, and indulgence for their foibles.

(Scott in Newcomer, pp. 16-17)

Reviews

Castle Rackrent was an instant commercial success. The novel, originally published anonymously, even gained the admiration of King George III, who is said to have exclaimed “I know something now of my Irish subjects” after reading it (George III in Butler, p. 359). While Jane Austen would later receive only £450 for her novel Emma, Maria Edgeworth would receive £2,000 for a single work after the success of Castle Rackrent and her later novels. Critics of the day barely noticed Castle Rackrent, but this was typical for the turn of the eighteenth century, when novels held a relatively low status and were largely dismissed as frivolous entertainment. What reviews the novel did receive were modestly favorable, with criticism focusing on the novel’s seemingly limited and eccentric view of Irish life. Contemporary critics thought Edgeworth’s subsequent novels gave a more mature treatment of Irish society that bore a greater relevance to the real world, although later critics would praise Castle Rackrent above all the author’s other works.

Edgeworth had many notable admirers in the literary world. Sir Walter Scott was perhaps her most famous, acknowledging her influence on his work in his postscript to Waverley (1814). Her other admirers included Lord Byron, Ivan Turgenev, and Jane Austen, a fan of Edgeworth’s later novel Belinda (1801), who sent Edgeworth an advance copy of her novel Emma.

—Kimberly Ball and Monica Riordan

For More Information

Bilger, Audrey. Laughing Feminism: Subversive Comedy in Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998.

Butler, Marilyn. Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography. Oxford: Clarendon, 1972.

Edgeworth, Maria. Castle Rackrent: An Hibernian tale taken from facts and from the manners of the Irish squires before the year 1782. Ed. George Watson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Harden, Elizabeth. Maria Edgeworth. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Hyman, Louis. The Jews of Ireland: From Earliest Times to the Year 1910. London: Jewish Historical Society of England and Israel Universities Press, 1972.

MacDonagh, Oliver. The Nineteenth Century Novel and Irish Social History. Dublin: National University of Ireland, 1971.

McCormack, W. J. Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literary History from 1789-1939. Oxford: Clarendon, 1985.

Maguire, W. A. “Castle Nugent and Castle Rackrent: Fact and Fiction in Maria Edgeworth.” Eighteenth Century Ireland 11 (1996): 146-59.

Mortimer, Anthony. “Castle Rackrent and Its Historical Contents.” Etudes Irlandaises, 9 (December 1984): 107-23.

Newcomer, James. Maria Edgeworth, the Novelist: 1767-1849. A Bicentennial Study. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1967.

Ranelagh, John O’Beirne. A Short History of Ireland. 2d ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Tracy, Robert. The Unappeasable Host: Studies in Irish Identities. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 1998.

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