Brian Hollingworth, Maria Edgeworth’s Irish Writing: Language, History and Politics (London: Macmillan 1997).

Hollingworth [BH] notes the low esteem in which Maria held the vernacular method of Castle Rackrent, and further comments on learning that The Absentee has been translated: ‘It is impossible that a Parisian can make any sense of it from beginning to end. But these things teach authors what is merely local and temporary.’ (Memoir, 1867, 1, p.296; Hollingworth, p.9.)

BH characterises the Edgeworth’s as believers in a ‘monolithic and hierarchical view of language’ (p.18.)

Quotes: ‘The language of children, who have heard no language but what is good, must be correct. On the contrary, children who hear a mixture of low and high vulgarity before their habits are fixed must, whenever they speak, continually blunder; they have no rule to guide their judgement […; &c.]’ (Practical Education, Vol. 1, p.323; here p.19.)

Chap. 4 (‘Castle Rackrent’, pp.71-107) focuses on ‘the vatic nature of the text - the artist as amanuensis of John Langan’ (p.72) and examines the vernacular to reveal that it is not as ‘accidental’ or as ‘innocent’ as supposed; that the vernacular features are actually quite restricted; that they stand for an unreflective and naïve attitude on the part of the narrator, unable to assess the moral significance of what he relates (espec. the recurrent sign of undigested narrative, ‘says he’), it answers to specific political purposes.

Castle Rackrent is listed under ‘Ireland’ in Monthly Review’s ‘Monthly Catalogue’, along with political texts on the Union, and not with ‘novels’ (p.73.)

Notes the ‘Glossary and Advertisement’ preceded the text in the first edition, and appeared more conventionally after it in later ones; challenges Watson’s interpretation of the origin of those parts in last-minute panic about the dialect (Watson, 1964, p.xx; here p.74.)

BH argues that the theory of an accidental origin of Castle Rackrent is not cut and dry: ‘the evidence seems to be that a text which had been begun up to ten years previously was suddenly impelled into publication […] it is difficult to believe that the publication of Castle Rackrent was as unplaced and unpremeditated as often supposed.’ (p.74.)

Identifies two separate and somewhat conflicting strategies, ‘allow[ing] the English their customary laughter’ but showing it to be an anachronism, and identifying the social problems in Ireland facing the Union; concludes that the organisation of the narrative is no more innocent than its purposes, the more so in the period of ‘urgency’ before the Union.’ (p.74.)

Notes that R. L. Edgeworth reformed his rents custom, thus differentiating his estate from most others in Ireland [but takes no cognisance of the Ulster practice] (p.81.)

Castle Rackrent, then, was no innocent text’ (p.75.)

‘One strong political purpose of Castle Rackrent is that of all Edgeworth’s Irish writing. She intends to combat English prejudice against the Irish and to increase understanding between the two kingdoms. In January 1800 it seemed imperative to do so since the two countries were now heading inexorably towards union - a union which, as the text reveals, the Edgeworths viewed with considerable unease.’ (p.75.)

‘two separate - and somewhat conflicting - strategies are employed […] Firstly, in her narrative, she allows the English their customary laughter […] but then she emphasises that such behaviour is now an anachronism. […] Secondly, by the tropes and by the allusions which she employs, she identifies the social problems which exist in Ireland and the difficulties which face the “Union”. In other words, the organisation of the narrative, despite its claims to naïveté, is no more innocent that its purposes.’ (p.75.)

with reference to the O’Shaughlin lineage, Hollingworth comments: ‘Here is no more than a sentimental regret for a change of surname. Edgeworth ignores the realities of Irish life “before the year 1782” […] This is not in ignorance of the situation [viz, Penal Laws] […] the Edgeworth family were liberal in their attitude to Catholicism […] Rather the silence indicates that political purposes predominate over any desire to provide the “facts”. […] such distortions indicate Edgeworth’s response to the urgency of the political situation […] gloss[ing] over the more intractable problems of Irish social life. More actively, it implies that “improvements” are no well established […] and will benefit both countries […]’ (p.77; adds details about the Catholic background of family and their retainers.)

corrects McCormack on the size of the house, adding that it gets smaller as the decline continues; notes McCormack’s comparison between the mob ‘round the house and to the windows with great shouts (CR, 19800, pp.145-47) and the mob at Versailles in the French Revolution; cites letter of RLE to Daniel Beaufort indicating that the Edgeworth’s were made ‘hostages at the inn’ in Longford by Orangemen (29 Sept. 1798; p.80.)

compares Castle Rackrent with the castle home of Lord and Lady Moira, mentioned by Maria (27 Sept. 1802; here p.81.)

infers that the failure of Sir Condy to marry Judy ‘may indicate the bleak prospects for a true social “union”, even if a Union Bill is enacted’ (p.81 [cf. Robert Tracy’s reading of same].)

mentions RLE’s reform of rent system [doesn’t mention Ulster custom] (p.81.)

‘torture’ in the title (p.81.)

‘The artless story goes into considerable detail to suggest how Jason Quirk acquires the Rackrent estate, but the title itself is also an indicator of the vicious means by which money was raised to finance the family life style’ (p.81.)

notes deliberate link to Gothic tradition of Castle of Otranto (p.82.)

‘Castle Rackrent denies the imagined grotesqueries of the Gothic novel only to establish them more firmly in the “real” social and political world.’ (p.82.)

reads the ‘black bog’ as metonymic for the disinterest of the Rackrents in improvements, refusing to allow a road to be cut through it by the O’Learys (p.83-84.)

notes Edgeworth’s conception of roads as a sign of social improvement and instances passage from Arthur Young’s Tour.’ (p.85; see infra.)

‘“The Innocent Voice” [Sect.]: ‘Critics have been happy to accept that Thady’s voice does represent a genuine local vernacular, but this is true only with reservations […] She is careful not to alienate her readers by making the Irish vernacular accurate but unintelligible.’ (p.87.)

Hollingworth examines closely pronunciation, dialectal vocabulary and idiom (p.87ff..)

‘A marked feature of this opening [‘“having out of friendship for the family […] ”] is its discursiveness. It refuses to stick to the point […] ’ (p.90.)

‘Even then, it is wrong to assume that the idiom is consistent, or a verbatim copy of the Anglo-Irish dialect. Occasionally the register shifts quite markedly, under the influence of more literary models.’ (p.91.)

‘Thady establishes the comic mode in Castle Rackrent because his vernacular voice is perceived as innocent. Such innocence provides the comic setting for the high seriousness of the story’s intentions. For it is axiomatic that Thady’s account of happenings in the Rackrent family will be naïve. He is too simple to comprehend the significance of events in either their local or national context. And his use of the despised vernacular is a reiterated sign of such naiveté. In using “vulgar” speech, Thady is, by common understanding, using a language which cannot move beyond the immediate, which lacks the potential to explore cause and effect, or analyse motive.’ (p.92.)

[Hollingworth’s here cite grammarians such as Bernstein and Lawton;] ‘Thady’s language is “honest”; it is transparent and innocent, a straightforward communication, from Thady’s simple viewpoint, of the events which he is witnessing. Yet in its honesty lies its inadequacy. The vernacular lacks the sophistication to probe beneath the surface of events, to understand what is really going on.’ (p.93.) Compares use of vernacular to ‘child-language in a novel such as A Portrait of the Artist’ (p.93.)

‘the focus of the story becomes a reinterpretation, a provision by the reader of a social and moral context which the narrators fails to comprehend.’ (p.93.)

‘the vernacular voice demands reinterpretation’ (p.94.)

‘the use of the vernacular as a narrative vehicle […] serves to emphasis this gap [between identifiable abuses’ and the ‘language in which these abuses are revealed’], and to encourage the readers’ interpretation.’ (p.95.)

‘it is part of their peasant suffering that they cannot use language to articulate their grievances or to analyse its causes’ (p.95.)

‘there are moments when the stance of the innocent narrator is stretched beyond what it can legitimately bear’ (p.95.)

‘four times the narrator falls quiet, and, in each case, his silence represents his inability , or his reluctance, to articulate moral reality.’ (p.97.)

‘guilt […] inability to think things through rationally’ (p.97.)

‘The vernacular speaker is finally left speechless. He has no judgement to give, and no prophecies to offer.’ (p.98.)

‘The attitude with which readers approach the vernacular - their assessment concerning its potential for rationality and moral perspicacity - explains spectacular differences in critical judgements concerning Thady’s role in the plot of Castle Rackrent. Traditionally, “honest” Thady has been taken at face value. […] Alternatively, Newcomer finds a schemer with a “calculating mind” [and] argues that Thady is glove in hand with his son and an active participant in the rung of the Rackrent family. Pursing this argument, he is able to interpret the text as a radical prophecy: “The true Thady reflects intellect and power in the afflicted Irish peasant, who in generations to come will revolt and revolt again.”’ (Newcomer, essay in C. P. Owens, Family Chronicles: Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, Dublin 1987, p.86; here p.98.)

Hollingworth notes that ‘Newcomer’s argument does no violence to the words on the page’ and that ‘for today’s reader it is a valid, even a preferred reading’ (p.98), but adds: ‘However, such reading do depend upon recent understandings of the potentialities of the vernacular medium. In Edgeworth’s concept of language, the vernacular is by definition “innocent”. Thady, the vernacular speaker, does not appreciate what is going on, and his use of the vernacular is a guarantee of his blindness.’ (p.99.)

‘we can say that the vernacular functions as a transparency through which readers may interpret the moral significance of situations and events. Above all, the vernacular provides a comic irony for the narrative […] In such a fashion does the innocent voice of John Langan become a featured of the artifice of the political text.’ (p.99.)

Hollingworth disputes the view that the Glossary and Preface are ‘afterthoughts’: ‘The Notes and Glossary legitimise the vernacular voice by presenting Castle Rackrent to the reader, not as a text in the fictional tradition of the stage-Irishman, but as a socio-economic document in the tradition of Arthur Young’s Tour in Ireland.’ (p.100.)

‘Intriguingly, this haste [in which the additions were made] discloses Edgeworth’s political purposes by leaving contradictions in her apparently factual annotations.’ (e.g., two conflicting notes on ‘childer’; p.109-01.)

‘The editor […] is an incorrigible ironist particularly in his view of Irish society, which he quizzically regards as comically backward’ (p.103.)

Of the Spenserian citation in the first footnote, Hollingworth says that it has ‘a strong element of parody within it’, and that ‘the passage is not quite serious [and] reminds us of the antiquarian’s reputation for drowning in the trivia of his subject.’ (p.104.)

‘The ironic editorial tone is therefore crucial in placing Thady’s innocent voice’ (p.105.)

Of the Preface: ‘The editor is ready to acknowledge the insincerities of sophisticated language .. On the other hand, conventional views of the weaknesses of the vernacular are endorses. It is tedious, it lacks insight, and it is prolix.’ (p.105.)

‘the ultimate manifestation of such irony is the manner in which Castle Rackrent is ambiguously presented as both fiction and fact’ (p.105.)

‘This blatant fictionalisation of the factual Preface prefigures the technique later adopted by Scott’ (p.106.)

‘In its transparency […] his [Thady Quirk’s] unconventional voice is the object of distrust and ridicule […] the vulnerable vernacular is protected by the carapace of standard language, innocent orality is surrounded by the sophistication of writing, doubtful fiction is merged with dependable fact.’ (p.106.)

Hollingworth adjusts the dating of the writing, placing the completion of the second part in autumn 1798, contemporaneous with Richard Lovell Edgeworth’s involvement in debates about the Union in the Irish House of Commons.’ (p.107).

Conclusion: ‘A reading of the Irish tales will confirm that Edgeworth by birth, breeding, social role and conviction, remains a committed member of the Irish establishment. She is an Anglo-Irish Protestant, who draws her intellectual capital from the copious reserves of enlightenment thought and tradition. We can argue that, in the growing polarisation of political opposition which followed upon the Act of Union, the legitimacy of her position as one of the natural “rulers” is increasingly suspect, and her idealistic remedies for the political ills of Ireland appear desperately utopian. With hindsight, we can observe the beginning of a popular movement towards romantic Celtic nationalism during these years which Edgeworth’s Irish texts cannot adequately encounter or comprehend.’ (p.218.)

‘Ultimately, therefore, Edgeworth’s treatment of the vernacular in the Irish tales remains deeply ambivalent. There are many, and unprecedented, positive features in her presentation. […] There is an evident desire to educate a prejudice English audience and to remove traditional stigmas against speakers of Anglo-Irish. There is also a ready recognition of the humanity and dignity of people who speak a despised tongue.
  However, even in a pioneering work such as Castle Rackrent, where the vernacular becomes the vehicle of narration, […; 220] we cannot find an unqualified endorsement of the vernacular voice. Even though Edgeworth can be regarded, justifiably, as an innovator in the development of regional narrative, […]. She remains committed to conventional, hierarchic and stratified views of society and language.’ (pp.221-220.)

[Note that Hollingworth erroneously refers to Colgan for Colvin in various places and omits the name from the Bibliography and Index.]

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