Patrick Murray, ‘The Irish Novels of Maria Edgeworth,’ in Studies, LIX (Autumn 1970), pp.267-78.

No responsible critic would ask any reader to grapple with the entire Edgeworthian corpus, or try to establish it as a serious subject for academic study. The only criterion of literary value is the one proposed by Dr. Johnson: length of duration and continuance of esteem. [268-69]

Finds only Castle Rackrent, The Absentee, and Emilie de Coulanges have ‘consistently retained even a small circle of readers.’ [269]

The humours and extravagances of the Irish peasants are admirably rendered; they are treated with sympathy and invested with dignity. The pauper who officiates as Glenthorn’s postillon thus urges the merits of his decrepit hackney chaise: “That there’s no better, plase your honour, can be seen. We have two more, to be sure, but one has no top, and the other no bottom. Any way, there’s no better can be seen than this same.”. [269]

[Quotes The Absentee:] ‘to warn the thoughtless and the unoccupied from seeking distinction by frivolous imitation of fashion and ruinous waste of fortune.’ Happily, story and character stray far beyond the bounds indicated in this statement of intent. [271]

King Corny, who has remained loyal to the Catholic religion and Irish ways, is an altogether more attractive figure [than Sir Ulick O’Shane who ‘has compromised with English religion’]; he is frank, generous and altogether incapable of base motive or action. The nature of the contrast testifies to the novelist’s breath of mind and to her sympathy for beliefs and traditions in which she did not share.’ [273]

LANDLORDS IN DECLINE: Castle Rackrent is, by comment consent, Maria Edgeworth’s greatest single achievement in fiction. Here the novelists is clearly innocent of any palpable design upon her readers. Moral and social judgements are withheld as she goes about her business of telling a good story. … there is no heroine, no romantic interest, no concern with [273] educational or social reform. Historically the most important of the novels, Castle Rackrent would still have survived had it exercised no influence whatever. Its appeal is largely independent of the time, place and circumstances of its composition. It traces the history of the declining fortunes of the Rackrent family through several generations. The narrator, an old retainer named Thady Quirk, who calls himself Honest Thady, adopts a standpoint of absolute loyalty to the pathetic series of landlords he has served so long. The narrative is a delightful amalgam of shrewd and penetrating comment, sly humour, naiveté, and lively anecdote. The vices and follies of the Rackrents are exposed with so sympathetic an indulgence that we are induced to regard them almost as virtues. They are drunken, slovenly and ignorant, excessively fond of ruinous litigation. Sir Murtagh, in particular, has a prodigious fondness for the processes of law. He had, Thady informs his readers, sixteen suits pending at one time: ‘roads, lanes, bogs, wells, ponds, eel-wires, orchards, trees, tithes, vagrants, gravel-pits, sandpits, dunghills and nuisances, everything upon the face of the earth furnished him good matter for a suit.’ Unfortunately, learned as he was in the law, even the suits he carried lost him money. ‘Out of forty-nine suits which he had, he never lost one but seventeen; the rest he gained with costs, double costs, treble costs sometimes; but even that did not pay.’ All the Rackrents are utterly careless of their own and their tenants’ welfare, good-natured to the point of stupidity, forever hoping that their shattered fortunes will somehow be repaired without their having to make any worthwhile effort.

Thady Quirk is commonly taken at his own valuation as an honest, faithful, unselfishly loyal servant who feels deeply for his ruined masters and who is more than willing to excuse their worst failings. But one of the great triumphs of Castle Rackrent is the novelist’s subtly ambivalent presentation of the old steward. To regard him merely as an artless, simpleminded old man is to miss completely the wealth of irony which pervades the whole narrative. It is surely no coincidence that the gradual collapse of the Rackrents should be accompanied by the steady emergence of Thady’s calculating son Jason as a man of affluence. Jason, indeed, makes his fortune, not without some assistance from his father, at the expense of the very family whose ruin seems to cause Thady so much pain. The irony of Castle Rackrent is that Thady’s much-vaunted loyalty to the Rackrents should be the principal means of his son’s acquisition of their estates. Seen in this light, his constant praise of his ill-starred masters can appear deeply tinged with cynicism; faithful, loyal Thady is no better than honest Iago, and his subtle ingenuity seems to have deceived very many readers. But even without his help and the machinations of Jason, it is difficult not to feel that [274] the reckless proceedings of the Rackrents must ultimately issue in their own destruction. Careful re-reading will readily elicit enough clues upon which to erect a structure of adverse moral judgments on the character of Thady. But these are not the reflections likely to impose themselves on most readers of Castle Rackrent. What is more, they do not represent the essential spirit of the novel. Stern evaluations are out of place mainly because in the fantastic world of Castle Rackrent, serious values tend to dissolve sometimes into pathos but more often into laughter. It is not easy to generate ethical enthusiasm when one is confronted with passages like the following, describing Thady’s situation at Castle Rackrent after Sir Condy, a newly-elected member of Parliament, has gone with his wife and servants to Dublin for the session: “I was very lonely when the whole family was gone, and all the things they had ordered to go, and forgot, sent after them by car. There was then a great silence in Castle Rackrent, and I went moping from room to room, hearing the doors clap for want of right locks, and the wind through the broken windows, that the glazier men would never come to mend, and the rain coming through the roof and best ceilings all over the house for want of the slater, whose bill was not paid, besides our having no slates or shingles for that part of the old building which was shingled and burnt when the chimney took fire, and had been open to the weather ever since. I took myself to the servants’ hall in the evening to smoke my pipe as usual, but missed the bit of talk we used to have there sadly, and ever after was content to stay in the kitchen and boil my little potatoes, and put up my bed there, and every post-day I looked in the newspaper, but no news of my master in the House; he never spoke good or bad, but, as the butler wrote down word to my son Jason, was very ill-used by the Government about a place that was promised him and never given, after his supporting them against his conscience very honourably, and being greatly abused for it, which hurt him greatly, he having the name of a great patriot in the country before.’ STORIES WITH A MORAL: Among Maria Edgeworth’s novels, Castle Rackrent is unique. None of the others comes as close as does her first to artistic perfection, or enjoys the same freedom from the irritating mannerisms and expedients which disfigure every other work of fiction she wrote. The most fundamental criticism of the remaining three Irish novels is that the moral earnestness which informs them issues all too often in passages of didactic comment. Significant episodes are seldom allowed to pass without being interpreted and underlined in moral terms. In The Absentee [… &c.]’ (pp.273-75.)

Some of the worst defects of the Edgeworth novels arise from a determination on the part of the novelist to see poetic justice done at whatever cost. … it is sometimes difficult to take seriously a novelist who contrives so many astonishing accidents and coincidences in the interest of a happy dénouement [277]

She is left with only a single masterpiece, a minor one, but long stretches of all her other books display a command of language, a grasp of character, a sense of drama, a keen perception of the oddities of human nature, and an eye for telling detail, of which many a more celebrated novelist might justifiably be proud.’ [END; 278.]

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