Maria Edgeworth: Castle Rackent [World Classics Edn.], ed. & intro., George Watson (OUP 1989).

Castle Rackrent, An Hibernian Tale, taken from facts, and from the Manners of the Irish Squires, before the Year 1982. [T.p. 1800]

Introduction
Watson’s quotations: ‘My father wished to have some additions made to it, and I fear in this instance additions will not according to the Irish usage be synonymous with improvements. I am inclined to think that I could say better all my father wishes to have said about the modern manners of the Irish McQuirks in the story I am now writing of Patronage.’ [CR, p.xiv. ]

Quotes Edgeworth: ‘The only character drawn from life in Castle Rackrent is Thady himself, the teller of the story. He was an old steward (not very old, though, at that time; I added to his age to allow time for the generations of the family). I heard him when I first came to Ireland, and his dialect struck me, and his character; and I became so acquainted with it, that I could think and speak in it without effort; so that when, for mere amusement, without any idea of publishing, I began to write a family history as Thady would tell it, he seemed to stand beside me and dictate; and I wrote as fast as my pen could go, the characters all imaginary.’ (ME, letter to Mrs. Stark, 6 Sept. 1834)

The rest of her novels, such as the brilliant, melodramatic society-novel Belinda (1801), or The Absentee (1812), the finest of her later Irish novels, are all (like Jane Austen’s six) pure fiction and in the third person. Rackrent remains unique: a kind of memoir-novel in which the narrator is not, like Crusoe, the central actor in the drama, but an observer merely - a technique impossible to parallel in English before 1800, and rare even in French. Even the fashionable Paul et Virginie (1787) of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, which employs it, hardly provides a convincing source - the narrator where is merely a colourless bystander. Thady, on the contrary, though and observers, is the life of Rackrent, and all the blood of the book flows through the figure of this absurdly oyal family retainer - a full, affectionately ironic vision of a dying system, and an enriching device which, for some odd reason, Maria never again essayed.* It adds both flavour and authenticity: the novel is not only the livelier in detail because it is recounted in the Irish dialect, it is the more informative as well. [George Watson, p. xvi.] And see ftn., * … so expertly used as to make us wonder why Maria Edgeworth never used it again (idem, p. xix.)

Here real sources for Castle Rackrent are not literary, but hearsay. Hence her engagingly naive footnotes such as ‘Fact’, or ‘Verbatim’. The story of Castle Rackrent is an invention, but many of the details are offered as real. (idem, p. xix.)

We are show good reason why Thady should love his masters, none at all why he should respect them as he does. (idem, p. xx.)

.. alarmed at her experiment, Maria fitted it out first with explanatory foootnotes and then, as a afterthought, with a ‘Glossory’ (in fact a commentary) as well. ... we are inclined to find her over-solicitous. (idem, p.xx.)

(Thady’s) simplicity makes him a butt, but it also makes him a reporter, an accurate lens through which the life of the Castle in which he serves is see. ‘The lower Irish’, wrote Maria Edgeworth some twenty years after, in her continutation of her father’s unfinished Memoirs (1820), ‘are such acute observers, tht there is no deceiving them as the state of the real feelings of their superiors. They know the signs of what passes within, more perfectly than any physiognomist, who ever studied the human face, or human head.’ [ii. 24]] (idem, p. xxiv.)

The preface partakes in the fiction; but it is also a fiction of a different kind, emulating the discourse of the 18th century critics, and striking, in that mode, a peculiarly modern note, instanced by the use of the words ‘a new consciousness’ in the conclusion.

Thady is represented as the author of the texts who was with difficulty persuaded to write it down. The fact that this implies literacy - and the questions of how literate and how necessarily subject to correction his manuscript might have been - is not, of course entered into. The Editor functions as Swift or Defoe have done in Gulliver and Robinson Crusoe, or perhaps as Carlyle later did in Sartor Resartus.

Maria Edgeworth’s theory of Characterisation and History is a persuasive and graceful argument made to the effect that formal history and public memoirs are an ill measure of the the inner truth of a man’s life:

‘[...] We cannot judge either of the feelings or of the characters of men from their actions or their appearance in public; it is from their careless conversations, their half finished sentences, that we may hope with the greatest probability of success to discover their real characters.

‘The life of a great or of a little man written by himself, the familiar letters, the diary of any individual published by his friends, or by his enemies after his decease, are esteemed important literary curiosities. We ar surely justified in this eager desire to colledct the most minute facts relative to the domestic lives, not only of the great and good, but even of the worthles and insignificant, since it is only by a comparison of their actual happiness or misery in the privacy of domestic life, that we can form a just estimate of the real reward of virtue, or the real punishment of vice.

‘[...] the merits of a biographer are inversely as to the extent of his intellecxtual powers and his literary talents. A plain unvarnished tale is preferable to the most highly ornamented narrative. Where we see that a man has the power, we may naturally suspect that he has the will to deceive us, and those who are used to literary manufacture know how mush is often sacrificed to the rounding of a period or the pointing an antithesis.’

Now, this reveals a keen preoccupation with the necessity for a kind of disclosure which runs counter to the conventional form of literature. In reality, the story told by thady doesn’t square with the excuse advanced for its informality here in as much as it is not his own life that is pirmarily revealed. Yet the argument advances in the direction of asserting that a valet’s confidences are more germaine to the real contents of their masters’ lives than anything the master might say about himself, ecxcept in those unguarded, private moments. No man is a hero to his valet.

 

EXTRACTS FROM THE NARRATIVE
LADY MURTAGH RACKRENT’S ECONOMY: However, my lady was very charitable in her own way. She has a charity school for poor children, where they were taught to read and write gratis, and where they were kept well to their spinning gratis for my lady in return; for she had always heaps of duty yarn from the tenants, and got all her husband’s linen out of the state from first to last … With these ways of managing, ‘tis surprising how cheap my lady got things done, and how proud she was of it.

LADY KIT RACKRENT’S “CONFINEMENT”: The country, to be sure, talked and wondered at my lady’s being shut up, but nobody chose to interfere or ask any impertinent questions, for they knew my master was a very apt man to give short answers himself and likely to call a man out afterwards ... he had killed his man before he came of age, and noboyd scacre dare look at him whilst in Bath.

No sooner was it certain that he was dead than all the gentlemen within twenty miles of us came in a body, as it were, to set my lady at liberty, and to protest against her confinement, which they now for the first time understood was against her own consent. The ladies too were as attentive … but thought it a pity that [the diamonds] were not bestowed, if it had so pleased God, upon a lady who would have become them better.

All these civilities wrought little with my lady, for she had taken an unaccountable prejudivce against the country and everything belonging to it, and was so partial to her native land that, after parting with the cook … she was pacing up to leave us.

It was a shame for her, being his wife, not to show more duty, or to have given it up when he condescended to as so often for such a bit of a trifle in his distresses, especially when he all along made no secret that he married for money.

SIR CONDY: … born to little or no fortune, he was bred to bar, at which having many friends to push him,an no mean natural abilities, he doubtless would in process of time, if he could have borne the drudgery of that study, have been rapidly made king’s counsel at least - But … he never went circuit but twice, and then made no figure for want of a fee, and being unable to speak in public.

[...] he neglected to apply to the law as much as was expected of him, and secretly many of the tenants advanced him cash upon his note in hand value received, promising bargains of leases […]

[...] to my mind Sir Condy was rather upon the sad order in the midst of it all, not finding there had been such a great talk about himself after his death as he had always expected to hear.

[CONDY IN PARLIAMENT] He never spoke ill or bad, but was very ill-used by the Government about a place that was promised him and never given, after supporting them against his conscience very honorably, and being greatly abused for it, which hurted him greatly, he having the name of a great patriot in the country before.

JASON’S ADVANCEMENT: The agent was one of your middle men who grind the face of the poor ... the agent was always very civil to me when he came down into the country, and he took great notice of my son Jason.

Seeing how he was as good a clerk as any in the county, the agent gave him his rent accounts to copy, which he did first of all for the pleasure of obliging the gentleman, and would take nothing for his trouble, but was always proud to serve the family.

[...] the value of lands, as the agent informed [Lord Rakrent], falling every year in Ireland, his honour wrote in haste a bit of a letter, saying he left it all to the agent … with this the agent gave me a hint, and I spoke a good word for my son, and gave it out in the country that no one need bid against him.

The agent wrote over to stop the drafts ... for I saw the letter before it was ever sealed, when my son copied it. … The agent was turned out; and my son, who had corresponded privately with his honour occasionally on business, was forthwith desired by his honor to take the accounts into his own hands and look them over until further orders … Then, in a private postscript, he condescended to tell us that all would be speedily settled to his satisfaction, and we should turn over a new leaf … and several other words I could not make out because, God bless him! he wrote in such a flurry. My heart warmed to my new lady when I read this …

My son Jason, who was now established as the agent, and knew every thing, explained matters outof the face to Sir Connolly,and made him sensible of his embarrassed situation. … While this was going on, my son demanded to be paid for his trouble, and many years service in the family gratis … [Sir Condy] gave my son a bargain for some acres which fell out of lease at a reasonable rent … Jason … got 200 a year profit rent, which was little enough considering his long agency. He bought the land at twelve years purchase two yars after, when Sir Condy was pushed for money on an execution …

Well, when things were tight with them about this time, my son put in a word again about the lodge [which had been let to Moneygawl, now alienated by the marriage] and made a genteel offer to lay down the purchase money to relieve Sir Condy’s distresses. … my son bought th fee simple of a good house for him and his heirs for little or nothing, and by selling of it for that same my master saved himself from goal.

This fellow had the impudence, after coming to see the chicken-yard, to get me to introduce him to my son Jason - little more than the man that was never born did I guess his meaning by this visit; he gets him a correct list fairly drawn out from my son Jason of all my master’s debts, and goes straight round to his creditors and buys them allup … he takes him out a custodiam on all the denominations and sub-denominations … upon the estate

… and my son Jason said, said Condy must soon be looking for a new agent, for I’ve done my part and can do more more - if my lady had the bank of Ireland to spend, it would go all in one winter, and Sir Condy would never gainsay her, though he doesn’t care the rind of a lemon about her all the while.

… ever since he had lived at the Lodge of his won he looked down, howsomever, upon poor old Thady, and was grown quite a great gentleman, and had none of his relations near him - no wonder he was no kinder to poor Sir Condy than to his own kith and kin.

[THE CUSTODIAM] I could scarcely believe my own old eyes, or the spectacles with which I read it, when I was shewn my son Jason’s name joined in the custodiam., but he told me it was only for form’s sake, and to make things easier, than if all the land was in the power of a total stranger. [62]

Castle Rackrent was seized by the gripers, and my son Jason, to his shame be spoken, amongst them - I wondered, for the life of me, how he could harden himself to do it, but then he had been studying the law, and had made himself attorney Quirk; so he brought down at once a heap of accounts upon my master’s head.

[...] it’s all, and a great deal more to the back of it, lawfully ine was I to push for it.’

[...] … and when the report was made known, the people one and all gathered in great anger against my son Jason, at the terror of the notion of his coming to be landlord over them.

Sir Condy: “nothing for nothing, or I’m under a mistake with you, Jason.” .

THADY’S RESPONSES: I said noting for fear of gaining myself ill-will. [55]

I saw the halfpenny in the air, but I said nothing at all, and when it came down, I was glad I had kept myself to myself, for to be sure it was all over with poor Judy … and I had no more to say but wish [Isabella] joy. Well, I did not know what to think [about Jason and the custodiam] - it was hard to be talking ill of my own, and I could not but grieve for my master’s fine estate, all torn by these vultures of the law; so I said noting, but just looked on to see how it would all end. [THE LETTER] and, sure enough, I had no time to examine, or make any conjecture more about it, for into the servants’ hall pops Mrs. Jane ... [he then proceeds to fix the window which gives him overhearing of the conversation].

“Sarrah bit of a sacret … has [Jason] learned from me these fifteen weeks come St. John’s Eve … for we have scarce been on speaking terms of late …”

and the man who brought in the punch witnessed it, for I was not able; and besides, Jason said, which I was glad of, that I was no fit witness, being so old and doating. RELIABILITY OF SERVANTS REPORTS: … couldn’t tell what to make of her, so I left her to herself, and went straight down to the servants’ hall to learn something for certain about her. Sir Kit’s own man was tired, but the groom set him talking at last, and we had it all out before ever I closed my eyes that night. [25]

[...] shaking the ink out of the pen upon the carpet [CF. Swift’s Instructions to Servants].

Can Thady possible be sincere when he says to Judy, ‘”You’ll have no luck, mind my words ..” and all I remembered about my poor master’s goodness in tossing for her afore he married at all came across me, and I had a choaking in my throat that hindered me to say more.’

JUDY: What signifies it to be my lady Rackrent and no Castle? Sure what good is the car and no horse to draw it?

NOTE: W. J. McCormack suggests that the scale of the Rackrent house is misleading; more than that, that ME avails of pureliy textual possibilities to delineate a house of imcompatible parts, which, in the one aspect, stands splendidly alone in its own grounds, and, on the other, has a door to the street. This is not so much a matter of its being a small house, more “towny” than the title itself suggests, but of being as many anglo-irish houses - in varying relations to the wider Irish population - as the narrative requires.

The sensibility which directs her activities as a novelist is not a constant position, a fixed star, but a particular openness to the historical quality of contemporary experience. … Thus the sectarian elements - Catholic and Protestant intermarriage, as well as an indeterminate relation to the politics of union, make it a political tract that one cannot read. (McCormack, The Anglo-Irish Ascendancy.)

REMARKS on NOTES: Some of the notes are curiosity and ridicule, vIz, wigs, p. 68. Another sort are plain indictments of the agent class. At p.81, the note on wake - which ends “gossipping and debauchery” - is greatly extended by a glossary note. Another note is merely jocular and has no bearing on the story: “at the coronation of one of our monarchs, etc.” At p.84-5, the note on kilt is reproduced in the footnotes and the glossary. The tone in the footnote is philological, that in the glossary is facetious: “In Ireland, killing is no murder.”

[ back ]
 
[ top ]