Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth

1800. 118 pages (including introduction). Hardcover.

From: A university library

For the Challenge: Read 19 Books Older than Myself


When I was hunting for books that would fit into my personal challenge of reading 19 books older than myself, I had a hard time finding a book for the decade between 1800 and 1809.  For the other decades, I could usually spot a title or author that was already familiar.  While searching the internet for possibilities, the name Maria Edgeworth kept popping up, so I finally settled on Castle Rackrent.

Maria Edgeworth, a tiny English woman at only 4 feet 7 inches tall, published Castle Rackrent when she was 33.  Her writing career was encouraged by her father, who moved the family to Ireland when Maria was fifteen.  Her resulting acquaintance the Irish people is displayed in Castle Rackrent.

In this very brief novel (about 85 pages total), an old Irish peasant by the name of Thady Quirk narrates the “Memoirs of the Rackrent Family” – a tale that encompasses several generations of Rackrents whose imprudent marriages and greedy, foolish estate management brings about their ruin.  Thady Quirk is an unreliable narrator, glossing over the faults of this family to whom he is loyal, betraying more about them than he realizes. (Though another review that I read says that perhaps Thady is being tongue-in-cheek and knows that he is subtly belittling the Rackrents.  I can buy that.)

The novel’s main strength and my favorite aspect is the voice of Thady Quirk: the cadence of Edgeworth’s writing means that I could just about hear the lilt in Thady’s narration.  Here’s an excerpt from Thady’s description of Sir Murtagh Rackrent’s surprising marriage to a widow from a family called Skinflint.

I knew how it was; Sir Murtagh was a great lawyer, and looked to the great Skinflint estate; there, however, he overshot himself; for though one of the co-heiresses, he was never the better for her, for she outlived him many’s the long day – he could not see that to be sure when he married her.  I must say for her, she made him the best of wives, being a very notable, stirring woman, and looking close to everything.  But I always suspected she had Scotch blood in her veins; any thing else I could have looked over in her from a regard to the family.

I’m not sure that you can actually catch the cadence from just that bit – it seems to be a cumulative effect while reading straight through.  But the excerpt definitely shows the humor of the writing.

I was a little confused by the footnotes and endnotes attached to the story.  At first I thought it was something added for this 1964 edition of the book, but they are actually additions made by Maria Edgeworth herself.  The notes are mainly used to explain Irish terms and customs that the English person would presumably not know.  She launches off into little stories in the endnotes that are amusing in and of themselves.

Bruce Teets, in his introduction to this edition, writes “Castle Rackrent is notable as the first regional novel of any consequence.”  This statement and others in the introduction posit that Maria Edgeworth’s work is important as precursors to other authors’ work, as an influence on other authors.  It’s the kind of praise that doesn’t really seem like praise at all, but more of a nod of acknowledgement.

I did like this insightful statement from Teets in the introduction though:

By choosing Thady as her narrator, [Edgeworth] was able to use to advantage another technical device – the minor-character point of view.  Again she loses something: the dash and heroics, the color and romance of high life above-stairs.  But none of that was to her purpose, which was to depict the Ireland of the majority of the Irish and from their point of view.  And most people are, in life, minor characters.

I read this book in a couple of hours while waiting for the Verizon technician on Wednesday.  I found it pleasant but I can’t see any reason why someone should necessarily run out and read it.  However, if the idea of an old, humorous novel set in Ireland appeals to you, then you might want to check it out.

Other reviews:

Age 30+ . . . A Lifetime of Books (thought the footnotes were better than the story)

Desperate Reader (really liked it)

Melmoth the Lost (sees a similarity to Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day.  I thought that too!)

Pue’s Occurrences: The Irish History Blog (recommends it)

Read, Reading, Read (thought it was just ok)


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3 responses to “Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth

  1. Pingback: Personal Goal for 2010: Read 19 Books older than myself « A Good Stopping Point

  2. Eva

    You have my interest peaked if it’s similar to Remains of the Day! And unreliable narrators are such fun. 🙂

  3. Andrew

    This book, on the surface, is quite humorous and quarky- but when fully realized, its actually quite the oppisite. This was propagation attempting to further unfounded stereotypes placed upon the oppressed Irish by the English. In fact, many of the faults placed upon this English conception of who the Irish were, were actually faults the English themselves had. Rather than admit to their own problems, the English loved to push them on the Irish, and then tare the Irish apart, demeaning and degrading them for these fake faults that could only be found within an English mirror.

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