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Castle Rackrent

            

Maria Edgeworth and “Castle Rackrent”

            Maria Edgeworth was an influential and renown female Irish writer.  Living from 1767-1849 and writing in the early 19th century, she belongs to one of the earliest group of female writers who called for sexual equality in her writings.  Based in Ireland, her writings focused mainly on the life of Irish commoners, principal works on the topic including Castle Rackrent, Ennui, The Absentee, and Ormond, written in 1800, 1809, 1812, and 1817 respectively.  Although her encouraging father led her to write many children’s books, a large amount of her literature deals with very adult and very political problems. Later influencing Francis Scott and other writers who dealt with the Irish, she tried to establish an interest and pride by the Irish for their history, especially in the wake of British domineering.

            These were clearly her intentions in writing Castle Rackrent, as laid down in her preface to this adult novel.  Written in 1900, her intent was mainly historical.  She wanted to preserve the history of the Rackrent family by recording the story given to her by a man named Thady. Thady apparently had determined to tell the secret story about this family as a manner of honor and loyalty to the family. But Edgeworth’s historical motives are much deeper.  Knowing that the race of Rackrent had disappeared in Ireland, she wanted to preserve what remained of this family so influential in old Irish history.  Likewise, she admitted that many contemporary and coming readers would delight in reading about the bumbling and antics of her characters; admirable though they may be she knew that just as people read avidly the antics of Falstaf in Shakespeare’s writings, that readers would avidly read her story. 

            Additionally, Edgeworth intended to whip up Irish pride at a time when Ireland was losing it.  She wrote the story in 1800, as Great Britain was slowly fusing Ireland with itself. She claimed to look dismayingly forward to “when Ireland loses her identity by a union with Great Britain”.  In short, she aimed to preserve a unique Irish heritage before the last strands of Irish culture were Anglicized.  She wanted the Irish to recognize a different ancestry, not only to enjoy ridiculing it, but to invest pride and love for the former days for Ireland.

            But by writing a biography, Edgeworth planned to give the Irish a personal account to which they could connect and truly appreciate.  As per her preface, she believed history for the most part left out anything that the common man could associate.  With perfect meter and formality, common history was not comprehensible to the common man. The exigencies of historical accuracy, brevity, and impartiality, she wrote, prevents historians from getting truly personal with the stories they tell. As a result, she argued, most people cannot connect with the person they are reading about, and the effect is lost on them—they cannot envision an incomplete account of historical persons.  Thus she embarked to collect the minutest details about each of the characters in Rackrent to get as accurately as possible an appreciation of the real character with whom she was dealing.  Examining journals and memoirs, quotes and pieces of conversation, she claimed to have created a much more acceptable narrative than history.  The biographer, she claims, is the true source of an accurate judgment of a person, as history tends to record popular and not always just judgments.

            The story is one of an Irish noble family, told in vernacular for the common Irishman to understand.  Key to the narrative is a thorough characterization of a certain class of Irish gentry that had since vanished when she wrote this novel.  Each of the main characters had a problem; Sir Patrick was a drunkard; Sir Murtagh sought litigation too much; Sir Kit was a hot-blood; and Sir Condy was an unkempt slob.  Their habits and characteristics no longer a part of accepted Irish culture, Edgeworth used it as a reminder of what the Irish once were like, and compares the need to protect even the absurd and undesirable characteristics to a similar desire in British literature.  The story is one of their exploits and how they were judged in their own setting.  To phrase it the way she did, the use of the Rackrents’ bad characteristics works like an Irish idiom, which is culturally significant to the Irish, but lost in translation to the British.

 

 

Edgeworth, Maria. "Author's Preface". Worldwide School Library. 1 April, 1999. 28 January, 2004.

            <http://www.worldwideschool.org/library/books/lit/socialcommentary/CastleRackrent/chap7.html>

"Maria Edgeworth". 10 March, 2000. 28 January, 2004.

            http://www.library.unt.edu/rarebooks/exhibits/women/19th.itm>

 

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