Originally published in 1800, approximately 45,000 words. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.
For the information of the IGNORANT English reader, a few notes have been subjoined by the editor, and he had it once in contemplation to translate the language of Thady into plain English; but Thady's idiom is incapable of translation, and, besides, the authenticity of his story would have been more exposed to doubt if it were not told in his own characteristic manner. Several years ago he related to the editor the history of the Rackrent family, and it was with some difficulty that he was persuaded to have it committed to writing; however, his feelings for 'THE HONOUR OF THE FAMILY,' as he expressed himself, prevailed over his habitual laziness, and he at length completed the narrative which is now laid before the public.
Maria Edgeworth, was an Anglo-Irish writer credited with writing the first regional novel of Ireland, about Castle Rackrent and the fictitious Rackrent family.
While not overtly political, Castle Rackrent certainly has political implications, and being published just as the Kingdoms of Ireland and Great Britain were being unified, the author was apparently worried about portraying the Irish in a manner that would decrease sympathy for them. Thus she includes a glossary, which itself provides as much humor as the novel itself.
“Thady begins his memoirs of the Rackrent Family by dating MONDAY MORNING, because no great undertaking can be auspiciously commenced in Ireland on any morning but MONDAY MORNING. 'Oh, please God we live till Monday morning, we'll set the slater to mend the roof of the house. On Monday morning we'll fall to, and cut the turf. On Monday morning we'll see and begin mowing. On Monday morning, please your honour, we'll begin and dig the potatoes,' etc.
All the intermediate days, between the making of such speeches and the ensuing Monday, are wasted: and when Monday morning comes, it is ten to one that the business is deferred to THE NEXT Monday morning. The Editor knew a gentleman, who, to counteract this prejudice, made his workmen and labourers begin all new pieces of work upon a Saturday.”
The Rackrents were originally the O'Shaughlins, allegedly descended from the high kings of Ireland, and now of the class of Anglo-Irish landlords. Edgeworth's story, quite critical of the Rackrents and told through the vernacular voice of Thady Quirk, the family's venerable Irish butler, is both satirical and understatedly political, pointing out the consequences of mismanagement by dissolute landlords and mistreatment of the Irish tenants.
"Honest Thady" goes through the history of four generations of Rackrents, three of whom he serves directly.
My grandfather was driver to the great Sir Patrick O'Shaughlin, and I heard him, when I was a boy, telling how the Castle Rackrent estate came to Sir Patrick; Sir Tallyhoo Rackrent was cousin-german to him, and had a fine estate of his own, only never a gate upon it, it being his maxim that a car was the best gate. Poor gentleman! he lost a fine hunter and his life, at last, by it, all in one day's hunt. But I ought to bless that day, for the estate came straight into THE family, upon one condition, which Sir Patrick O'Shaughlin at the time took sadly to heart, they say, but thought better of it afterwards, seeing how large a stake depended upon it: that he should, by Act of Parliament, take and bear the surname and arms of Rackrent.
After the generous but drunk and spendthrift Sir Patrick O'Shaughlin dies, his heir Sir Murtagh takes possession of Castle Rackrent. Sir Murtagh is a litigious fellow:
As for law, I believe no man, dead or alive, ever loved it so well as Sir Murtagh. He had once sixteen suits pending at a time, and I never saw him so much himself: roads, lanes, bogs, wells, ponds, eel-wires, orchards, trees, tithes, vagrants, gravelpits, sandpits, dunghills, and nuisances, everything upon the face of the earth furnished him good matter for a suit. He used to boast that he had a lawsuit for every letter in the alphabet.
Following him comes the most villainous of the Rackrents, Sir Kit, who brings to Castle Rackrent a new bride, whom he turns out to be as inhospitable to as he is to his tenants. She is Jewish, and came to Ireland with a valuable cross of diamonds which Sir Kit wants to get from her to settle some of his debts; when she refuses, he locks her up in her room, and she winds up confined there for seven years.
Sir Kit's character was so well known in the country that he lived in peace and quietness ever after, and was a great favourite with the ladies, especially when in process of time, in the fifth year of her confinement, my Lady Rackrent fell ill and took entirely to her bed, and he gave out that she was now skin and bone, and could not last through the winter. In this he had two physicians' opinions to back him (for now he called in two physicians for her), and tried all his arts to get the diamond cross from her on her death-bed, and to get her to make a will in his favour of her separate possessions; but there she was too tough for him. He used to swear at her behind her back after kneeling to her face, and call her in the presence of his gentleman his stiff-necked Israelite, though before he married her that same gentleman told me he used to call her (how he could bring it out, I don't know) 'my pretty Jessica!' To be sure it must have been hard for her to guess what sort of a husband he reckoned to make her. When she was lying, to all expectation, on her death-bed of a broken heart, I could not but pity her, though she was a Jewish, and considering too it was no fault of hers to be taken with my master, so young as she was at the Bath, and so fine a gentleman as Sir Kit was when he courted her; and considering too, after all they had heard and seen of him as a husband, there were now no less than three ladies in our county talked of for his second wife, all at daggers drawn with each other, as his gentleman swore, at the balls, for Sir Kit for their partner—I could not but think them bewitched, but they all reasoned with themselves that Sir Kit would make a good husband to any Christian but a Jewish, I suppose, and especially as he was now a reformed rake; and it was not known how my lady's fortune was settled in her will, nor how the Castle Rackrent estate was all mortgaged, and bonds out against him, for he was never cured of his gaming tricks; but that was the only fault he had, God bless him!
At last the estate falls to Sir Condy Rackrent, who, along with his wife, drives himself and the Rackrent name into its final dissolution with irresponsible spending and an ill-considered run for Parliament, which succeeds but bankrupts him. In order to discharge his debts, he winds up selling everything to a young lawyer named Jason Quirk, who is none other than Thady Quirk's son.
'And how much am I going to sell!—the lands of O'Shaughlin's Town, and the lands of Gruneaghoolaghan, and the lands of Crookagnawaturgh,' says he, just reading to himself. 'And—oh, murder, Jason! sure you won't put this in—the castle, stable, and appurtenances of Castle Rackrent?'
'Oh, murder!' says I, clapping my hands; 'this is too bad, Jason.'
'Why so?' said Jason. 'When it's all, and a great deal more to the back of it, lawfully mine, was I to push for it.'
'Look at him,' says I, pointing to Sir Condy, who was just leaning back in his arm-chair, with his arms falling beside him like one stupefied; 'is it you, Jason, that can stand in his presence, and recollect all he has been to us, and all we have been to him, and yet use him so at the last?'
'Who will you find to use him better, I ask you?' said Jason; 'if he can get a better purchaser, I'm content; I only offer to purchase, to make things easy, and oblige him; though I don't see what compliment I am under, if you come to that. I have never had, asked, or charged more than sixpence in the pound, receiver's fees, and where would he have got an agent for a penny less?'
'Oh, Jason! Jason! how will you stand to this in the face of the county, and all who know you?' says I; 'and what will people think and say when they see you living here in Castle Rackrent, and the lawful owner turned out of the seat of his ancestors, without a cabin to put his head into, or so much as a potato to eat?'
Sir Condy, no longer in possession of Castle Rackrent, thus passes away as the last of the Rackrents.
An interesting view of late 18th century Ireland, and important for its historical place, but being a sort of narrative genealogy told in a vernacular voice, I didn't find that Castle Rackrent lived up to its billing as a "Swiftian satire," nor was it particularly interesting as a story.
Verdict: An early historical novel with touches of wry humor, and significant for its view of Anglo-Irish relations, Castle Rackrent is not particularly interesting outside this context; for plotting and characters one would do better with one of Edgeworth's contemporaries. Another one of those books that has earned its place on the 1001 Books list more for its historical place than its literary qualities. 5/10.
I read this book for the books1001 challenge.
My complete list of book reviews.