It has been debated over the years that Castle Rackrent by Marie Edgeworth, published in 1800, was the first regional novel in Britain and certainly the first novel to use the vernacular for the voice of the story. In effect the narrative structure is carefully organized, the vernacular medium plays a significant part in the organisation and the novel has a political purpose which the organised text seeks to serve.
To publish an Irish story in January 1800 was definitely a political act.
In Castle Rackrent Edgeworth adopts the voice of the native Irish, Thady Quirk is Catholic and Irish born, whose family have worked under several generations of an Anglo Irish family, the Rackrents. Castle Rackrent was written during a turbulent period in Irish history. The 1790s was the decade of the defenders and the united Irish men and the book was published on the eve of the union. This was hugely significant not only for the old Irish but also the Anglo Irish as they were now viewed by the New English as lowly as the Irish.
The novel can be read as a tortuous struggle for Irish independence against the English ascendancy.
It is the minor effects in the book that point to political unstableness, and change, including the title itself.” Castle Rackrent” This was an abuse that existed for centuries in Ireland. As we can see in the text castle rackrent was totally mismanaged leading to inefficient use of resources. In the text we know that Sir Kit Stopgap was the definition of an absentee landlord, spending most of his time in Bath.
It is he who adopts the dreaded “middle men” who were dreaded in Ireland, as they look large farms on long leases, and set the land again in smaller portions to the poor, as under tenants at exorbitant rates. This led to awful mismanagement and in later years led to the call for Home Rule. In the text, Thady describes this,” The agent was one of your middlemen, who rind the face of the poor, and can never bear a man with a hat upon his head- he ferreted the tenants out of their lives-not a week without a call for money-drafts upon drafts for Sir Kit”. It is also worth noting that Rackrent was a form of torture, this could be noted as a torture on the native Irish people, through their possession of their land.
The last couple of lines of the preface contain a very prophetic musing. That is, in my opinion, still as relevant today as it was on the eve of the act of union.” Nations as well as individuals gradually lose attachment to their individuality, and the present generation is amused rather than offended by the ridicule that is thrown upon their ancestors…When Ireland loses her identity by an Union with Great Britain, she will look back with a smile of good humoured complacency on the Sir Kits and Sir Condrys of her former existence.”1
With the continuous growth in Ireland and greater integration into Europe this statement definitely rings through today. The current generation of young Irish no doubt look back to past decades, with perhaps a since of amusement and bewilderment at old Ireland and how she was.
One of the key political messages in the book, (which does contain some bit of irony which I will later talk about) is to combat English prejudice against the Irish and to create an understanding between the two peoples. Brian Hollingworth in his book “Marie Edgeworths, Irish Writings” says she uses two separate and contradictory strategies.” Firstly, in her narrative, she allows the English their customary laughter at Irish behaviour, but then she emphasises that such behaviour is now an anachronism. So the English grow more tolerant of the Irish and view the Union positively…Secondly, by the tropes and by the allusions which she employs, she identifies the social problems which exist in Ireland and the difficulties which face the Union.” 2 (1997 pg75) Concerning her first tactic, a peculiarity which leaps from the title page is her emphasis that events described in Castle Rackrent predate 1782″An Hibernian Tale, Taken from the facts, and from the manners of the Irish squires, before the year 1782″ Brian Hollingworth concludes that a political message, both private and public is intimated here.1782 coincides with the beginnings of the Grattanite period and the slender years of political self confidence.
However I think its Edgeworths display of social degeneration though various mannerisms of the Rackrent family themselves and also the use of the Castle Rackrent as a simile. This can be seen throughout the whole novel, the jovial disposition of the Rackrent family can be seen as condescending to the native Irish at times, on PG19 Sir Kit casually throws Thady a guinea, money to him was no more than dirt, this would be in stark contrast to the native Irish. Another relevant factor is the incessant carelessness and apathy to the Castle Rackrent and its business interest by several generations of the Rackrent family. The Rackrents are famous for their parties and their exuberant spending, this fickleness, however costs them everything. The irony been is that Thadys son Jason ends up buying the Castle and its lands. Jason a proper native Irish, through hard work ends up acquiring the castle through Sir Condys carelessness. This could be seen as warning to the ruling classes of Ireland, that if this continuous mistreatment of the Irish continues, then the Irish could rise up. We know this period was very unstable with many uprisings because of land ownership.
Another example of politic unstableness can be seen through the Castle itself. The Castle at the start seems to be a place of great entertainment and joy. The castle begins large, it then falls into ruins and diminishes in size, this in stark contrast to the earlier part of the story when carriages come “thundering up to the great hall door” and “improvements are being made to the house”. After Sir Condrys marriage to a spendthrift wife, and his corrupt election to parliament, however, the house deteriorates rapidly.” There was then a great silence in Castle Rackrent, and I went moping from room to room, hearing the door clap for want of right locks, and the wind through the broken windows that the glazier never would come to mend, and the rain coming through the roof and the best ceilings all over the house for want of the Slater whose bills were not paid.” It is clear that through political corruptness and mismanagement that thing between the Irish and the English ascendancy cannot continue on. Mistreatment of the Irish has led to deterioration of not only the Irish themselves but also the English world.
Marriage is also used in the novel to describe the political divisions in Ireland. The Rackrent males are dominating and abusive of theirs wives, especially in the sense of possessions and wealth. The best example of this is Sir Kit who marries a wealthy Jewish heiress in order to get his hands on her money. The scenes where she is shut away in the castle, are actually quite amusing, with Sir Kit condescending her at every turn, answering every question with “yes sir”. Perhaps the funniest incident in the film is, when Sir Kit demands bacon every morning for breakfast. After five years of this treatment she looks to be dying. During this time she has been wearing a valuable cross, which Sir Kit has been trying to get his hands on. The irony of the situation is that she recovers and Sir Kit dies.” Directly she bursts into tears, and pulling her cross from her bosom, she kissed it with as great devotion as ever I witnessed, and lifting her eyes to heaven uttered some ejaculation,”. Sir Condys also marries a girl of vast wealth, although not as a calculated as his predecessor (He flips a coin) he still forfeits true love, which also ends in disaster. These acts of Union all end in failure and can be seen as a metaphor for the Union of Ireland and Great Britain, which also ends in failure. Marriage is meant to be a holy alliance, yet if the reason behind marriage is wrong, then it is an act against God. Ireland and Britain were never meant to be, it was a sin against God