”Castle Rackrent” by Maria Edgeworth Essay Sample
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Consider: * The significance of the Big House in Ireland. * The historical, political and cultural significance of the Big House in Ireland. * The views of other readers and critics. Maria Edgeworth, born in 1768 was a member of the Anglo-Irish tradition in Ireland, a tradition lasting over four hundred years. Through this time Ireland encountered much change, not only in a social, political and economic sense, but also in a literary sense,
political and economic sense, but also in a literary sense, thanks to pioneers of Anglo – Irish literature such as Edgeworth. Therefore it must be assumed that the importance of the ‘big house’ tradition was immense and had a massive impact on both the outlook and content of Castle Rackrent. It would be foolish however to dismiss the novel as anything less than groundbreaking in its day in many ways, not least in exploring the theme of naming and titles, but also in critically analysing the social structure of the time. Edgeworth has managed to break free of the emotional constraints and unwritten censorships of the time to create a highly original anecdote that calls into question presumptions and perceptions of the Anglo Irish themselves and their English counterparts.
The era, in which Edgeworth wrote was unimaginably different to the present day, setting the book in its historical context highlights how relevant it was for readers at the time. The Penal Laws were in force. In the Concise Oxford Dictionary they are described as;
‘In English and Irish history, term generally applied to
the body of discriminatory and oppressive legislation
directed chiefly against Roman Catholics but also
against Protestant nonconformists.’1
These undemocratic restrictions denied the catholic majority of the island basic rights such as the right to vote, own land or stand in parliament. The consequence of this was that the Anglo – Irish held an iron grip on the running of the country and many of Ireland’s people lived in immense poverty and
depravation. The vast majority of people on the Island were suffering serious disenfranchisement in terms of political rights. Also in the year that Edgeworth wrote the country encountered a massive rebellion led by Wolfe Tone. Ireland was on the verge of the Act of Union which threatened to dissolve Home Rule. This actually came into force in the year 1800.
It is widely known that the Edgeworths were one of the more sympathetic Landlords of their time, as Julien Maynahan tells us
“The Edgeworths were good landlords in a time
of incipient Anglo – Irish decline.”
It is clear that they embraced a nationalist ideology. In fact Richard Edgeworth, Maria’s father was a strong supporter of catholic emancipation. However they wished for a reformation of the current social system rather than its removal altogether. Culturally the ‘Big House’ was one of the most important Irish movements giving birth to a unique artistic and literary culture.
This however, had a very different meaning to the lower classes as they struggled against a wave of extortionate rents and famine. To these people the ‘Big House’ stood as a symbol of oppression against their people. The mistreatment of tenants by landlords was a well known phenomenon and one that Edgeworth venomously opposed. The ‘Big House’ buildings themselves were often large, imposing residences that the very sight of caused much fear among the Irish. Also because of the rising self-assertion among the upper classes the Irish peasantry felt intimidated and inferior. It could therefore be said that the ‘Big Houses’ were tangible manifestations of English supremacy. We can find evidence of this in Otto Rauchbauer’s essay ‘The Big House and Irish History’:
“It has often been remarked that the epithet ‘Big’ has been seen as a relative concept one that was particularly telling vis-vis the one-room hovels that were inhabited by the native Irish… The protestant ascendancy had developed a great deal of self confidence
…and also an Irish identity.”
At that time and still today, naming had an important role in determining one’s social status and in weaving the social fabric of a country. Edgeworth was acutely aware of this as can be seen in Castle Rackrent.
The very name ‘Castle Rackrent’ is a monument to the emphasis Edgeworth put on titles. In the essay “The Publication of Castle Rackrent” ……………. tells us;
“A ‘Rack – Rent’ was an excessive, extortionate rent often equal
to the full annual value of the land”
This then is ample explanation for the actions of both present and absent landlords on the Rackrent estate, who ‘grind the face of the poor’. Such as when Sir Murtagh issues so many lawsuits against his tenants, and when Sir kit sells off tenants’ land to the highest bidder when their leases run out.
“Rents must all be paid… all the tenants turned out.”
While this is generally considered a comic device it also highlights many of the flaws and failings of the system for charging rent at the time. It is likely that the Anglo – Irish would have found it difficult to stomach such brave criticism. It is therefore no surprise that Edgeworth distances herself from the debate in the preface when she states;
“The editor hopes his readers will observe that these are tales of other times… the race of the Rackrents has long since been extinct in Ireland.”
This appears to be an attempt to stem a potential backlash from the upper classes and from the English aristocracy, due to an apparent ‘slander’ on the Anglo – Irish culture.
Titles in the book also carry a massive weight of importance, judging by the unconditional adoration of Thady by any person or object with a Sir in front of it, such as ‘Sir’ Kit, or ‘Sir’ Condy. Because Thady is indigenous of the native Irish, it is therefore significant that he holds the Anglo – Irish in such high esteem. These titles of ‘Sir’ and ‘Lady’ represent authority and this has obviously led to a subversive and downtrodden peasantry in Ireland.
A significant and interesting fact in the book is that the Rackrents themselves were of Irish catholic descent, as Thady discloses in the opening of his memoirs;
“Everybody knows this is not the old family name, which was O’ Shoughlin – related to the kings of Ireland.”
The fact that Patrick O’ Shoughlin had to change his name, and thus his religion in order to inherit an estate is evidence enough that name held an integral role in the extent of social status and climbing that was possible for one to achieve in 19th century Ireland. However it is also clear that Edgeworth does not necessarily agree with this sentiment. Edgeworth believes that names or titles should not restrict those who have sufficient ambition to climb the social ladder. One way that Edgeworth illustrates this view is the rise of Jason in Castle Rackrent.
Jason is presented by Edgeworth as an intelligent character full of cunning and deception. He is different to all the other characters in the novel in that we are never given an insight into his flaw or vice. One could say that he is the only character in the novel that actually gets what he wants at the end. This cunning nature is evident in his dealings with the Rackrent family throughout the novel:
“and my son put in a proposal for it, why shouldn’t he as well as another?”
“When things were tight, my son put in a word again about the lodge, and made a genteel offer…”
This is a huge leap forward in Anglo-Irish literature in that an Irish character has been accredited with more wit and common sense than that of the landlords. This also goes a long way in understanding the distance Edgeworth places herself from Castle Rackrent as it is very unlikely that the upper echelons of society at that time would sanction the rise of an Irish ‘underling’ at the expense of the legitimate heir. Klaus Lubhers also mentions this aspect in his essay ‘Continuity and Change in Irish fiction’:
“From the possible allegation that she is befouling her own nest, she protects herself through anonymity… and by dating the events back to a time before 1782.”
Therefore we can deduce that for Edgeworth names or titles should not restrict those who have sufficient ambition to climb the social ladder.
Although Jason is a cunning and manipulative character, his father, Thady also could be considered a character bearing similar characteristics. It is my belief therefore that there is an element of stereotyping in Edgeworth’s presentation of Irish characters in general. Both Thady and Jason can be contrived as cunning and untrustworthy, represented by their manipulation of advantageous situations and their contradictory statements.
“He never lost one, but seventeen… he was a very learned man in the law.”
“I and mine have lived rent free, time out of mind…”
“By – and – bye a good farm bounding us to the east fell into his honours hands and my son put in a proposal for it: why shouldn’t he as well as another?”
Thady appears to be torn between loyalty to his master, and loyalty to his son, the dissembling Jason, however it is clear that many of his words and actions are motivated by himself as shown by his emphasis on ‘rent free’. These characteristics, to Edgeworth were physical embodiments of the Irish people as a whole, as she stipulates in her own diary:
“Ireland, with all thy faults, thy follies too…
Thy reckless humour and improvidence.”
Although it could be said that Edgeworth felt sympathy for the Irish plight her stereotypical view precludes her from understanding the Irish situation as much as she would have liked.
Other characters in the novel have titles or names that reflect their nature or situation, For example Captain Monegawl. Obviously the title captain carries with it an air of authority while the use of the word ‘money’ is significant in his surname as it indicates a family of great wealth. This is supported by Sir Condy’s marriage to Miss Isabella:
“There’s no compare between our poor Judy and Miss Isabella, who has a great fortune they say.”
Lady Skinflint is another character whose characteristics match her name. Thady constantly criticises her for being parsimonious in nature, a ‘skinflint’.
“She was from the family of the Skinflints… but I always suspected she had scotch blood in her veins.”
The reference to ‘Scotch blood’ within the Irish idiom represents meanness. I think this was an attempt by Edgeworth to highlight the amount of prejudice and social baggage that could be contained in a name, and to convey the potential danger of holding those prejudices by parodying what was probably happening in real life also at the time. Through this naming technique Edgeworth adds character, comedy and morality to her novel in which the reader must evaluate the significance of naming in both a historical and post – colonial sense.
I think a very important aspect of Castle Rackrent is the fact that many characters, or suggested characters in the novel are not given names. These are mostly people from the lower classes of 19th century Irish society, those on the margins. These include the Irish peasantry and the wives of all the Rackrents apart from Sir Condy’s and surprisingly the middle man hired by Sir Kit while he was in England. The Irish peasantry in particular (with the exception of Jason and Thady) are given marginal roles if any in the novel. Most noticeable is the fact that they are also regarded as a singular entity, not worthy of individualism. It is clear that from a Big House perspective, they barely even existed. How ironic is it then that the rent they paid kept the Anglo – Irish ascendancy afloat for so many generations? In the Irish Times on the 3rd November 2003 this Irony was explored:
“Castle Rackrent is an ironic commentary of the follies of the 18th century Irish landlords.”
Therefore it is possible to see the rise of Jason as a possible warning by Edgeworth that complacency could mark the death of the ‘Big House’ culture and that if the Irish are continually treated as commodities they may well fight back. An example of this treatment comes during Sir Condy’s election campaign;
“and as soon as the sods came into town he set each man upon his sod, so then, ever after, you know, they could fairly swear they had been upon the ground.”
Sir Condy, and indeed Thady, now see the Irish people as simply useful objects that can be used for personal gain. These people are not individuals but ‘drones’ that are further down the pecking order and deserve neither recognition nor respect.
There is no doubt from the novel that Edgeworth is more left-wing than many of her aristocratic counterparts, however this must not create the illusion that Edgeworth is a revolutionary looking for the social balance to be turned on its head. We must see Edgeworth more as a reformer, looking for the social balance to incorporate a more sympathetic policy on the periphery of its rather narrow spectrum. It must have been difficult for Edgeworth to write about women in the manner that she did for her novel, however in doing so she highlighted the unfair marginalisation of women at that time. A point proven by the fact that in the first four editions of this very novel she deemed it appropriate to publish under her father’s name, and not her own. The racism and sexism of the male characters in Castle Rackrent is evident from start to finish and particularly significant when considering the patriarchal nature of society at the time. Thady cannot hide his racism and antipathy towards Jews when he talks of Sir kit’s Lady Rackrent;
“The bride might well be a great fortune – she was a Jewish by all accounts.”
“I could not but pity her, though she was Jewish.”
Here Thady has stereotyped the Jewish community without even realising it; it appears that her religion has prevented her from deserving a mention in a denominative sense. It is his belief that she is representative of the entire Jewish community. Therefore that aspect of the novel could be seen as a microcosm for widespread prejudice against Jews. Sir Kit directly discriminates against her when he locks her in her room for seven years;
“And my master said she might stay there, with an oath; and to make sure of her, he turned the key in the door, and kept it ever after in his pocket.”
Thady even finds it appropriate to blame the Lady Rackrent for Sir Kit’s eventual death;
“And if it had not been all along with her, his honour, Sir Kit would have been now alive in all appearance.”
This theme of disrespect towards women is constant throughout Castle Rackrent and it is clear that such actions were perceived as normal at the time, with such actions as deciding which woman to marry on the flip of a coin. So in that sense women were seen as commodities also and that they were mere possessions of their ‘Sirs’. This is an aspect of society that Edgeworth felt particularly strongly about and wanted immense change to take place in relation to the role of women in Anglo – Irish society, A change that arguably only came at the turn of the 20th century when women were given emancipation and equal status before the law.
The central character in Castle Rackrent is the enigmatic and somewhat confused Thady Quirk. As our narrator he has potential power over our opinion and it certainly appears that he has exploited this to some extent. His rhetoric is veracious at best and selective at worst. It is nigh on impossible to make a conclusive judgement on such an elusive character. Edgeworth herself tells us;
“The only character drawn from life in Castle Rackrent is Thady himself, the teller of the story… he seemed to stand beside me and dictate and I wrote as fast as my pen could go.”
It is true that Edgeworth’s depiction of Thady is a suggestive one and could have caused a stereotype to emerge concerning the Irish people as a whole. Certainly the fact that the character is based on her father’s faithful steward John Langan shows us that Edgeworth may have created a stereotype for herself in order to study the Irish idiom and the Irish ideology.
Thady’s name itself is possibly representative of his own personality and character. The word ‘Quirk’ could be seen as a synonym for Thady’s eccentricity and peculiarity. And also for the loosely defined way in which he describes himself;
“My real name is Thady Quirk…I have always been known as no other than ‘honest’ Thady.”
“I remember them calling me ‘old Thady, and now I’m come to ‘poor’ Thady.”
The fact that Thady has so many nicknames tells us of his own personal confusion as to his real identity, as well as the confusion of others. Thady is a man who has become incongruous to both his own people and to the masters he so ‘loyally’ serves. He has crossed a social divide and has been left stranded on its periphery. He is no longer sure whether he supports his master, or his son, his niece, or even himself. This confusion is manifested in his contradictions that run right through the entire novel. While he apparently disowns his son at the beginning, time and time again he publicly supports his son’s rise through the Rackrent estate. If he is loyal to the family then why has he exposed their every vice to the public? All these questions are unanswerable as Thady most likely does not know the answer himself. The most humorous of all these contradictions comes at the end of the novel when he states;
“As for all I have here set down from memory and hearsay of the family, there’s nothing but truth in it from beginning to end:”
This final humiliating statement gives us confirmation that Thady does in fact not see any distinction between truth and hearsay. This leads us to finally question the motives of a man who has brought shame upon the family he claims to have adored so much. Can his actions be described as knavery, or folly, and can they be seen as malign or innocent? The Critic Bruce Etetes believes that one must find a synthesis of all these conditions in order to understand his character:
“Thady’s character can perhaps be seen as a delicate mixture of knavery and folly, shrewdness and naivety.”
In my view Thady is somebody who is self centred and has a distorted view of the world, however I do not believe that Thady has enough intelligence to plot against others in a sinister fashion.
Castle Rackrent, through the art of Maria Edgeworth is a unique and memorable account of the state of Irish affairs in the early 19th century. Through use of the ‘Stock Character’ technique Edgeworth has managed to explore characterisation not only on a regional scale, but also through a broader social spectrum, which is a commendable achievement considering the relative brevity of the narrative. This comedic device has been exploited by Edgeworth in a satirical context to encourage self-evaluation of both the Anglo-Irish and the
Irish people. This is represented through the ‘drunken’ Sir Patrick, and his alcoholic folly, the ‘litigious’ Sir Murtagh, with his constant indictments, The ‘fighting’ Sir Kit and his municipal greed and the ‘slovenly’ Sir Condy with his dangerously esoteric outlook. Any one of these men can be seen as the ‘Buffoon’. This is representative to Edgeworth of a general complacency creeping in among the upper classes. All of these men have a worrying apathy towards their Irish tenants; something which seemed to cause much concern to Edgeworth and was probably a central motive in writing the novel.
Thady himself is a stock character with the inner conflict he suffers between his own native Irish and the Rackrent family to whom he claims undying loyalty. This is representative of the Irish people as a whole at the time when Edgeworth wrote, in the struggle that they found themselves in when attempting to balance the burden of penal laws, failing crops, starvation and eviction by middle men. This explains Thady’s reluctance to name the Middleman in Castle Rackrent; he is a threat to the existence of many of the Irish tenants, and with no formal title or acknowledgement he seems less formidable and less important. This explains to the reader the importance that a name or title brings to one’s authority
The fact is that Edgeworth most likely did not want her audience to focus on the individual characters of her novel, but rather on the flaws each of them has. With the exception of Sir Condy, the individuals in Castle Rackrent should be looked on as caricatures rather than characters. Though this the reader begins to empathise with Edgeworth in relation to the society in which she lived, something that she further enriched with the powerful tool of naming in her novel. Maria Edgeworth, through the use of puns (‘Rackrent’, ‘Skinflint’ etc), use of titles such as ‘Sir’ and even in her lack of naming, i.e. towards the Irish peasantry and Women in the novel, provides the post-colonialist reader with a more meaningful understanding of the social, political and economic conditions in 19th century Ireland. In Castle Rackrent Edgeworth has redesigned a classical literary device to create a memorable anecdote for the modern age and therefore immortalising her representation of the society of Ireland during her lifetime.
* “Castle Rackrent” – Maria Edgeworth – Penguin Classics 1992
(Introduction written by Marylin Butler.)
* “The Publication of Castle Rackrent” –
* “Anglo-Irish – The Literary Imagination of A Hypenated Culture.” – Julien Maynahan – Princeton 1995
* “Concise Oxford Dictionary” – Oxford University Press – 1990
* Maria Edgeworth’s Diary Entries
* The Irish Times – 3rd November 2003
* ” Continuity and Change in Irish Fiction; The Case of The Big House Novel” – Klaus Lubhers
* “The Big House and Irish History; An Introductory Sketch” – Otto Rauchbauer
* Bruce Etetes –
* “The Anglo-Irish Novel” – John Crown – Belfast 1980
* “Maria Edgeworth” – James Newcomer
* “Maria Edgeworth; The bicentennial Study”
* “The Big House In Ireland; Reality or Representation” – Bernard De Gros – 1991
Name – Niall Dumigan
Candidate Number – 8018
Centre Number – 71550
Coursework Title –
” For post-colonial readers (Castle Rackrent) takes
on a new shape as a contribution to the literature
of class, race and gender, a remarkably intuitive
and far reaching portrait of an unequal society.”
Using this statement explore Maria Edgeworth’s use of the theme of names and titles within Castle Rackrent which may help the reader to understand the theme of social ranking or inequality in Ireland at the time in which the novel was written .
* The significance of the Big House in Ireland.
* The historical, political and cultural significance of the Big House in Ireland.
* The views of other readers and critics
1. Concise Oxford Dictionary – Oxford University Press – 1991
2. Julien Maynahan – ‘Anglo-Irish, The Literary Imagination of A Hyphenated Culture’ – Scholastic (1995)
3. Otto Rauchbauer – ‘The Big House and Irish History; an Introductory Sketch’ – University Press (1986)
4. ………………… – ‘The Publication of Castle Rackrent’ – McMillan House – (1991)
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