Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth (1768 to 1849-there is some background information on her in my posts on "The Purple Jar" and "Limerick Gloves") is far more than just a famous work of the sort we sometimes read just to increase our understanding of literary history. It was, among other things, a terribly funny book.
Maria Edgeworth (1768 to 1849) was born in England to Irish parents but returned to Ireland at age 14. She helped her father manage his estate, took charge of her younger siblings and was taught at home by her father in law, Irish history, science and literature. She observed very closely the day to day life of the people from peasant to gentry and also began to correspondent on equal terms with many learned men.
W. B. Yeats said it was "one of the most inspired chronicles ever written in English". It started the "Big House" novel craze, that still is very popular today, it might be the first historical novel and it one of the first novels to make use of an unreliable narrator. In a very interesting feature there is an added glossary at the end written as if it were done by an Englishman commenting on the Irish.
The novel is a satire and a deep slam on the Anglo Irish landlord class. It is narrated by one Thady Quirk who has served four generations of the family. Declan Kibard in Inventing Ireland says Castle Rackrent is about a time when the relationships between landlords and tenants were trusting and easy, one long passed in 1800, if it ever existed. The owners of the estate are your standard figures: we have the heir given to the wild life, one constantly involved in lawsuits, a cruel gambler who is seldom there and we have a kind but feckless heir to round things out. The son of Thady Quirk is very involved in running the estate.
The fun, and yes it is not a grim read to get it read book, is in the narration of Thady, his sucking up to his masters while getting around them while playing Paddy, the difference between reality and the perceptions of Thady, and the wonderful prose of Edgeworth.
There is also a lot to be learned about the history and culture of Ireland from this book. For example before I read this I had no idea that the lady of the big house was entitled to the weed money from the estate.
Castle Rackrent (even the heavy handed joke in the title works once you start to understand how subtle this book turns out to be) is a subversive work that should be read by anyone who wants to see the start of Irish Post colonial literature while reading a great pre-Victorian novel.
You can download this book from Manybooks along with other works by Maria Edgeworth.
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