- Castle Rackrent
An 1800 reviewer of Maria Edgeworth's novel Castle Rackrent praised the work as "a very pleasant, good-humoured, and successful representation of the eccentricities of our Irish neighbours" (cited in Jacqueline Belanger, "Educating the Reading Public: British Critical Reception of Maria Edgeworth's Early Irish Writing," Irish University Review 28, no. 2 (1998): 240–55). Subsequent critics have shared that early appreciation of the novel, but have seen in it a more nuanced portrayal of Irish life. For most of the twentieth century, readers were introduced to Castle Rackrent through George Watson's Oxford edition (1964), but in the past two decades, Penguin Classics (1992) and Houghton Mifflin's New Riverside series (2005) have produced editions of the work, which also appears in Pickering & Chatto's collection of The Works of Maria Edgeworth (2003). This latest edition of Castle Rackrent is edited and introduced by Susan Kubica Howard, who writes in "A Note on the Text" that she has "annotated the novel with an eye toward providing an undergraduate reader with the tools to read this edition as easily and fully as possible, and a more advanced reader the sources to go further in-depth with his or her inquiries" (xxxvi). She does the former well, and undergraduate readers will find many of these [End Page 197] tools valuable. A more advanced reader would probably do well to use another edition.
Castle Rackrent purports to be an "unvarnished tale" (4) narrated by Thady Quirk, an old Irish family servant. The novel is glossed and annotated by an authoritarian English editor, who alternately explains and undermines Thady's tale. Any modern editor seeking to publish a new edition of this book must first come to terms with the novel's original editorial apparatus, written by Edgeworth herself, probably with contributions by her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth. In her introduction, Howard notes that the editorial apparatus operates on more than one level, "allowing readers from varied backgrounds and with diverse perspectives to engage in the novel" (xxiv). Howard's own introduction likewise allows readers of varying backgrounds to appreciate and understand the text better. Her section on the novel's historical context brings together important information on the historical relationship between Ireland and England, explaining the origins of the draconian "penal laws" and the devastating consequences of a nation presided over by absentee landlords. Howard details the role that the Edgeworth family played in reforming the tenant-landlord system, and Maria's direct involvement in her family's estate as agent and accountant (xv). Howard's introduction highlights the "many parallels between Thady's story of the Rackrent family's abuse of—and attempts to keep—the estate, and the story of the Edgeworths' own ancestors' equally inept though ultimately successful efforts to hold onto theirs" (xxix). This context and the supporting examples that Howard cites place important emphasis on the interrelationship between generations, between classes, and between nations depicted in Castle Rackrent. Each of these issues is central to Edgeworth's text and, as Howard reminds us, complicated and uncomfortable.
Yet Howard's decision to move Edgeworth's editorial footnotes to the end undermines the multiple voices that make Castle Rackrent an original and thorny novel. These notes originally appeared at the bottom of the pages of Thady's tale, and they complicate the work in important ways. Certainly Castle Rackrent is not the "plain unvarnished tale" (4) that its putative editor claims. While some scholars dispute the role of Castle Rackrent's editor, clearly he (or she) underestimates Thady Quirk from the outset. In the novel's preface, written for the benefit of "the ignorant English reader" (5), the editor alludes to Thady's "habitual laziness" and inability to deceive his more sophisticated readers. Yet readers cannot help but question the truth of Thady's tale: he proudly describes his son Jason's mounting business successes, while condemning Jason's eventual takeover of the Rackrent estate; he portrays the Rackrents as stingy and [End Page 198] incompetent landlords and...