Sunday, 22 January 2012

Castle Rackrent

Before reading Castle Rackrent my knowledge of Maria Edgeworth was limited to the fact that she is reputed to have been Jane Austen’s favourite author, and that Sir Walter Scott admired her. This was the first time I’ve read any of her work, and it’s been an interesting experience.

She was the eldest daughter of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, an Anglo-Irish landowner who had four wives (not all at the same time, obviously) and 22 children, which sounds extraordinary by modern standards. Born in England in 1768, she was only six when her mother (the first Mrs Edgeworth) died. The oddest fact about her (apart from her father’s proclivity for wives and children) is that while at school she almost lost her sight though an eye infection, and her father (who looms large in her story), recommended that she take up arithmetic because it ‘requires no attention of the eyes’, which sounds bizarre, but perhaps he felt resting her eyes would effect a cure.

On a more sensible note, when Maria was 14 the family finally returned to their Irish estate at Edgeworthstown, where she lived until her death in1849. From the outset she played a pivotal role in family life, teaching her younger brothers and sisters while continuing her own education under the tutelage of her father, and also helping him to restore and manage the run-down estate. She corresponded with many of the learned figures of her day, including members of The Lunar Society, and developed her own views on education, estate management and politics, but never married, insisting that it was better to remain a spinster than to have an incompatible partner.
The Edgeworth family home in Ireland
It’s worth noting that during the potato famine of the1840s she wrote a book to raise money for a relief fund to help the starving , and did what she could to publicise the crisis - but she was adamant that her own tenants would only receive assistance if they paid their rent in full.

As far as Maria Edgeworth’s writing goes, I was surprised to learn that she wrote children’s books and essays, as well as novels, and that she is considered to be something of a trailblazer by showing the Irish in real settings and reproducing their speech. In Castle Rackrent she includes a glossary set into the main text to explain these terms, with additional notes on history and customs. This was, apparently, a totally new device, but I thought it distracted from the story. Equally ground-breaking was the idea of using estate worker Thady Quirk as  narrator, telling us how four generations of Rackrents frittered their money away. Personally I found her style difficult.  It is a satire, and it was very funny in places, but the language seemed convoluted and archaic, the plot was thin and the characters lacked definition. However, this was her first novel, written in 1800, and I would like to read more of her work to see how her style developed – perhaps The Absentees would have been a better choice.

Maria Edgeworth when she was older, 
Trying to explain why she wrote, she said “Seriously it was to please my Father I first exerted myself to write, to please him I continued.” I get the impression she always had enjoyed telling stories to friends and family, and that maybe she hoped that through humourous novels she could highlight the need for change in the way Irish estates were managed. Whatever her reason for writing, Maria Edgeworth was hugely popular: for a time her earnings outstripped Scott and Austen, and she seems to have enjoyed the acclaim she received. She was more highly thought of in England than Ireland, but towards the end of her life she was made an honorary member of Royal Irish Academy. 

This was posted for the What's In A Name Reading Challenege at


  1. A very interesting post. I've never read anything by Maria Edgeworth but I'm finding that reading something of these lesser known author lives makes me want to.

  2. Thanks for this in-depth and informative review. You've introduced to me what Jane Austen's favourite reads were like. From your post, seems like Edgeworth was well versed in societal issues as well as observant of those on a smaller scale found within the family. Just curious, do you think her style of writing and subject matter had influenced Austen's own works?

  3. I'm curious about that as well - I admit I struggled a bit with Castle Rackrent, but I've downloaded some more of her work to take a closer look. I think she was more influenced by political issues than Austen, and her humour is not as subtle. Austen's writing is more concise, and her characters and plots seem to be more planned and controlled. I think they both wrote about what they knew - perhaps that was part of their success, because it meant their novels had some kind of truth.

  4. I read "Castle Rackrent" long ago--maybe I should revisit it! I started "The Absentee" last year and quite enjoyed it, but stopped about halfway through because I liked the protagonist and was worried that something terrible would happen to him. What a dumb thing to do, right?-- but it wasn't the first time. :)

  5. I've just realized that I have had Edgeworth's Belinda on the TBR pile for years - I'm moving it up to the top of the pile.

  6. Chris, I enjoyed the book but you have conveyed its impact, and if you think about it, we do not hear about readers who are big Edgeworth fans, do we?

  7. I agree, we don't hear about people who are big Edgeworth fans today. I think modern readers like something where plot and characters are stronger, and the way she writes is not that easy to get to grips with. But she was very popular in her time, and she did have an influence on the development of the novel. She made me think how modern Jane Austen seems compared to other authors of the period - and I wondered how people will view late 20th and early 21st century novels in 200 years time.

  8. I read An Essay on the Noble Science of Self Justification years ago in an essay anthology and enjoyed it immeasurably-- so wry, so funny. I immediately made copies and sent them to my daughters who were in college at the time. I really should read some of her novels and short stories, but have never gotten around to them.