Maria Edgeworth's Caste Rackrent was published in 1800 at the moment of political union between Ireland and Great Britain. This short novel was the first of her Irish tales. Set before 1782, a momentous period for the independence of the Dublin parliament, Thady Quirk, a servant in a big house tells us of four generations of the Rackrent family. As the Irish Catholic narrator, he recounts the decline of this Protestant landowning family who stems from Maria Edgeworth's own background. Thady's stories describe how the Irish middle class rose because of mismanagement by the Protestant elite. The novel represents a key moment in the enlargement of the autonomy of women’s authorship. Narrated from a colonial point of view, Castle Rackrent indicates Edgeworth's hybridity in regard to her “Anglo-Irishness” and heralds the beginnings of a reflection on Irish nationhood and the salient function of women in the story. My analysis will revolve around the ways in which women in Castle Rackrent demonstrate ambivalence in terms of their presence as victims and as characters whose socio-political weight indicates their evolution. Emphasis will be laid on how women are regarded as victims of a patriarchal system in which, at the same time, they use as a model to acquire economic independence while the landlords fall from grace and lose their prestige.
To argue that women in the novel are presented as victims is not untrue. Like the relationship between servants and masters, they are oppressed in many ways and this is expressed through Thady’s male narrative voice. When one refers to victimhood in Castle Rackrent, it has to be understood on several levels.
In the domestic sphere, the notion of personal finance and legitimation in regard to ownership are key issues. For instance, Sir Kit keeps his rich wife cooped up and even tries to steal her money for his private business. The question of property triggers tensions between husbands and wives. If we read Kathryn Kirkpatrick, we understand that “before the Norman invasion of Ireland, Gaelic women had held [...] personal property equally with men in marriage.” However, “this egalitarian mode ceased with inheritance.” Women's identity is, it seems, predicated on their will to legitimise property and their only chance to inherit the land is to get rid of the patriarch who becomes an obstacle. One cannot discuss women's victimisation without mentioning the male figures who influence their behaviours. Indeed, men’s final actions are used to deceive the narrator. In order to avoid being judged harshly, they have to show empathy by doing a number of different actions which are in reality disguised under false apologies. Sir Kit for instance sends a servant to tell his imprisoned wife that the company is drinking her health. Sir Condy gives his wife a memorandum and tells her to ‘shew it to [her] friends’ (p 70) The reason why he decides to give her the jointure is to avoid being criticised by her friends about his marriage of unshared interests. Also, when Sir Kit fritters away his money in Bath, he intends to use his wife’s fortune for his own benefit. His marriage to a wealthy Jewess is a way for him to reclaim his losses. Kirkpatrick suggests that he “resorts to raw domination because exploiting his wife through the marriage contract fails.” When Thady learns that his master's bride won't support him financially, he becomes judgemental and sees her as a foreigner, she is therefore excluded from the domestic sphere. Murtagh's wife is not left unscathed neither. Here is Thady's opinion of Lady Murtagh, “I did not like her [...] - she was of the family of the Skinflints, and a widow” (p 12)
Besides, his preference for Judy over Lady Isabella is clearly underlined in these lines: “if she's no Jewish like the last, she is a mad woman for certain, which is as bad” (p 47) Seen in this light, women can represent the prejudged who turn out to be unhappy once they have been married. Lady Isabella feels abandoned when Sir Condy “swallow[ed] the last glass of whiskey punch, [she] burst into tears” (p 49). Thady deplores that Sir Condy, unable to remain wifeless, married her though he “had no liking not he to stage plays, not to Miss Isabella either” (p 43) In that sense, Lady Rackrent is a victim of domesticity and of her husband's inevitable decision to sell the estate. Her unrequited love can be seen as unfair and adds to the realisation that her husband will probably not become a Member of Parliament. It becomes clear then that marital union is endured but does not last. At the end of the novel, “Jason did not marry [...] Judy, as I prophesied, and I am not sorry for it” (p 96) If Ireland is to ‘marry’ England, it might mark the end of its liberty and sovereignty. For the Irish nation, the parliament would be dissolved and for Judy, it could mean dependence on a husband.
In the struggle for property, inequalities appear to be based on gender. However, in the political sphere too, women's access is restricted. In fact, the Penal Laws were an important issue at the time because it forbade Catholics to own land and have access to education or even become Member of Parliament. Thady and Maria Edgeworth share in common a marginal and colonised status in that both receive the same treatment concerning the franchise since both are not allowed to vote. When she wrote the novel in the late 18th century, nationalism began to rise and united people around the same goal: a democratic and independent Ireland. In that sense, Edgeworth invites us to reflect on the future status of Ireland as well as that of women and Catholics which seem to be endangered and frail. Indeed, uncertainty permeates the novel. As Declan Kiberd notes, “A true Union with Britain may herald not the extinction of the Rackrents but of the Irish race itself.” Ireland, last to integrate the UK may have seen Scotland as a model for the transformation from colonised to equal citizen of a larger society. As Thady signals, Sir Murtagh’s wife is Scottish, she has “Scotch blood in her veins” (p 68) Seen in this light, she can potentially represent incorporation into a community which assimilates the subaltern and gives birth to a British character. The fear that the Irish character would disintegrate and make room for a superficial identity is expressed in the Preface when Maria Edgeworth announces “When Ireland loses her identity by a union with Great Britain” (p 5) Another allusion to Scotland is when Sir Condy goes there to marry without authorization, imperiling paternal ties and inheritance laws.
As far as religion is concerned, women can relate to Catholics regarding the flouting of their rights. The representation of the subaltern is significant in that both women and Catholics struggle to assert or rather re-assert their identities. Jews and Catholics went through similar socio-political difficulties. Certainly, the relationship between Thady and the Jewish foreigner is a clear indicator that outsiders, regardless of their gender, embody the figure of the Other. Since one is a Christian and the other a “Blackamoor”, they are parasites in the eyes of Protestants. Their religions are deemed inferior in that they threaten the imperial blueprint. Eve Eisenberg asserts that their relationship represents “the potential for Ireland not to recognise how it is perceived by England.”