Castle Rackrent and The Absentee
by Maria Edgeworth
I bought this book at a library book sale really just because it was beautiful. I loved the binding, the endpapers, the fineness of the pages and the print. Reading into the introduction, I found out that Maria Edgeworth was one of the first female novelists, as well as a crusader for education and for Irish rights under English rule; and her novel Castle Rackrent is one of the first historical novels written in English, and is actually considered groundbreaking and influential for some of the choices the author makes – one of the first novels set in Ireland; covering multiple generations of one family, making this a “Big House” novel, with a servant as a narrator; having that servant be biased, describing the family as noble and honorable and beloved even as they act like a pack of crazed, starving weasels, etc. So hey, awesome! I picked a good one.
Then I read it. Okay, it may be groundbreaking and influential, but it’s also terribly annoying. Those people, the Rackrents, really are obnoxious, and so, therefore, is the servant, Honest Thady, who describes them to us, pining for the long-gone days when the lord of the manor would throw enormous parties that he couldn’t afford, passing the debt onto his heirs – you know, the good old days. I was struck particularly by the rather ridiculous refusal of the Rackrent men to actually deal with reality: they spend too much damn money, and when it comes to their debts, they just shake their heads and refuse to discuss such plebeian matters, disgusted that anyone would even think of asking them to honor their obligations – and there’s Honest Thady, saying, “How could they ask my noble master something so callous! How could they ask him to lower his noble visage, to consider their peasant-concerns. We should all just drink to My Lord’s health!” Another thing that struck me: they drink a whole lot of health in this book. There’s one scene when they celebrate the elevation of a new Rackrent heir by drinking his health for the entire evening; I can’t even picture that. Every time they get a new drink, it’s just “To my lord’s health! Wot wot huzzah!” and down the hatch. Then twenty minutes later, “Long life to my Lord Rackrent! Pip pip hullabaloo!” And this, to Honest Thady, at least, is a good evening.
But on the plus side: it has a glossary, which together with the narrative offers some interesting insights into the time and place; and it’s really short.
The majority of the volume is actually taken up by a later book by the same author called The Absentee. That book was much, much better, even without being so innovative and groundbreaking. It’s the story – again, which is a tad annoying for the repetitiveness – of the Clonbronys, an Irish lord who can’t handle thinking about money affairs, and his wife, who also refuses to think about money, but really loves spending it; she is trying to get in good with English society by being the most fashionable and throwing the best parties, and so she has forced her Irish nobleman husband to leave his country estate in Ireland and live in London so she can be one of the girls. Sadly, the people she wants to hang out with – well, they suck. It’s a lot like a two-hundred-year-old version of Mean Girls: they mock Lady Clonbrony’s accent and heritage behind her back (She was born in England, but is from an Irish family and married to an Irishman), they roll their eyes at how hard she’s trying to be cool, which of course prevents her from being cool; they titter at her attempts to be fashionable which are all so yesterday. Meanwhile her husband is running around with an English military man who seems like a lot of fun, but is apparently uncivilized according to Milady, who can’t stand to be in the same room with his gaucherie without getting a case of the vapors. Though his every appearance in the actual novel makes him seem like a perfectly nice man and a very good friend to her husband. I suppose we’re just supposed to know the distinctions made by the upper classes between what’s acceptable and what’s not.
Meanwhile, the son of this couple, Lord Colambre, is just about to come of age and inherit his part of the family estate, and he is in a bit of a pickle. You see, he can’t decide who to marry. Which is, of course, really the only decision that people of this class ever have to make on their own, and so naturally it is fraught with weighty momentousness. This guy has the following options: he could marry his cousin, whom he actually loves, but she doesn’t think of him THAT WAY; he could marry Lady Sophia, who seems the perfect gentlewoman but whose mother is a crass boor; he could marry an extremely wealthy young heiress whom he respects but does not love. What, OH WHAT! Is Lord Colambre to do!
Well first, he goes back to Ireland and visits his father’s estate, and the neighboring estate that is soon to be his. And though this part is probably a little too on the nose in its social critique, I thought it was by far the most interesting, as it gets into people’s real, actual lives, the troubles that the Irish people faced when their lords lived in England and simply demanded money be sent to them so they could buy their fashionable doodads, without worrying about where exactly the money was coming from or how it was hurting the little people to have to come up with it. Lord Colambre finds that there are two important factors: one, having a good agent, or manager, a guy who actually wants people to do well versus one who is corrupt and only interested in maximum profit with minimum cost – a slumlord, in essence; and two, having the lord actually live on the estate, rather than too far away to oversee matters and keep an eye on things. Lord Colambre, who’s actually a pretty good protagonist, determines that he will not be an absentee lord, and that he will convince his father to fire the bad agent he currently has and hire the good one.
All of this comes about, and Colambre even overcomes the most difficult challenge, that of convincing his stubborn and dimwitted mother to give up her dream of being the belle of London society – I call her dimwitted because as she is ripping through her husband’s money, forcing him to squeeze the little people back on the estate for more to cover her debts, all she says about money is, “Well, when I married him he had plenty, and I brought even more into the marriage! So surely there’s no problem! Now order me that ivory-handled backscratcher with the gold trim!” – and just go back to Ireland where they can live within their means and with some shred of dignity. She finally agrees, and the bad agent is driven off so that the good agent can take over. Everything’s great! So hooray! A happy ending!
But wait (gasp): who will Lord Colambre marry?!?!?!?!?!?!? So he gives up on the rich heiress, even though his mother is disappointed that he fails to carry on the family tradition – and apparently the national pastime of the upper class – of marrying money to solve all overspending problems, because he doesn’t love her and a friend of his does (and that’s the guy she marries); and he finds out that the seemingly lovely girl with the crude mother is in fact a bitch, so she’s out too. So now it’s his cousin. But horror of horrors! He found out that – that – oh, I can’t even bear to write the words . . . she was born –out of wedlock! Her mother was NOT BEYOND REPROACH! She was a FALLEN WOMAN! Don’t you understand?!? She had THE SEX WITHOUT THE MARRIAGE! Gasp! Shudder! The vapors! Oh, pardon me while I faint dead away. There are several conversations where Lord Colambre is convinced that he can’t even consider marrying a woman whose mother was of less than perfect morality, as that same nature will surely appear in his bride. And this seems to be a given, which means that alas, his love is off the table as a marriage prospect. But then, through a series of rather absurd coincidences (but what the hell? It’s basically a romance novel, anyway.), it turns out that her parents WERE married, and therefore her blood is not tainted with whorishness – and what’s more, she actually stands to inherit money, and isn’t even his cousin! Huzzah!
So yeah, happy ending all around. And it was cheesy and all, but very sweet. I liked it quite a bit. Pip pip and all that folderol.