Oh, dear. I fear I may have bitten off more than I can chew these past few weeks, first with A Sentimental Journey and now with Castle Rackrent. Eighteenth-century literature has certainly done an excellent job of kicking my butt with these two short novels.
I originally wanted to read Castle Rackrent because I studied another of Edgeworth’s novels, Patronage, a few years ago. I enjoyed it immensely, and figured Castle Rackrent would be more of the same.
Sadly, it was not to be. Castle Rackrent is the story of a wealthy Anglo-Irish family told through the eyes of their faithful old servant, Thady. A succession of four equally unpleasant masters is what we’re presented with, complete with the story of their unhappy wives and their reckless spending of ancestral money.
My main problem with the novel was the same one that I encountered with A Sentimental Journey. The choppy nature of the prose, the obscure references to contemporary events, and the satirical style which, without context, left me completely baffled. It’s tough to go from a steady diet of Victorian novels and postmodernist fiction (where at least you know you are supposed to be utterly lost when you’re reading, and therefore don’t feel quite so stupid) to something as choppy and as confusing as this. I think the eighteenth-century sense of humour probably has quite a bit to do with this.
In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever finished a novel, put it down, and been overwhelmed with a simple feeling of, ‘huh?’ A little supplementary reading enlightened me to the book’s importance: it can be seen as the first historical novel, the first ‘Big House’ novel, an early book told from the point of view of a servant. While I was reading it, though, the book just seemed like an endless, confusing maze.
Still, there were a few moments of lucidity amidst all this. Though each successive Lord Rackrent appears to get worse and worse as the generations progress, this is not necessarily true of their wives. The story of one of the unfortunate Lady Rackrents was quite affecting, for instance. Sir Kit’s bride is Jewish, married into the family because of her wealth rather than any affection between the pair, and her unpleasant husband does not make her life easy. In fact, he more or less locks her away until he dies unexpectedly, and she is free to leave the estate at last. This episode may have been based on real-life occurrences, and it was more or less the only time I felt sympathy for a character while reading the book.
Other than that, finishing Castle Rackrent left me feeling deeply dissatisfied. I felt that I had missed something big about the book, some important aspect of it that has made it so attractive to readers over the years. I think it’s a lesson; I need to read more literature from this time period, braving my fear of eighteenth-century style to emerge more well-read and enlightened at the end of it. Maybe once I’ve had a bit more experience from this time period, I can return to Castle Rackrent and appreciate it more. For now, I think I will have to remain ever so slightly baffled.
Rating: 2.5 Stars