Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

I read Maria Edgeworth’s unique little novel, Castle Rackrent (1800) the other day, when I was in need of something Austen-esque but didn’t want to do any rereading. I’d never heard of Edgeworth (1767 – 1849) but went looking for an Austen contemporary, found her, got her work from Gutenberg and spent an enjoyable day with her style.

In Castle Rackrent, loyal steward Thady Quirk tells the story of four generations a noble Irish family. He is a devoted servant our Thady, and quick to overlook the vices and flaws of each successive Master. The book is really a nod to the working class and how much more efficient and intelligent they are, but it also illustrates how terrible it must have been to be a poor farmer on one of these estates, squeezed to the last drop by the irresponsible, careless or downright greedy nobility. It was a fun read, although the jumping through each generation made me wish for a contained story along the same lines.

Edgeworth has a rich collection of novels, treating various subjects like interracial marriage, absentee landlords, fallen women and so forth.  Gutenberg has a 10-volume collection of her Tales and Novels, which seems to include nearly everything. And they also have her letters; she corresponded with Sir Walter Scott for years. Treasure!

My search for an Austen contemporary gave me a few other names to try, including Fanny Burney (whom Austen liked) and Ann Ward Radcliffe (whom it seems she didn’t, if I am remembering correctly, Austen makes fun of Radcliffe’s novel The Mysteries of Udolpho in at least one of her books). I’ve got Burney’s first novel, Evelina, as well as The Mysteries of Udolpho, which sounds like a bit of fun.

10 Responses to “19th century continues…”

  1. Smithereens

    Good choices! I liked Evelina a lot, and had some reservations on Udolpho which is a bit longish, but still memorable. It’s rather late 18th than early 19th, are you processing backwards? That sounds fun.

  2. nicole

    I’ve had Castle Rackrent sitting on the shelf for a while, in an edition with some of Edgeworth’s other work. Not sure when I’ll get to it but you do make it sound fun.

    I’m interested to see what you think of Evelina; I was really not a huge fan when I read it last year. The Mysteries of Udolpho was much more delicious, though long enough that I didn’t actually finish it when I started it (ages ago…). I think Evelina is a lot more like Austen, though (not a huge Austen fan here).

  3. Amateur Reader

    Castle Rackrent is absolutely unique. None of Edgeworth’s other books are anything like it. I’ve written about it in the context of Wuthering Heights – I believe it was a model.

    Burney and Richardson are the key influences on Austen, although she improves on them in so many ways it’s head-spinning. I think I prefer the Penguin volume of Burney’s diaries and letters to Evelina – she had quite a life. The Gothic and Sensibility novels are only influences inasmuch as Austen parodies them in Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility.

  4. Charlotte

    I read Udolpho last year and I have to second Smitherens on it being longish (how would you translate “des longueurs”? Des langueurs, even!). I don’t think it’s mentioned by name in Northanger Abbey (it’s not in the Northanger Horrid Novels list anyway!), but I remember an Austen letter being none-too-loving towards Mrs. Radcliffe.
    If you’re looking for Gothic, I started The Monk two days ago (I’m all over the place these days), and it’s way more fun than Udolpho was so far. Just as campy, but without the excuses…

  5. Sarah

    I haven’t read Edgeworth yet (although I have Belinda in the TBR pile) so am interested to hear about Castle Rackrent.

    I would highly recommend both Evalina (which is where Austen found the phrase pride andprejudice) and Burney’s letters and diaries, especially on Samuel Johnson. She’s a much better writer than Radcliffe!

  6. びっくり

    I’m glad you chose not to re-read. It allowed you to branch out and to bring us along with you. Thanks for the write-up, I think I might enjoy Rackrent; however, the school board is making me feel like the overworked lower class, so maybe I should wait to read it. 🙂

  7. verbivore

    Smithereens – I hadn’t actually realized it was older, but now that I see it was published in 1778, it’s fascinating to compare it to later works (Austen, for example).

    Nicole – Yes, I can see that if you don’t like Austen that much, Evelina wouldn’t be that exciting. But I did find it a bit ‘cruder’ than Austen, which was a surprise when I realized it was older. I’ll be on to Udolpho next, and looking forward to it.

    Amateur Reader – I actually loved the unreliable narrator bit of Castle Rackrent, that was something I wasn’t expecting to see in such an early novel. Although if there is anything I’ve learned by reading 18th and 19th century novels (and even earlier) it is that modern writers haven’t actually invented much.

  8. verbivore

    Lilian – I would be very curious to see what you think. It was a nice diversion for a summer afternoon, but with good substance at the same time.

    Charlotte – Thank you for the tip on The Monk, I will definitely check it out. And yes, my reading is also completely random right now. I’ve jumped from Richard Dawkins to Fanny Burney and even J.K. Rowling. Bizarre, but also perfectly good for summer reading.

    Sarah – Well now that I’ve finished Evelina, I’m a Burney fan and would like to read all of her stuff. I’ll head to the letters next and then try another of the novels.

    Bikkuri – Ganbare! The Japanese academic year is grueling this time of year. I hope you make it the next few weeks and then have some deserved vacation. Any reading on the menu?

  9. Stefanie

    Fun! I’ve wanted to read Castle Rackrent for ages but h aven’t managed it yet. I even have it on my Kindle waiting for the perfect moment. sounds like I am in for a treat.

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