This very short work give an account of three generations of Anglo-Irish landowners, each more short sighted and self destructive than the one that preceded him. The first two make efforts to preserve and increase the family fortune through such means as constantly dunning tenants for rents and feudal duties (hence the name of the estate, to “rack” or wring out the rent) or by constant litigation or the threat thereof. All this work goes to naught when the third heir, Sir Condy, completely wastes the estate through his own genial incompetence. While the most agreeable and pleasant of the three, Sir Condy is also the weakest and most dissipated. He comes to a horrible, drunken end, fully conscious of his ruin and the fact that he brought it about himself. All of this is narrated by his faithful retainer, Thady Quirk, who tearfully recounts the dismal downfall of his feudal lords in the most pathetic terms while all the while leaving you to wonder if he means devil a word of what he says and is really just about pulling your leg.
The tale seems to be composed of the essence of tragedy, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. This is because it possesses the essential Irish quality, a sprightliness and energy that carries both narratives along at a relentless pace along with a lively eye for the absurd in any situation. Edgeworth had a keen ear for Irish patterns of speech. Although an Englishwoman, Edgeworth was raised in Ireland and had a tremendous feel for the Irish viewpoint of her time. The humor of her tale is especially poignant in light of the fact that it was written soon after the terrible Rebellion of 1798, one of the most internecine of Irish conflicts. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Irish history, the early English novel, and anyone with a good sense of humor.
With her satire on Anglo-Irish landlords in Castle Rackrent (1800), Maria Edgeworth pioneered the regional novel and inspired Sir Walter Scott's Waverley (1814). Politically risky, stylistically innovative, and wonderfully entertaining, the novel changes the focus of the conflict in Ireland from religion to class, and boldly predicts the rise of the Irish Catholic bourgeoisie.