Maria Edgeworth was born in Oxfordshire in 1768 to an Anglo-Irish family. Her ancestors had settled in Ireland in the sixteenth century as part of the Protestant New England Settlement. Her father was born in Edgeworthstown before attending Oxford, returning to Ireland in 1782.
Edgeworth published Castle Rackrent in 1800, although the title page states the story is set prior to 1782. Both Maria and her father, who edited the book, were concerned that readers may interpret it as a current description of the Irish gentry. Despite the description on the title page, readers considered it a modern tale. The story charts the life of an Irish aristocratic family through the eyes of their loyal servant, Thady Quirk. It begins with Sir Patrick, who changes the family name from O’Shaughlin to Rackrent to inherit the estate. Prior to 1778, Catholics could not inherit property. Therefore, the implication is he not only changed the family name, but his religion and politics. Thady’s own identity is closely bound up with the family and their Irish Catholic roots. Thady symbolises the family’s inability to change, which brings about their ultimate demise.
Sir Murtagh is the next to inherit. He marries a widow from the Skinflint family and complains she has dressed for mourning before he is dead. In an angry dispute where she insists on having the last word, he bursts a blood vessel and dies, thus giving her the last word. Both he and his wife seek to extract all the money they can from their tenants. Sir Kit, in common with his predecessor, seeks to gain as much money as possible by exploiting the poor on the estate, but he is an absentee landlord. He marries a Jewess looking to inherit her property on marriage, but she refuses to give up her diamond cross and he locks her in her room for seven years. Finally, Sir Condy elopes with Isabella Moneygawl, but when her family disown her and the money runs out, their relationship sours. The more impoverished he gets, the more he drinks and she questions whether he is a fit companion for her. She leaves him to return to her family but suffers injury on the road. Mistakenly believing she is dead, he sells her jointure to Jason Quirk, Thady’s son. His intention is to spend the ready cash on drink, but he dies before he can accomplish this goal. This leaves the estate to Thady’s son with Isabella challenging his ownership with a claim in law as the rightful owner. The union of marriage becomes an act of repetition within the family, but it does not unite the parties or bring about a merging of identities.
In contrast to romantic eighteenth-century novel endings, where marriage is a reward for virtue, in Castle Rackrent, each wife escapes after her husband’s death with her fortune intact. Not conforming to the duties of wives and mothers’ they sought wealth, happiness and fulfilment. By resisting the controlling influence of their husbands, they assert their own rights as individuals. Edgeworth argued women preferred domestic life and felt it had an important role in national stability. The unhappy marriages and lack of children show how the breakdown of domestic life undermines the Rackrent family.
The Anglo-Irish Act of Union came into effect in 1801. Proclaimed by the pro-unionists as a consensual contract between two willing parties rather than a takeover. The Anti unionists argued that after the failed uprising of 1798, they could not freely consent, therefore, it was a forced union. By portraying the Irish as incapable of self-representation, she supports the legality of the British. To support this claim, she examines the differences between an Irish wake and an English one. In England, it is a festival held on the anniversary of a saint. This involves rustic games, conviviality, courtship and other pleasures. By associating it with orthodox religion, it is justified and only occurs on limited occasions, there is restraint and decorum. The Irish wake happens at midnight and is for the indulgence of holy sorrow but is alleged to be converted into orgies of unholy joy. This suggests the Irish are driven by their baser primitive instincts and cannot suppress them even at a funeral.
Edgeworth’s solution is rehabilitation through education. Jason and Sir Condy both attend the local grammar school. Sir Condy pays little attention to lessons, preferring to learn stories of the family from Thady. Jason becomes a clerk and then an agent for Sir Kit. It is this association with their past identity that stops the family from reforming. Jason represents the modern industrial society; committed to growth and improvement, creating social and occupational mobility and devaluing custom. Education becomes important and a school-transmitted culture supersedes the folk-transmitted traditions. Absentee landlords needed to be educated in paternalistic land management practices. The creation of an educated native elite is necessary to guarantee domination. However, the dominant power cannot assume the elite will assimilate into the colonial culture.
Edgeworth portrays Ireland as a failed culture, living the superstitious past, in need of transformation into a modern, enlightened, protestant individualism. It is easy to look back on colonialism not as enlightenment but as repression of heritage and culture.