37 pages 1 hour read

Maria Edgeworth

Castle Rackrent

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1800

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Summary and Study Guide


Anglo-Irish writer Maria Edgeworth’s novel, Castle Rackrent ,first published in 1800, tells of the decline of a family from her own aristocratic class. Seeking to present an authentic picture of these corrupt, inefficient estate owners, Edgeworth invents narrator Thady Quirk, a faithful steward who recounts the fate of four Rackrent estate owners in unsparing details.

He begins with relating how his grandfather was a driver for Patrick O’Shaughlin, who was descended from the Kings of Ireland but forced to change his name to the anglicized Rackrent when a British-imposed Act of Parliament made it a condition for owning property. A great entertainer and drinker, Patrick loses his life after a fit of drinking. After a lavish funeral, where Patrick is mourned by everyone in three counties, he is succeeded by his son, Murtagh, who loses a great deal of the family fortune in litigation suits. Against Thady’s advice, Murtagh digs up a fairy mount and finds himself afflicted with a mortal sickness. Murtagh is succeeded by the dashing officer Kit Stopgap. Kit, who proves himself to be a stopgap by nature, as well as by name, quickly removes to Bath. There, he amasses enormous gambling debts and meanwhile employs a middle man to oversee the estate, demanding that as much revenue should be extracted from it as possible, regardless of the consequences for his tenants. It is around this time that Kit hands over the management of his estate to Thady’s son, Jason. Kit returns to Rackrent with his Jewish wife, whom he hopes will bolster his dwindling fortunes. However, when she refuses to hand over her diamonds, Kit makes her a prisoner in her own bedroom. When it is rumored that about seven years later, she is on her deathbed, Kit begins contemplating who will be his next wife. A scandal erupts and Kit enters a duel among the intended wives’ brothers. When he is killed, the Jewish wife is freed and leaves Rackrent for England.

Kit’s successor is Connoly Rackrent, more commonly known as Condy. He is a personal favorite of Thady, who knew him since his boyhood. While Condy had a relatively un-aristocratic background, went to grammar school with Thady’s own son, Jason, and was educated as a lawyer in Dublin, on inheriting Rackrent, he shows no more aptitude than his predecessors. Refusing to take care of the great debts he has inherited, he hands over responsibility to Jason, who in turn wants to be compensated for his years of free service to the family. Condy gives Jason a bargain of some acres, which the latter sells to under-tenants. In need of revenue, Sir Condy sells the hunting lodge on his estate to Mr. Moneygawl. When Moneygawl’s youngest daughter, Isabella, wishes to marry Condy, Condy, who is tormented by having to decide between her and the charming but impoverished Judy M’Quirk, flips a coin to settle the matter. The toss comes up in Isabella’s favor. On marriage to Condy, the theatrical Isabella, who comes with a small amount of her own fortune, spends money on luxuries, such as building private theatres and entertaining. When Condy runs an exorbitant election campaign to become a member of Parliament and is successful, a house in Dublin is added to his expenses. Isabella, who is by now fed up, asks for permission to go back and stay with her family, a request to which Condy agrees to.

Cindy’s debts, summarized by Jason, are by now insurmountable: he does not know how he will pay them back. Jason then offers to buy the estate from him, a request which Thady, loyal to the ancestral family, is shocked by. However, the indebted Condy agrees and makes an announcement to the loyal public that he is going to retire into the hunting lodge on the estate for his health. Once there, and with Thady’s assistance, Condy feigns a mortal illness, so that he can experience the adoration of his own deathbed wake. Meanwhile, the news that Isabella may have been in a fatal accident interrupts the festivities. Jason arrives with a shower of golden guineas, which are Condy’s remaining share in the estate. Jason also brings a paper that declares that the entire Rackrent estate will be made over to him and only awaits Condy’s signature. Soon after signing, Condy contracts a mortal fever and dies. Thady is sad, and more mournful for the passing of the Rackrents than proud about his son’s ascent.