Regarded as the first regional novel in English, Castle Rackrent spans four generations of the Rackrents, an Anglo-Irish landed gentry family. Although the class of people known as the Anglo-Irish, the wealthy protestant landowners, had ruled Ireland for generations, many spent their lives in England and on the European continent living in luxury while reaping profits from their agricultural lands in Ireland. They often left the management of their estates in the hands of corrupt overseers who failed to keep up the property. This absentee landlord system, coupled with a greedy emerging Irish middle class exploited the disenfranchised and aggravated the impoverishment of Ireland’s peasant class.
Rackrent Castle’s very name emulates the sound of disintegration: The rack was a medieval instrument of torture on which victims were physically stretched past the limits of their endurance; rent is a word for splitting apart. Indeed, the castle literally disintegrates as the novel develops. At the same time, the Rackrent family, a picture of four generations of the absentee landlord system, sinks into decay as each generation uses dishonesty and trickery (directed particularly toward victimized women) to acquire more money. Intent on realism, Edgeworth spares nothing in utilizing Castle Rackrent as a symbol to reveal the corruption inherent in the Anglo-Irish social system and to call for the overthrow of Ireland’s absentee landlord system.
Many late-eighteenth and early nineteenth century gothic novels feature castles, or castlelike houses, to characterize people who are locked within or without. The suggestive atmosphere of Rackrent Castle emphasizes the era’s popular gothic principle of imprisonment and the terrifying aspects of women’s place in society at the end of the eighteenth century. Sir Kit Rackrent’s wife–who, significantly, does not have a first name–is locked within the castle’s walls because she refuses to surrender her jewels, particularly a diamond cross, to the estate after she marries into the family. Ultimately, after being imprisoned in a room for seven years, she escapes only because Sir Kit dies. The theme of imprisonment, all-pervasive in nineteenth century literature, is spoken of as ordinary by the novel’s unreliable and irrationally loyal narrator, Thady Quirk. After Sir Kit dies, he blames all the trouble on Lady Rackrent’s refusal to do her duty, especially when her husband made no secret of the fact that he married her for her money. After the Rackrents go bankrupt, Thady’s son Jason, a sharp attorney, exploits the family’s weaknesses and winds up with their land.
Moneygawl estate. Home of Isabella Moneygawl, whose father locks her in her chamber when she disobeys him. The novel’s second estate, Moneygawl re-emphasizes Edgeworth’s political view of the decaying Anglo-Irish social order and her pervasive gothic theme of incarceration. Although Isabella is freed after Sir Condy Rackrent marries her, her marriage only traps her once again–this time at Castle Rackrent, which has become a tumbledown eyesore.