After ‘The Big House of Inver’ I’m in the mood for – well if not more of the same then at least something firmly rooted in place. Given that 'Castle Rackrent' is billed as the first regional novel in English on the back blurb it seemed like a good place to start. My copy has been sitting on various shelves for a good decade without being read, mostly because much as I like the sound of novels of this vintage I often find them hard work to get into. There are several exceptions to this and after actually reading Maria Edgeworth I think she’s one of them. I also have ‘The Absentee’ and will be trying that soon as well in the hope that I find it as immediately appealing as ‘Castle Rackrent’.
Clearly Somerville and Ross knew ‘Castle Rackrent’ well as much of it is re worked into the back story of ‘The Big House of Inver’ and some of the same devices are used for the rest of the plot – two very different books but both belonging to a tradition that must have started with ‘Castle Rackrent’. Basically a novella of barely 90 pages that tells the story of the Rackrent family from the point of view of an old family retainer starting with generous and drunken Sir Patrick, tight fisted and litigious Sir Murtagh, inveterate gambler and rake Sir Kit, and finally ill fated Sir Condy with his weakness for whiskey punch.
I really loved this book; the romp through family history is basically an excuse for recounting some of the juicer scandals from Irish society mid 18th century and for throwing in every stereotyped caricature of the Irish character that Edgeworth can find. Just the promise of those two things was enough to make me read on but there’s more, this is such a genuinely funny book. The jokes could probably have been written yesterday – they feel fresh enough and there’s something about the rhythm of the dialogue between various Rackrent’s and their wives which whilst it clearly comes of its time it could equally be spoken word for word today.
Being a short book probably helped my enjoyment as well. One of the things I was conscious of when reading ‘The Big House of Inver’ was that whilst the same kind of family narrative was entertaining it could drag on a bit; I spent a long time waiting for the action to unfold, not an issue in ‘Castle Rackrent’. It’s definitely a book I can see myself reading again and again, especially on wet afternoons, I have the feeling there’s a lot more to find in it, I also have a page of scribbled queries to follow up the first being about the life of a Lady Cathcart. I would say more but don’t want to throw in any spoilers. Honestly though this is a book which really repaid the couple of hours it took to read it and I’m wondering how to follow it up, at the moment I’m thinking to carry on with old and regional but will have to see what the book shelf casts up.
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