Speaking Subalterns and Scribbling Colonists:

Narrative Voice in Castle Rackrent

"My father asked for Belinda, Bulls, etc., found they were in good repute -- Castle Rackrent in better -- the others were often borrowed but Castle Rackrent often bought."1 Castle Rackrent has from the outset always been Maria Edgeworth's most popular work of fiction, and her readers' preference has been echoed by the vast majority of her learned critics. And it is clear that one of the greatest attractions of the novella is the rich idiom of its narrator, Thady Quirk. It is a voice that can blithely pack the entire plot of the tale into a single sentence, the way Thady's greatcoat hangs by a single button.

-- My real name is Thady Quirk, though in the family I have always been known by no other than "honest Thady" -- afterwards, in the time of Sir Murtagh, deceased, I remember to hear them calling me "old Thady;" and now I'm come to "poor Thady" for I wear a long great coat winter and summer, which is very handy, as I never put my arms into the sleeves, (they are as good as new,) though, come Holantide next, I've had it these seven years; it holds on by a single button round my neck, cloak fashion -- to look at me, you would hardly think "poor Thady" was the father of attorney Quirk; he is a high gentleman, and never minds what poor Thady says, and having better than 1500 a-year, landed estate, looks down upon honest Thady, but I wash my hands of his doings, and as I have lived so will I die, true and loyal to the family.2 (8)

The voice is surely one of the most individual in eighteenth-century fiction, as easily recognizable as that of Pamela or of Tristram Shandy. But exactly how the reader is to understand the significance of Thady's narrative and the form of Edgeworth's novella has been less clear. I would like to begin with the sort of controversy incited by James Newcomer in his bicentennial monograph on Maria Edgeworth.

For Newcomer, Thady is by no means the artless old family retainer, simpleminded and a bit confused; he is a "disingenuous" and highly unreliable narrator, who has not merely watched the downfall of the Rackrent family but actively assisted in it. He has not merely observed but aided at each crucial point his opportunistic son Jason's plot to take over the Rackrent lands, and has played a part even in Condy Rackrent's pathetic death. "Honest Thady" indeed! Newcomer feels that previous readers have failed to see Edgeworth's pointed hints that Thady is, even more than Jason, the villain of the piece.3 This suspicious reading is echoed in Cóilin Owens's suggestion that "the feat of the novel is the author's manipulation of the narrative so that while Thady appears to be one [of the eight or ten types of the literary convention of the stage Irishman current in 1800] (Servant), he is actually another (Fortune Hunter)."4

If naive readings generated these suspicious readings, they have been answered by (among others) Elizabeth Harden who concedes that Thady is an unreliable narrator but argues that his unreliability is marked by "transparency":

Thady's great appeal lies in his simple charm and unconscious naivete, made possible by the artistic device of 'transparency' -- the ironic presentation of external fact in such a manner that the reader may see the truth underneath the external statement and draw his own conclusions. Essentially, the events of Thady's narrative may be viewed from a three-dimensional level: the factual level in which the author has selected and arranged the events, typical of the world from which they are taken; the interpretive level of Thady, in which the events are filtered through his understanding; the interpretive level of the reader, who is able to see through and beyond Thady. For example, while the false report of Jessica's death is being circulated and the county speculates on three different ladies for Sir Kit's second wife, Thady remarks:

--I could not but think them bewitched, but they all reasoned with themselves, that Sir Kit would make a good husband to any Christian, but a Jewish, I suppose, and especially as he was now a reformed rake; and it was not known how my lady's fortune was settled in her will, nor how the Castle Rackrent estate was all mortgaged, and bonds out against him, for he was never cured of his gaming tricks--but that was the only fault he had, God bless him!

On the factual level, Sir Kit's being a reformed rake, his insecure financial status, and his weakness for gambling render him a complete rogue and an unfortunate marital prospect for any lady of consequence. As the statement filters through Thady's understanding, it becomes ironic understatement because of his complete failure to understand its serious implications. The reader, while he recognizes the impact of the statement, can at the same time appreciate Thady's simplicity....5

It may make sense to collapse two of Harden's three levels, since there is no "factual level" independent of authorial selection and arrangement. The form of unreliability Harden is describing turns on the difference between what Peter Rabinowitz calls the level of the "ideal narrative audience" (which takes the narrator's judgments and norms at face value) as it differs from the "narrative audience" (which can penetrate the naiveté or inconscience of the narrator); neither of these audiences views the events of the story as anything but matter of fact, as opposed to the authorial level of reading, in which we are aware that we are reading a fiction that has been shaped for effect by its author.6

But I have another problem with Harden's analysis: the landscape may be only two- and not three-dimensional, but it is still a bit more complicated than Harden allows for. Even in the quote she chooses, it is surely Thady, and not the perspicacious reader, who judges that the well-born ladies are "bewitched" into thinking that a reformed rake makes the best husband, or indeed for thinking that Sir Kit is a reformed rake at all, given Thady's explicit awareness that there are three of them, "all at daggers drawn with one another," each contesting an intimacy she thinks solely hers. All this argues shrewdness rather than simplicity on Thady's part, and it is therefore hard not to see a bit of deadpan irony in his final statement that gambling was the only fault Sir Kit had, God bless him, when Thady has just shown Sir Kit to be an accomplished and unprincipled seducer. Like the Irish bull he attributes to the ladies--"that Sir Kit would make a good husband to any Christian, but a Jewish"--Thady's wit is designed as faux-naif art, not blundering accident.7 And if this is so, then Thady indeed understands the serious implications in Sir Kit's courting three candidates for his second wife before the first one is dead, even if he will not, for the honour of the family, moralize about it.

But if simpleminded transparent Thady represents one ghastly misreading of the novella, surely Thady the villain, the smiler with the knife under his Irish mantle, is another. Which is not to say that Thady does not behave opportunistically when he has the, hmm, opportunity. Nevertheless, Thady is open and unashamed of his shrewd initial moves to help Jason profit as a man of business, helping him rig the bids on the lease of a farm on the Rackrent estate.

[M]y son put in a proposal for [the farm]: why shouldn't he, as well as another?... His honour wrote over in all haste a bit of a letter saying he left it all to the agent, and that he must let it as well as he could to the best bidder, to be sure, and send him over 200 l., by return of post; with this the agent gave me a hint and I spoke a good word for my son, and gave out in the country that nobody need bid against us. So his proposal was just the thing.... (22)

Given how open Thady is about his contrivances here, he would surely have a similar set of rationalizations ready for what Jason does at the end of the novel unless Thady actually disapproves of engrossing Sir Condy's debts and euchring him, for a few hundred golden guineas, into signing away the entire family estate, including his wife's jointure. Thady's disaffection with Jason, thematized from the outset, increases as the novella moves to the end.8 There can be no total break between father and son, of course, despite Thady's evident heartbreak at the pathetic death of Sir Condy, his "whiteheaded boy" (39). With the Rackrents gone Thady is dependent on his son, and as Thady says, ever vigilant about realpolitik, "it would be a folly to be getting myself ill-will in my old age" (96). Even Newcomer is daunted by the explicit judgments Thady makes on Jason's behavior in the last half of the novella, conceding that "from this point in the story we shall be most nearly honest if we judge the evidence against Thady to be inconclusive" (150).

But if there is no conclusive evidence against Thady, whither do the suspicious readings arise? It may be of some help to consider how narrative voice actually works in this novel.

Batting cleanup as I have been programmed to do in this panel on Voice in Eighteenth-Century Literature, I am not sure it will be necessary at this point to define Narrative Voice, but I will anyway because the term doesn't at the moment seem to have much lexical stability. Looking the word up in a recently published glossary of literary and critical terms, I came upon the following: "Voice. See Tone." And there Voice was distinguished from "tone" or "atmosphere," but defined as "the authorial presence that pervades a literary work, lying behind or beyond such things as imagery, character, plot, or even theme."9 I'm afraid I would have to beg to differ. Narrative voice, as most narratologists use the term, is not the transcendental signifier of authorial presence, pervading every bit of the text like the gravy of a pot-au-feu. It has to do not with the text's author but its speaker. It is an aspect of what Henry James called "point of view," a term which narratologists today generally break down into two terms, focalization and voice. Focalization refers to what we see; voice refers to what we hear. Sometimes the two are in a productive conflict.

For example, as anyone who reads the story must recognize, James Joyce's "Araby" is focalized through an adolescent boy of eleven or twelve: what we see is what he sees and what we experience of anguish and anger is what he feels. But what we hear is not spoken by that adolescent: the voice is that of an educated mature individual who can casually use verbs like "impinge" and "luxuriate" and draft the word "litanies" into service to describe the patter of shopkeepers. But while the brownclad girl who is the object of the narrator's desire is intensely visualized, the voice refers to her only as "Mangan's sister" as though her Christian name had been long forgotten. This particular conflict between what we see and what we hear may be naturalized by understanding the point of view as retrospective. That is, even though no retrospection on the part of the narrator is explicitly indicated, we may find ourselves reading the story as one about a depressed middle-aged man recollecting a deep disappointment from his youth that seems to be the origin and archetype of his many subsequent disappointments.

Castle Rackrent embodies a similar tension, but it might be more apt to describe it, on the surface, as difference between rather than difference within. That is, the most obvious conflict is between two different voices. Most of Castle Rackrent is what the Russian Formalists have called a "skaz" narrative, in which writing takes on the characteristics of spoken language, as it does in Huckleberrry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye. But whereas Huck and Holden are allowed to speak alone, Thady is forced to share the narrative with another voice, one that allows Thady to get precisely two words into his narrative -- his dateline of "Monday morning" -- before breaking in upon him with an explanation:

Thady begins his Memoirs of the Rackrent Family by dating Monday morning because no great undertaking can be auspiciously commenced in Ireland on any morning but Monday morning. "Oh, please God we live till Monday morning, we'll set the slater to mend the roof of the house -- On Monday morning we'll fall to and cut the turf--On Monday morning we'll see and begin mowing--On Monday morning, please your honour, we'll begin and dig the potatoes," &c. All the intermediate days between the making of such speeches and the ensuing Monday are wasted, and when Monday morning comes it is ten to one that the business is deferred to the next Monday morning.... (99)

The impact of this second explicitly English voice on the tale is complicated. It does not take over from Thady's narrative to supply information he does not have, or to correct his values or his vision. But by bracketing Thady's narrative with a preface, editorial notes and gloss notes, it serves to objectify Thady and to shift the interest from the story he tells to the way he tells it. For the moment, but ever and anon, Thady moves from the treatment of the story to the position of subject. The reader may be forgiven for thinking that anyone whose tale needs to be annotated as often as Thady's is a suspicious character--and the result is the sort of misreading we find in Newcomer and Owens.

Given the way they throw off the natural shape of Thady's narrative, we need to ask just what function was served by all those footnotes and gloss notes, the preface and epilogue. My dimmest undergraduates concur that sarrah a footnote was actually needed to understand the history of the Rackrents. So, as has been argued by Will Hatheway, one of my most brilliant doctoral students, this commentary on Thady's narrative seems to have been an exercise in the political imaginary of colonialism from a very particular position at the time of the debate over the 1801 Act of Union. Edgeworth's plan is to place herself where she can mediate with authority between the illiteracy and fecklessness of the native Irish and the ignorance of the country on the part of the English. "The cracked looking-glass of a servant" was what Stephen Dedalus called Irish art, but this particular mirror held up to the nature of Ireland is wielded by a woman who was no servant, but whose hybridity--born in England of Irish stock--gives her special claims to knowledge and power. Edgeworth's perspective, as Hathaway puts it, comes "from in-between, riding the hyphen from Anglo to Irish and back again.... To do so, of course, she must bring the wisdom of [England] for the betterment of [Ireland], yet keeping the two still somewhat distinct --for while continued division won’t do, complete union would make the very hyphen that constitutes Edgeworth’s identity disappear. " 10

But if Edgeworth's overt political aim was to bury the bad old days of the Rackrents and to hail the bright new future in which improving landlords of English stock would bring new manufactures to the colonized island, she certainly failed. As Marilyn Butler puts it: "Castle Rackrent has always been taken to mean the opposite of what the Edgeworths believed: that the passing of thoroughly selfish and irresponsible landlords is to be regretted when they come from a native Irish family and can command a feudal type of loyalty from some of their peasants."11 And perhaps she failed because, despite having the first and last words and the freedom to interrupt at will, the English colonist's mediating voice, at the end of the day, was less powerful than the voice of Thady the subaltern, which carries with it its own vivid political imaginary:

There was then a great silence in Castle Rackrent, and I went moping from room to room, hearing the doors clap for want of right locks, and the wind through the broken windows that the glazier would never come to mend, and the rain coming through the roof and best ceilings all over the house, for want of the slater whose bill was not paid; besides our having no slates or shingles for that part of the old building which was shingled, and burnt when the chimney took fire, and had been open to the weather ever since. I took myself to the servants' hall in the evening to smoke my pipe as usual, but missed the bit of talk we used to have there sadly, and ever after was content to stay in the kitchen and boil my little potatoes, and put up my bed there; and every post day I looked in the newspaper, but no news of my master in the house. (61)

Thady's loneliness and sorrow is here illumined by his thoroughgoing awareness of the way the "selfish and irresponsible" Rackrents have wasted their patrimony and ruined their inheritance, but his loyalty seems the more genuine precisely because it has never been earned. In the ideology--in the sense of "false consciousness"-- of the subaltern, Thady cannot envision himself as anything else, so that his son's claim to the Rackrent lands carries with it not a triumph over his class oppressors but the irreparable betrayal of the only social system he has known.

Thank you.


1 Edgeworth to Mary Sneyd (9/27/1802). [Check quotation in Butler edition of the letters.]

2Maria Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent (1800; ed. George Watson; London: Oxford UP, 1975): 3. Further references to this edition within the text.

3James Newcomer, Maria Edgeworth the Novelist 1767-1849: A Bicentennial Study (Fort Worth, TX: Texas Christian University Press, 1967), especially pp. 144-167.

4 Cóilin Owens, "Irish Bulls," in Family Chronicles: Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent , ed Coilin Owens (Totowa NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1987): 76.

5Elizabeth Harden, "Transparent Thady" in Family Chronicles , 91-92. The term "transparency" is from Branders Mathews' 1910 preface to the Everyman edition of the novella.

6For these distinctions see Peter Rabinowitz, "Truth in Fiction: A Reexamination of Audiences." Critical Inquiry 4 (1977): 121-41.

7Edgeworth's Essay on Irish Bulls makes clear her sense, not only that the bull is no more native to Ireland than any other figure of speech, but that the bull is more often a form of faux-naif wit than inadvertent blunder. See esp. Maria Edgeworth, Tales and Novels (New York: AMS Press, 1967): IV, 121.

8Thady within his own narrative, forgetting about all the notes Edgeworth added to it, may not be "transparent" in Harden's sense, but he is at least "translucent." We accept his evaluation of the behavior of the successive Rackrent heirs as prejudiced but unoccluded, especially since he makes available, not despite his witty descriptions but through them, an unvarnished vision of Sir Tallyhoo's feckless imprudence, Sir Patrick's drunkenness, Sir Murtagh's litigious ferocity, Sir Kit's fatal gambling and womanizing, and Sir Condy's weakminded incapacity to extricate himself and his house from financial ruin. We may of course be less willing to share that quality of the narrator that the eighteenth century termed candour--Thady's genuine affection for, or at least lipservice loyalty to, the men he called his masters. But see my conclusion.

9Ross Murfin and Supriyia Ray, The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms (Boston: Bedford, 1997) 418, 403.

10Will Hatheway, "Reading-Back Edgeworth: Castle Rackrent and the Politics of Positionality" [course paper for English 774, CUNY Grad Center, May 2000]: 10.

11Marilyn Butler, Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972): 360.