Isn’t me mother’s name O’Dea? and the O’Deas themselves descended from the kings of Ireland? Fetch me crown, yer young spalpeen, me crown that is solid gold, excepting the parts that are brass, and didn’t it come to me from the Internet itself?
Sorry about that, it’s the effect on a magpie reader of Castle Rackrent. My sentence is, in fact
. . . a specimen of a mode of rhetoric common in Ireland. An astonishing assertion is made in the beginning of a sentence, which ceases to be in the least surprizing when you hear the qualifying explanation that follows.
The narrator of the novella (avant la lettre – but that’s what it is) is a loyal older servant who details the decline through four generations of ‘the family’ and witnesses the death of the last. The narrator’s own son takes advantage of the family’s gambling, drinking, and general fecklessness to buy up the estate, so that by the end the aristocratic order has gone, the new middle class has arrived. It’s an early example (1800) of an elegiac transitional form exemplified by The Cherry Orchard, and like the play, the novella mixes comedy, farce and pathos. The lively, entertaining Irish modes of speech mediate characters who live with a similar careless abundance, the same consistent evasion of the facts.
The vernacular might well have puzzled English readers then although it won’t puzzle anyone who can cope with Huckleberry Finn or Trainspotting. To help with the Irishisms Edgeworth provides a frame in the 18th century way, a fictitious editor who explains the rationale and provides sometimes lengthy notes on diction and customs. These are as entertaining as the narrative itself. (I particularly liked the account of the ‘raking cup of tea’, taken at midnight after a ball by a group of giggling ladies and perhaps one trusted servant.) Notes and narrative together place us, like Maria Edgeworth herself, both inside and outside an Irish perspective.
There is an interesting review in The Guardian of Edgeworth’s late novel Helen, which I’ve added to my reading list. Avoid the Wikipedia entry on her, which has fallen into the hands of an undergraduate from Indiana, and is full of the kind of thing that made my son give up his literature course.
Edgeworth’s writing of Ireland, especially her early Irish tales, offer an important rearticulation of Burkean local attachment and philosophical cosmopolitanism to produce an understanding of the nation as neither tightly bordered (like nations based on historical premises such as blood or inheritance) or not borderless (like those based on rational notions of universal inclusion).
You’d never guess it was very funny.