Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Secret of the Castle Rackrent

Daisy: Are you in love with me? [...] Or why did I have to come alone?"

Nick: "That's the secret of Castle Rackrent. Tell your chauffeur to go far away and spend an hour."

Daisy: "Come back in an hour, Ferdie." Then in a grave murmur, "His name is Ferdie."

Why does F. Scott Fitzgerald reference Maria Edgeworth's c.1800 work at the point when Nick invites his cousin to meet her long-lost love, Jay Gatsby? Had F.S.F. ever, in fact, read "Castle Rackrent," or did he just like the way it sounded? Not being an F.S.F. scholar, I have no idea.

I think I was riffing on F. Scott Fitzgerald, or just grasping at straws, at one point early in "The Jane Austen Project" when I needed Rachel and Liam to have something to read and I gave them "Castle Rackrent," as being of the era. I knew should go back and read it, since they had, but it took me a while to do so, probably because I was so busy with "Clarissa." Finally, I have.

It is, not to put too fine a point on it, God-awful. Trying to be funny (I guess) but failing. I don't think Liam would have tolerated it, since it is packed with insulting and stereotypical observations about the Irish, and we know he is sensitive about these things. For good measure, there is also an insulting, stereotypical portrait of a Jew (or a "Jewish," as the narrator refers to her) -- truly there is something to offend everyone in this brief work!

Being no stranger to literary irony, and informed by the introduction that Maria Edgeworth, though born British, lived much of her life in Ireland and apparently liked it. I have struggled to overcome my initial reaction to this work, but without success.

It is also, I learn from a cursory Google survey, one of the first works of fiction to feature an unreliable narrator, a device I am partial to and which ought to win me over, except it doesn't. A theme of the work that has struck some modern scholars is that of female imprisonment. A more prominent theme, though less academically fashionable, is the feckless nature of the Ango-Irish landowners, who squander their fortunes in drink, gambling, frivolous lawsuits and excessive entertainment, sucking their tenants dry while their estates fall into hopeless disrepair. Being in every way horribly un-British, in other words: The antithesis of restraint, order, duty, Empire, self-effacement and what Mr. Knightley would do.

Thinking about it this way, I find myself returning to "The Great Gatsby." Perhaps the reference is not so random. F. Scott Fitzgerald, of Irish descent himself and heir to the stereotypical Irish vices of drink and extravagance, is reminiscent of many characters in "Castle Rackrent." His eponymous Gatsby gives wild parties, much like Sir Patrick O'Shaughlin, the first of the doomed inhabitants of Castle Rackrent. A stereotypical Jew even wanders through the novel, too, in the person of Meyer Wolfsheim (whose human-molar cuff links have always stuck in my memory when so many more useful facts have been forgotten). Gatsby's mansion, like the Castle Rackrent, stands as a monument to hubris and excess even after its living residents have departed.

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