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Altered Estates: Mansfield Park and Castle Rackrent

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In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, the estate is under threat but manfully (‘Man’s-field’) shored up against change, while in Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent the property has already gone to rack and ruin, as the title of her novella suggests, or has been rent, in the sense of being torn.

Transgression, or the threat of it, and concomitant issues of invasion of space, are major themes in both books. While social and political change and its agents are poised to transgress traditional values and moral principles at Mansfield Park, such changes have already occurred or are continuing for Castle Rackrent and its corrupt squirearchy. At both stately piles, the prospect of transgression comes not only from without, but also from within: the iniquitous Rackrents themselves, and members of the younger generation of the Bertram family and their friends..

In Mansfield Park (1814), debate about the rage for alterations or improvements to country estates acts as a metaphor for constitutional change, Austen’s contemporary readers being familiar with the language of ‘improvement’ from controversies about radical change which had arisen following the French Revolution. This is the Austen novel in which ‘the repose of Middle England, guarded by social hierarchy, tradition and the big house, comes closest to outright destruction’, says Jane Stabler in her introduction to Mansfield Park (Oxford, 2003).

The politician and libertarian Edmund Burke had appealed to Englishmen to cherish their heritage as if it was a fine old mansion house. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), he had stated that had he ‘a place to new fashion, I should not put myself into the hands of an improver. I would rather have an inferior degree of beauty, of my own choice, and acquired progressively. I would rather abide by my own blunders than by his.’ Austen paralleled this approach by addressing problems of social and moral transgression raised by the new economic individualism, and the middle-class quest for improved status, through the metonymical space of the fictional Mansfield Park estate.

Traditional Cultural Values and Potentially Transgressed Space

Chapter VI of Mansfield Park opens with the narrator setting the scene for a dinner-table discussion. Mr Rushworth has just returned from a friend who has ‘had his grounds laid out by an improver’, and he is ‘eager to be improving his own place in the same way’, although it is clear he wishes to improve only to follow fashion. There is a reference to Humphrey Repton, the influential but controversial theorist of landscape gardening of the time, a radical modifier of space.

Fanny is appalled by the prospect of the avenue being destroyed at Sotherton, and Edmund describes Sotherton as a house ‘built in Elizabeth’s time’ – a period often regarded during the 18th century as the ‘golden age’ of British history – which although ‘ill placed’ is unfavourable for improvement. This implies the idea of the virtues of the ‘golden age’ being transgressed in the name of ‘progress’. Thus the metonymic relationship between traditional cultural values and the potentially transgressed space, or fabric, of the estates of Mansfield and Sotherton is manifest in Austen’s approach.

The forbidden amateur theatricals aborted by Sir Thomas, upon his return from the West Indies, represent not only his reactionary attempt to thwart the zeitgeist – the ‘itch for acting’ being universal among young people, Austen tells us – but also provide a means of revealing, while discipline at Mansfield Park is considerably lessened in Sir Thomas’s absence, the social ills and moral failings among the various characters to whom justice is meted out in the final chapter: Fanny marries Edmund, Mrs Norris is cast into disrepute, Sir Thomas accepts his shortcomings as a father, and his elder son Tom appears to be a reformed character.

Another aim of the theatricals is to show Sir Thomas, taken by surprise, brusquely invading the theatrical space which has been created because it seems to stand for the rising tide of personal and social change which might afflict Mansfield Park. Under his government, ‘Mansfield Park was an altered place’ – or, indeed, space. Yet it takes some time for ‘the reign of moral obligation over theatricality, of the pulpit over the stage, to finally assert itself. In the new climate Mansfield is thoroughly purged…’, says Patrick Parrinder.

In the end, Mansfield Park remains resilient to change, if only temporarily – Sir Thomas and his sons ultimately seem incapable of the business acumen required to save the estate in the longer term. But Lionel Trilling points out that praise of Mansfield Park ‘is not for social freedom but for social stasis’.

Edgeworth’s Novella Could Be Described as a ‘National Allegory’

Turning to Castle Rackrent (1800), Maria Edgeworth, for her satire on vice-ridden landlordism, adopts, in Thady Quirk, an Irish Catholic voice to narrate the decline of a family from her own Anglo-Irish class, a device which to the 21st-century reader has the effect of emphasising how, historically, the English transgressed national boundaries to invade Irish space, and then misused their power.

This, of course, would not have been Edgeworth’s intention; the pathos of the second half of Castle Rackrent, which includes the pitiable death of Sir Condy, alone and unmissed – killed by a fever brought on by drinking a great horn full of punch in a wager for a thousand guineas – strongly suggests regret at the disappearance of what was a thoroughly self-centred and irresponsible dynasty of essentially foreign landlords.

Through Edgeworth, one can observe the relationship between the Irish and the British, in which the British control the Irish in their own land, as well as the large gap between social classes, how this gap affects interaction, and how political and economic conditions are a direct effect of it. The term ‘national allegory’ has been applied to this kind of fiction which, as Parrinder says, ‘sets English wealth and power against a defeated but potentially resurgent Celtic nationalism’. Declan Kiberd writes that Edgeworth ‘imagined a trusting and easy commerce between landlord and tenant’ which, by the time Castle Rackrent was published in 1800, the year of the Act of Union, was strictly historical, if it really ever existed at all in the way that she envisaged.

Thady describes four generations of Rackrent heirs, three of which strongly personify the idea of going beyond limits acceptable to the morals and standards of respectable society: Sir Patrick, the dissipated spendthrift, Sir Murtagh, the litigating monster, and Sir Kit, the cruel, philandering husband and absentee gambling addict. The slovenly Sir Condy remains the imprudent dupe of Thady’s son, Jason. One can now view only wryly Edgeworth’s comment in the Preface that: ‘When Ireland loses her identity by an union with Great Britain, she will look back with smile of good-humoured complacency on the Sir Kits and Sir Condys of her former existence.’

The way in which the power and wealth of the ruling class allows it to feudally oppress the indigenous population is exemplified by the O’Shaughlin family being forced by the penal laws to become Protestant and change their name to Rackrent in order to regain their estate, and by the outrageous taxes imposed on disenfranchised tenant farmers who are forced to yield their produce to support the ridiculous behaviour of the Rackrents as they run up enormous debts.

Polarities of a Return to Tradition and Premonitions of Social Transformation

Yet, ironically, by laying stress on such transgressions on the part of the Rackrents, on class divisions and the relationship between masters and servants, as well as on the more familiar religious conflict, Edgeworth actually heralds the advent of the Irish Catholic bourgeoisie.

This is symbolised by Jason who, although born to the servant class, rises to become a lawyer – doubtless a transgressive act from the point of view of the English gentry in Ireland, and octogenarian Thady, due to the ingrained attitudes of his generation, does not support his son when he tries to acquire land, instead supporting the Rackrents. Jason’s success in taking land from the Rackrents signifies a break in the structure of the prevailing society, as well as increasing his own personal space and, symbolically, that of the Irish

Yet in order to do this, Jason abandons the ties of Catholic custom and joins an emerging capitalist patriarchy. Despite having been colonised by (English) race and class, he uses Protestant law to displace the last Anglo-Irish patriarch and gain the Rackrent estate. The devious machinations of the colonised (the Catholic Irish) emerge victorious over the irresponsibility of the coloniser (the Protestant Anglo-Irish) and the working-class wins, through wit, education and the law, against the landed gentry.

The notion of transgression, and the idea of expanding or contracting space for various characters, is constructed in the novella not only through the discourses of gender, class and nation, but also through depiction of the legal system which ties people to property as well as to rules of behaviour. The potentially liberating effects of the law for women and for the lower classes, within a disintegrating aristocratic system, are explored. But the text of Castle Rackrent also transgresses itself as it wavers between ideas of a comforting return to tradition and premonitions of social transformation.

These polarities are represented in the character of Thady, the old retainer who looks both back to a more stable Irish past and forward into an uncertain future, standing as he does at the crux of a period of great cultural, political and social upheaval when new freedoms were no doubt being seen as transgressions by the old order which was in the process of being destroyed.

Judy M’Quirk could be said to symbolise a feminine Ireland, neglected and abused, transgressed against, by a masculine Britain which, in turn, might be represented by the kind of entity which is ‘Mans-field’ Park, a shrinking Tory space where an old-fashioned patriarchy is in retreat and attempting to prevent what it regards as incursions which would endanger its survival.

Sources:

  • Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (Oxford, 2003)
  • Maria Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent (Oxford, 1977)
  • Patrick Parrinder, Nation & Novel: the English novel from its origins to the present day (Oxford, 2006)
  • Lionel Trilling, ‘Jane Austen and Mansfield Park’, Pelican Guide to English Literature 5 (Penguin Books, 1965)
  • Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland: the literature of the modern nation (Jonathan Cape, 1995)

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