The Anglo-Irish Big House is a historical structure that has been employed for various purposes in the literature of a variety of Irish authors. In reality, an Anglo-Irish Big House was big only in comparison to the peasant cottages and hovels dotting the Irish countryside; a Big House was a far cry from a castle or a palace, for example. And yet the Big House represented in a very concrete way the comparative wealth and power of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy as a class as they spraddled the chasm between the colonized, impoverished, predominantly Catholic, Gaelic Irish and their colonizers, the imperialistic English. Due, no doubt, to the fascinating identity conflicts and unique social predicaments of the figurative space the Anglo-Irish occupied in Ireland, Irish authors have long been interested in depicting the literal space, the Big House, within which the Anglo-Irish lived. Perhaps the most intriguing conflicts and predicaments in both the historical and the literary Big Houses involve the uncertain opportunities for females dwelling within Anglo-Irish Ascendancy homes. Three novels dealing with the relative advantages and disadvantages of the women living within Anglo-Irish Big Houses at pivotal points in Irish history are Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth, A Drama in Muslin by George Moore, and The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen.
Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth was first published in 1800 at the time of the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland. This book is generally acknowledged to be the first Anglo-Irish novel and is thus the logical starting point for a brief, chronological look at female characters in the Big House. The Big House in Castle Rackrent is not really a castle, but more of a once-grand country manor house which has degenerated a bit further under the ‘management’ of each successive heir of the Rackrent family. In the novel, the men of the family occupy center stage while the females are marginalized, which is revealing in and of itself, especially as the author is a female! What mention the narrator, Thady Quirk, longtime family Rackrent servant, makes of the females is sketchy and often descends into stereotypes. The first Rackrent female Thady mentions is the wife of Sir Murtagh Rackrent. This Rackrent wife was from the Skinflint family, and, according to how Thady describes her, she lived up to the family nomen! Thady makes it clear he did not care for this mean, stingy, tightfisted woman and that Sir Murtagh only married her for her money. In doing so, Thady says Sir Murtagh made a bad bargain for she outlived him. Thady rather racistly comments of his lady Rackrent that "...I always suspected she had Scotch blood in her veins; anything else I could have looked over in her from a regard to the family" (Edgeworth 68). She is unpopular with Thady and others for such actions as stopping the tradition of providing whiskey to the tenants on rent day. Lady Murtagh Rackrent, it would seem, made the most of her residency in Castle Rackrent; she had poor children spinning for her for free, she collected duty yarn and household linen from the tenants, and she extorted "presents" of food (fowl, eggs, honey, butter, meal, fish, game, bacon, and ham) from the tenants. In addition, she "had her privy purse - and she had her weed ashes, and her sealing money upon the signing of all the leases, with something to buy gloves besides; and besides again often took in money from the tenants, if offered properly, to speak for them to Sir Murtagh about abatements and renewals" (Edgeworth 71). After Murtagh Rackrent dies as a result of an argument with Lady Rackrent over which of the two of them had the right to the abatement money, a generous jointure is settled upon her, and she departs Castle Rackrent a much wealthier woman than when she arrived. Indeed, she made sure to take all her acquired possessions with her: "...for my late lady Rackrent had sent all the featherbeds off before her, and blankets and household linen, down to the very knife cloths" (Edgeworth 72). Clearly, Big House living agreed with her! She, as a materialistic and motivated person, found great opportunities as a woman to acquire greater wealth while dwelling in Castle Rackrent.
Sir Murtagh’s heir is his younger brother, Sir Kit Rackrent. Sir Kit wastes what money he has available to him, and decides to marry an heiress to replenish his cash flow. He writes home that "he was going to be married in a fortnight to the grandest heiress in England" (Edgeworth 75). The new Lady Rackrent arrives at Castle Rackrent "a stranger in a foreign country" (Edgeworth 76) only to be greeted with xenophobia and bigotry. Thady refers to his new mistress as a "heretic blackamoor" and mocks her ignorance of such commonplace (in Ireland) Irish things as turf and bogs. Sir Kit does not mind her ignorance of Irish ways nor her Jewish heritage, but he is livid when she refuses to turn over to him her diamonds as she evidently had promised to do before their marriage. In retaliation, Sir Kit requires the cook to have "always sausages, or bacon, or pig meat in some shape or other" (Edgeworth 79) upon the table, blatantly disrespecting kosher prohibitions against pork. As a result, "my lady shut herself up in her own room, and my master said she might stay there, with an oath: and to make sure of her, he turned the key in the door, and kept it ever after in his pocket. We none of us ever saw or heard her speak for seven years after that" (Edgeworth 79). Sir Kit confines his wife to her chambers and then conducts himself as if he were a bachelor again, having frequent parties and dances at Castle Rackrent. The people of the countryside knew of her incarceration but did not speak up for her for fear of having to duel with the notoriously hot-blooded Sir Kit. "Jew Lady Rackrent", as Thady calls this mistress, took ill whilst under lock and key, and Sir Kit, anxious to marry more money, spread the word around that his present wife was near death. Amazingly, he had three heiresses vying for the honor of being the next Lady Rackrent, notwithstanding their knowledge of his vile treatment of the present Lady Rackrent! As a result of the rivalry amongst the three prospective next Lady Rackrents, Sir Kit was mortally wounded in a duel with one of their male relatives. Thus was this Lady Rackrent freed from the - for her - extremely oppressive life she led in Castle Rackrent.
Sir Kit’s heir was Sir Condy Rackrent. Sir Condy has strong feelings for Thady’s grandniece, Judy McQuirk, but marries an heiress, Isabella Moneygawls, primarily because her father’s refusal to consent to the match piques Sir Condy’s familial pride. Her father is so opposed to the match that he locks Isabella up in her room, which has the effect of convincing her to elope with Sir Condy. Isabella Rackrent is the first of the Rackrent wives to be given a proper name. She is an amateur actress and, after quoting Shakespeare, is taken by Thady to be quite mad! She lavishes her limited personal fortune on Castle Rackrent, and she and Sir Condy lead a very fancy existence at first. Once they have wasted all her money on extravagant living and also gone through everything that Sir Condy can borrow, Lady Isabella is no longer happy being mistress of Castle Rackrent. For her, the Big House and the aristocratic name mean nothing without the high style of living to which she is accustomed. In the end, she resolves to return to her father’s house; fate, however, does not allow this, as she is gruesomely dragged to death in a freak roadside accident on her way home. For her, Castle Rackrent was a hollow opportunity that became trap-like once she discovered things were not what they originally appeared. She accuses Sir Condy of obtaining her hand in matrimony under false pretenses when she says, "And did not you use me basely...not to tell me you were ruined before I married you?" (Edgeworth 102). Evidently the illusion of wealth is a less forgivable fraud than the illusion of love he perpetrated to win her!