According to Terry Eagleton’s reading of Castle Rackrent, “if an ironic reading of [Thady] Quirk’s servility is plausible, then the hegemony which failed in his case was a Gaelic one; and there seems little reason to suspect that an Anglo-Irish project would fare any better.” Certainly, while Edgeworth repeatedly offers a sympathetic portrayal of the Anglo-Irish gentry, her Irish tales are full of their failure to maintain well-managed estates while retaining the loyalty of their tenants. Her solution then is the creation of a new race of native Irish citizens, trained by the enlightened Anglo-Irish in order to secure an harmonious relationship between the two groups while leaving the Anglo-Irish some measure of control over the future of the nation, whatever the long term effects of the Union are. By applying historical analysis, a study of literary trends, and Edgeworth’s own templates of good and bad agents and landowners found in her Irish novels, I hope to contextualize some of the ambiguities surrounding Castle Rackrent’s Jason Quirk and the issues of class, religion, estate management, and Irish identity that are so crucial to Edgeworth’s Irish writings.
The following thesis breaks out in three parts. In Part One, “Jason Quirk: Middleman?” I argue that the ambiguous Jason Quirk from Castle Rackrent does not conform to the definitions of “middleman” offered by Kevin Whelan and Maria Edgeworth but instead is an early representative of an Anglicized emergent Catholic middleclass and a starting point for Edgeworth’s use of the land agent as a mediator of the class and religious tensions exacerbated by the prospect of the Union and Catholic emancipation. In Part Two, “Improvements: Community and Union,” I expand on Jason Quirk’s potential for becoming a model land agent by focusing on the theme of estate development in other Romantic novels, first comparing Jane Austen’s and Mary Wollstonecraft’s treatment of paternalism and patronage to Edgeworth’s critique of indiscriminate charity and her use of the land agent to promote social improvements of the lower class, and then comparing Sir Walter Scott’s allegory for class and community in The Bride of Lammermoor with Edgeworth’s treatment of absenteeism’s effect on Irish society and the divisiveness of religion in the years surrounding the Union, with land agents acting as intermediaries between Anglo-Irish landowners and their lower-class tenantry. In Part Three, “Gaelic Tradition: Language, Humor, and National Identity,” I argue that Edgeworth uses humorous portrayals of peasants, with their quaint (read ignorant) use of the Irish idiom, and the laudable figure of the Good Agent, typically doubling as a benevolent schoolmaster in her Irish novels, to promote an educational program that aims to secure the success of the Union and preserve Anglo-Irish authority by undermining the Irish language and Gaelic traditions in favor of creating a new homogenized Irish identity.