Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 May 2009
At the beginning of the year which was to witness the reconfiguration of Great Britain into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Joseph Johnson published an anonymous novel titled Castle Rackrent (1800). To contemporaries the title might well have signalled a satire on Gothic romance, an instance of the eighteenth-century type of moral fiction known as the anti-romance. It was followed, however, by an awkwardly precise subtitle (‘An Hibernian Tale Taken From Facts and From the Manners of the Irish Squires Before the Year 1782’) that points forward rather than backward, and heralds the reshaping of the novelistic field in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The innovation effected by Edgeworth’s tale has been variously named by literary historians both British (e.g. ‘provincial novel’, ‘regional fiction’) and Irish (e.g. ‘Big House novel’, ‘colonial novel’), but what makes Castle Rackrent a suggestive starting point for thinking about the post-1800 novel in the British Isles is less its specifically inaugural status than its symptomatic positioning of fiction in the literary field. Setting her novel in a relationship of adjacency to what Mary Poovey has termed ‘the modern fact’, Edgeworth inserts her Hibernian Tale in a modern matrix of historical chronology (‘Before the Year 1782’); emerging knowledge genres (empirical ‘facts’, sociological ‘manners’); and social analysis (‘Irish squires’). This kind of deliberate self-alignment with non-fictional genres was crucial to the changing status of the novel in the period, working in complicated ways to achieve for this still largely suspect fictional form a significant measure of literary authority by the 1820s.