I was recently rereading Maria Edgeworth’s two famous Irish novels, Castle Rackrent, and The Absentee. Castle Rackrent was her first novel, and her shortest—and some consider it her best. The Absentee, though published as part of her collection, Tales of Fashionable Life, is quite a bit longer than Castle Rackrent.
Both are hailed for their sympathetic view of the Irish peasantry, but in actuality the peasantry is pretty much in the background of Castle Rackrent, which is mostly about a series of bad masters of the eponymous Rackrent Castle and its lands.
The Absentee delves more explicitly into the plight of the Irish peasantry, at the mercy of absentee landlords bent on making a splash in London society by appointing rascally agents to wring their lands of funding for their expensive lifestyle. So why is the first one regarded as her masterpiece, and the second as pretty much of an also-ran?
I think it’s entirely due to the narrative voice of Castle Rackrent.
The novel is a first-person account by old Thady Quirk, who lives in the stable. He does relatively little in the novel outside of his narration. But the warmth of his voice, the Irish cadences of the language, add not just charm but the ring of the real, whereas The Absentee is told through the more common third person narrator who remains strictly behind the scene.
One of the ways Thady is charming are his narrative digressions—sometimes prefaced by an Oh, and I forgot to tell you disclaimer. In my cruising around reading people’s reactions to books, I see a lot of praise for engaging narrative voices, but narrative digression gets a lot more ambivalent reaction.