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.
There are also narrative digressions in The Absentee, but those tend to be didactic insertions, scolding readers in exhaustive detail, in case they didn’t pick up a hint from the dialogues. Some critics maintain that Miss Edgeworth’s father took it upon himself to rewrite her novels and insert these commentaries, but whether or not that is true, they stick out in the way that people now disparage datadumps—great wodges of info that the reader finds dull.
“Moby Dick was way, way too long—those horrible chapters about blubber! Melville had to be paid by the word. Ugh.”
“I was utterly fascinated by the sidebars about blubber and nautical life, in Moby Dick—in fact, I liked them even better than the actual story, and the story was awesome. Total genius.”
I find myself recollecting Victor Hugo’s asides about Paris life in the 1830s with more vividness than the details of Jean Valjean and company, absorbing as I found Les Miserables.
There are writers who, during the days when the novel was rapidly being invented, created narrative voices that teased and seduced the reader, such as Fielding’s Tom Jones, a book whose various chapter clusters are prefaced by witty, fascinating glimpses into London life and literary shenanigans during the 1740s.
Ten years after its appearance, Laurence Sterne began publishing Tristram Shandy, wherein the narrator deliberately plays with the reader, telling the story out of order, adding huge globs of other publications blatantly plagiarized, deliberately abandoning various story threads. Ever since then, some have regarded that book as a brilliant masterpiece, and others as a piece of pretentious twaddle.
How a reader regards narrative digressions can depend in part on how much they regard coherence as a necessity, and how much they remain intrigued by the voice. Some will balk at information, but be fine with apologue, or the other way around. And of course, there are always the various types of asides, either internal or breaking the fourth wall. I think the success or failure of all these depend on how the reader feels about the narrative voice.
We know that science fiction is really about the now, with extrapolations from our present lives projected into a possible future. Few science fictions have ever been truly predictive. But so many read like contemporary life with added jazz like FTL, black holes, and armored suits with ground-to-air missile launchers, etc. Few have a sense of the history that creates the vector to the projected future.
Well, this book corrects that.
The book is mostly a first person narrative account by one Mycroft Canner, except when he decides to invite someone else to write a chapter.
The book opens in stately cadences that evoke the Age of Enlightenment—a time cherished even while it’s distorted by these future versions of us, in pretty much the same way Renaissance people cherished an imperfectly understood classical age, or Victorians cherished a glorified Age of Chivalry.
Even when the prose subtly becomes more modern during scenes of action and intense emotion, Palmer employs many of the narrative devices of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, such as Mycroft’s stopping to address the reader directly to give background on events, people, and history—our history, but seen through the lens of these future people, and future history—and backtracking to reset a scene.
I found the narrative voice’s apparent candour intriguing, as it conveyed a sense of intimacy at the same time warning that this narrator is not altogether to be trusted—that he’s hiding motives as well as secrets:
I confess that some of the dialogue in this scene is invented, reader, for I did not see this scene, and have only incomplete testimony, but I know both of them well enough to impersonate.
I also noticed how the narrative voice gently guides the reader toward the impressions the narrator wants to give by infrequent, but evocative Homeric epithets.
Then there were the equally intriguing moments in which a unknown person interjects remarks in the now-outmoded familiar (as opposed to formal) verb form:
In our age of peace, we easily forget the Revolution’s grim equality, whose Terror prescribed the same uniform to peasant, to noble, and to the citizen who handed death to both. When Robespierre—
Not now. Thou canst not put it off forever, Mycroft. Thou must describe the wearer, not just the suit.
And so I must, master. And so I try.
Then there are the intriguing interpolations from the reader.
I will not endure this pretense, Mycroft, you object. I have indulged thy many eccentricities . . . In a history it is absurd to call anyone ‘protagonist,’ but if thou must, it should be one who acts, and understands, who drives the story forward . . .
Must we have this argument, reader?
We must, Mycroft.
We don’t know if this reader is to represent the living and breathing us, sitting in our chair with the book in hand, or another mystery reader ready to judge or condemn, for the sense begins to build that this narrative is a confession.
Sometimes the narrative asides are playful:
. . . They seemed to gaze on one another through their visors, silenced by the darkness of their thoughts. Visor. Why is visor not spelled with a Z, reader? Surely an object so associated with futurism should contain one of the futurist letters, Z or X. It feels right to say vizor, not visor, lazer, not laser.
These warm, confiding asides create a contrast all the more electrifying when some of the truth begins to emerge in horrifying glimpses of detail. I found myself drawn even more deeply in—at the same time aware of the human fascination for such revelations. And even then, there was a head-reverberating sense that these revelations were only the surface, that there was a great deal more to come:
Reader, you should not have barred Apollo Mojave from the Pantheon.
That warning tolled like a bell when this reader, at least, had no idea who Apollo Mojave was.
This quaint, seemingly formal but seductively confiding narrative voice bewitchingly transcended mere pastiche, forming a science fictional voice blending past and future as deftly as the future science—the flying cars, movies with scent tracks, and moon bases—could have done.