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The image of the 'big house'.

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The image of the 'big house' has long been a central motif in Anglo-Irish literature. From Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent (1800), it has been a source of inspiration to many writers. One of the reason s for the surge in "castle rackrents" (a generic term employed by Charles Maturin) through the 19th and early 20th century, is that many writers who used the 'big house' as a backdrop to their work were residents of such houses themselves - writers such as Sommerville and Ross, George Moore and Elizabeth Bowen, were born into the ascendancy and wrote about an era and society with which they were familiar. However modern writers, such as Molly Keane and John Banville, have also found the romantic qualities of the 'big house' alluring and therefore have continued to use the era and setting as a backdrop in their works. The 'big house' genre has resulted in such an outpouring of works of this type of fiction, that one critic remarked: "...seems to have flourished in direct proportion to the historical demise of the culture it seeks to display." [1] The Real Charlotte is set in a period, which can be described as the 'Indian Summer' of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy. An 'Indian Summer' is a period of relative calm before the on set of winter: in this case it is a metaphor describing the life of leisure the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy lived with their grand tea parties, hunting, theatrical performances etc, pursuits and interests which W.B. Yeats associated with 'big house' life in general: "Life [which] overflows without ambitious pains." [2] However, this period of calm is followed by the onslaught of winter, with the Great Famine and the rise of nationalism, which eventually loosens their grip on the Irish people and brings about their demise. Sommerville and Ross have not focused on the physical disintegration of the Big House in The Real Charlotte, but as they based the novel on their experiences as part of the Ascendancy, we can see the corrosion of the upper classes stature and power through characterization and setting. ...read more.


The Dysart family are prime specimens of the paralysis which befalls the ascendancy class, as each member of the family, for various reasons, can be deemed abnormal - leaving us with a glorified dysfunctional family unit, who are in reality, the crumbling 'big house' personified. Firstly, Sir Benjamin Dysart is symbolic of the uncertainty surrounding the future of the Ascendancy class through his unstable state of mind. He is dependant on a social inferior, James Canavan, who can be seen to be the keeper of an unpredictable wild animal, which is illustrated when he raises his cane to Miss Hope Drumond as she picks a flower: "...it is disgraceful that he is not locked up." [14] The fact is that he has been reduced to an inconvenience and embarrassment for the family as his daughter Pamela says: "I wish James Canavan could be induced to keep him away from the house." [15] Also, it is significant that he has in-trusted all the financial intricacies of his estate to his Land Agent, Roddy Lambert. Lambert was one of the aspiring middle classes who swindled money from the Dysart estate in-order to fund his lifestyle (i.e. his Parisian honeymoon, setting-up stables at Gurthnamuckla etc.), as even his wife's small fortune was inadequate. Sir Benjamin is indeed a figure of satire, which is evident in his caricature style description: "A hobbling figure of an old man wearing a rusty tall hat down over his ears and followed by a cadaverous attendant." [16] As this degenerated man is the head of the Dysart household, their prospects look grim. His illness in mind and body is sure to deteriorate over time, and the 'death knell' is calling, making him a poignant metaphor for the impending doom for the Ascendancy. Alternatively, Lady Dysart appears to have a more purposeful existence as she acts out her role as lady of the Big House by planning various social events: "...sense of duty towards her neighbours compelled her to give..." ...read more.


However, Charlotte has already come far when we consider that her mother was merely a national schoolmistress and her grandmother a 'bare footed country girl'. This emphasises the incursions that Charlotte has made as she now moves in the same social circle as the Dysarts. Although, she can still associate with the native Irish and speak the Gaelic language, moving with equal ease through the streets of Ferry Row and the social events at Bruff. In-fact she is the only character able to do so effectively, which may be because no one dares to challenge this fierce tempered woman. But she can still not reach upper class status as she is inflicted with some embarrassing moments. For example, the farcical tea party in which the table was set for breakfast, guests had to fetch their own cutlery, and a 'common' cake, already apiece eaten, was served. The members of the upper class would frown upon this incident, and they may have considered it a display of social ignorance on Charlotte's behalf. In conclusion, whether through accident or intention, the image of the decaying Big House and all it represents is central in Somerville and Ross's novel The Real Charlotte. Somerville and Ross were daughters of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, and as they wrote their novel based on their experiences, perhaps it was only natural that some aspects of The Real Charlotte depict the decay of Big Houses and the Ascendancy class. It is through the development of characterisation and setting, that Somerville and Ross artfully portray the demise of the Big House and it's inhabitants at the hand of ambitious middle classes, and as a result of political evolution. For this reason the novel is historically accurate in showing the decline of the Big House. But despite their historic downfall, the Big Houses of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy have found a new lease of life in literature as the Big House genre, making reality what W.B Yeats once said: "Whatever flourish and decline These stones remain their monument and mine." [31] ...read more.

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