Saturday, April 14, 2012

Book Review: Belinda by Maria Edgeworth

Oh, Belinda, how I love thee, how I loathe thee!

I picked up Belinda, written by Maria Edgeworth in 1801, for the pure and simple reason that it was mentioned in a Jane Austen novel (Northanger Abbey to be precise). I was haunted by a burning question: "Why is it Miss Austen gained such popularity among modern readers, while many of her equaly famous contemporaries sank into obscurity?" After reading a number of novels written in the late 1790s and early 1800s, I realized that the simple truth is that Jane is just much more modern. Many critics have berated her for concentrating on small private family affairs instead of big historical events, but that's exactly what ensured her continuing appeal. Her themes are personal and therefore timeless.

Belinda suffers very much from being written 200 years ago. The the moral and ethical norms have changed so much that the villains often come off as appealing and the heroes seem like downright reprehensible human beings.

The Plot: Belinda Portman is a young lady just entering society at behest of her matchmaking aunt Stanhope. She is placed with a fashionable bel esprit Lady Delacour. At first, Belinda is fascinated by this woman, but when she learns her sad history she begins to pity her and becomes her one and only true friend. Belinda becomes the object of admiration of one Clarence Harvey, but he has a secret of his own. For the past few years he has been educating a young lady, whom he calls Virginia St. Peirre, planning to make her his wife. At the same time, Lady Delacour begins to think that Belinda is scheming to marry Lord Delacour.  Belinda leaves Lady Delacour and finds herself with the Percivals, the embodiment of a perfect happy family. Lady Delacour, who believes that she is dying from breast cancer, finally agrees to submit to the treatment and discovers that her disease is not of that nature. She patches things up with Belinda, her estranged husband and her abandoned daughter. In the meantime, Belinda is accosted by a new admirer, a young and handsome West Indian  and Mr. Percival's ward, Mr. Vincent. But he too has a secret that may ruin their chance at happiness.


Let's start with the good stuff. Belinda is a novel that is very easy to enjoy. The style is light and accessible, the language is neither complicated nor dated. The pacing is excellent and the author doesn't feel the need to dwell on the beauties of mountains and lakes for five pages. There is a lot of humor and the plot is never dull without being too melodramatic.

Edgeworth, at least in the first edition, doesn't shy away from some pretty controversial and dark issues. She talks about breast cancer and its effects on a person's social position. She brings up interracial marriage which her characters seem to accept as absolutely ordinary (though clearly her readers did not see it the same way because this subplot was removed from the third edition). She is not afraid to mention mistresses, laudanum addiction or female dueling. Her range of topics is much broader than that of her contemporary Jane Austen and she really knows how to bring her characters to live through dialogue.

But while the plot and style are superb, I do take issue with some aspects of the novel.

Heroes & Villains: The novel should have been called Lady Delacour because it is her story. Belinda Portman suffers from the common heroine malady of being too perfect. She does make a few blunders in Volume I, but by Volume II she gains so much self-control and maturity that as a character she becomes completely uninteresting.

Lady Delacour leads a life of dissipation and keeps her daughter Helena at a distance
Lady Dalacour, on the other hand, is absolutely fascinating and surprisingly modern. She grows and learns from the first page to the very last. She makes mistakes and jumps to conclusions, but she sees when she is in the wrong and is not too proud to make up for her shortcomings. She is clever, witty, courageous, and it is no wonder that she is dissatisfied with her lot in life. The world of the early 19th century England does not have much to offer her in the way of occupation. The only thing that she is allowed and expected to do is to become the perfect mother and wife, a role that she accepts with apparent delight, but it is still clear that she could have done so much more with herself under different circumstances.

Lady Delacour dressed as Elizabeth I with Clarence Harvey kneeling at her feet  
Our hero is the dashing, brilliant and handsome Clarence Harvey. Edgeworth spends a lot of time trying to convince us that he possesses all possible virtues. And I'm with her on that up until we come to the story of Virginia St. Pierre. This is one of the places where you can feel how old the book is. In short, Clarence becomes disillusioned with artifice and coquetting of society ladies. He decides to follow the ideas of Rousseau and educate himself a wife in simplicity and seclusion. He comes across a young orphan (the story doesn't specify how old she is, but it can be assumed that she's about fifteen) in a forest and pretty much takes the girl away from all her friends and everything she has ever known and puts her under the protection of an elderly lady, leaving her to live and be educated in seclusion, while he goes out and enjoys all the pleasures of society, while grooming the kid to be his obedient, docile and simple-minded wife. When he meets Belinda, he realizes that he likes her better and starts thinking of how he can avoid marrying Virginia.

Our hero, ladies and gentlemen!

Needless to say, this part of the story I do not like. By modern standards our hero comes off as rather creepy. While we're assured that he never takes advantage of his ward, when people begin to assume that she's his mistress, he is shocked and angered. For a man who lived in the world, that reaction seems a little silly. What did he expect people to think?

Paul et Virginie became a popular subject for artists in late 18th century
Clarence's ward  is the most tragic and abused character in the whole book. Clarence deprives her of everything that is familiar to her. He even takes away her name. Feeling that her name, Rachel, is not romatic enough, he dubs her Virginia St. Pierre after a character in St Pierre's novel Paul et Virginie, essentially stripping her of the last shred of her identity. While she is never physically abused, her psychological abuse goes pretty deep. She lives in constant fear of displeasing her guardian and being thought ungrateful. She is willing to undergo physical pain to please Mr. Harvey, an idea he finds "charming" (a psychopath, if I ever saw one). Her ideas of sincerity and feminine modesty are so warped that she cannot express her feelings and almost ends up marrying Clarence against her will. Her father, who had abandoned her and her mother many years ago, comes back and wants to be reunited with her. Mind you, he only thinks of her because his second wife (a wealthy window) and their son had died. Despite her father being a real cad, she is eager to please him and shows him the same servile submissiveness that marks her relationship with Clarence.

To Edgeworth's credit, she does not condone this. Throughout the whole episode she makes it clear that Clarence's idea is silly and would never work. Simplicity and sensibility are not enough, and rationality and ability to govern one's thoughts and feelings are much more important virtues. Everyone gets out of this affair and get to marry those they want, but Virginia's psychological scars are not going anywhere.

Mr. Vincent is a gambler fond of the E O table, game of chance similar to modern roulette 
She drives this same lesson home with Mr Vincent, a rich West Indian creole, who falls in love with Belinda and almost marries her. Mr. Vincent is a passionate man with a strong sense of honor and generosity. However, he believes that some people (he thinks himself one of them) possess integrity and honor naturally and don't need reason to govern them. In the end, he almost loses his entire fortune at an E.O. table. Belinda breaks off their engagement, worried that uniting her life with a gamester might result in disaster. When the Virginia situation is resolved, Belinda marries Mr. Harvey.

This is can be an interesting commentary on virtues and flaws then and now. While most modern women would probably avoid getting involved with a gambler if they could,  a man who pretty much kept a girl hostage for several years, grooming her to be his wife when she was old enough to marry, would not be most women's first choice either.            

Mrs. Freke convinces Lady Delacour to take part in a female duel
This brings me to another interesting supporting character - Mrs. Harriet Freke, a straw feminist if there ever was one. Originally Lady Delacour's closest friend, she switches camps and beings to conspire against her ladyship. Mrs. Freke likes to wear men's clothes, talk loudly about the rights of women and device all sorts of frolics including female duels. She is also cruel, vengeful and a bully. Edgeworth has no sympathy for this character. Mrs. Freke has no redeeming qualities; she is just cruel for the fun of it. Yet when I read about her, I keep wondering what her backstory is. How did she grow up to be so interested in masculine pursuits in a society that would not have tolerated them in a young woman? Why did she become so malicious? Harriet Freke is not an appealing character, but she is an engaging one. She serves as an occasional foil for our heroes, but she's never upgraded to a full-scale villain. And to be honest, with heroes such as these, who needs villains?

Belinda and Lady Delacour attend a masquerade ball in dressed as a tragic and a comic muse
Of course, it is unfair to judge a piece of literature from two hundred years ago by modern standards of ethics and morality, but for all its flaws, the novel must have been very progressive for its time. It does talk about some very serious topics such as slavery; and while Juba, Mr. Vincent's black servant, is represented as a very stereotypically superstitious and childlike, he is also brave, loyal and kind. Edgeworth paints a popular picture of the 'noble savage', but she seems to imply that Juba's shortcomings are not inbred. They come from his education and there is no indication that she thinks he is somehow inferior by nature.

Despite its flaws, Belinda is a great novel. Edgeworth knows how to tell a good story and how to create compelling characters. While Belinda may be flawless she is still good-humored and witty. And while the ethics of her characters are often dated, they are allowed to be funny and interesting. If you're a fan of late 18th and early 19th century novel, I highly recommend this one.      

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