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.
BEWARE OF THE SPOILERS!
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 Delacour dressed as Elizabeth I with Clarence Harvey kneeling at her feet|
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|
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|
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|
|Belinda and Lady Delacour attend a masquerade ball in dressed as a tragic and a comic muse|
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.