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Maria Edgeworth – Belinda

Please note that this is a review of the Third edition with conjecture added in light of the First and Second. The First and Second editions include the marriage of a black servant and a white servant, but the Third edition changes the black man to a white man. This article provides more details; the sum of it is what you’d expect – Edgeworth’s ideas were too revolutionary for our ancestors, which unfortunately included her father. Also in the First and Second, Belinda almost marries a different person than she does in the Third. Project Gutenberg’s edition, which is where Girlebooks source their material from, appears to be the Third (I’ve used Girlebooks’ book cover). Oxford World Classics uses the Second. There is an additional publication on Amazon that states it uses the First.

Book Cover

Dear Emma Woodhouse, thank you for your kind offer, but I’ve got that life-stage covered.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1801; 1810 (third edition)
Date Reviewed: 24th May 2019
Rating: 3/5 (third edition rating; given the content differences, I’d likely give the other editions 4/5)

Mrs Stanhope’s match-making is the stuff of legends; the lady has managed to get 6 nieces husbands, using wily and pressure tactics to land rich men – or at least that’s how society sees it all. Belinda is her last niece; everyone knows how this will go – but to everyone’s surprise, Belinda is sent to stay with Lady Delacour, a well-known wealthy woman with a good few enemies (what 21st century people might call frenemies). As well as this change in tactic, Belinda herself seems at odds with the Stanhope ‘teachings’.

Belinda is one of the later novels by a popular author of the 1700s-1800s. Whilst less known today, Egdeworth was a favourite of her contemporaries and the generation that followed; Jane Austen cited Belinda in Northanger Abbey, and clearly borrowed aspects of the story for her own.

When people speak of Edgeworth today they most often talk of the book she published a year prior to BelindaCastle Rackrent – and her other novels that deal with political issues. There is good reason for this; whilst the Anglo-Irish writer wrote a lot of good material, Belinda is quite the non-entity, despite its foresight in regards to race and dysfunctional families.

Most obviously, perhaps, is the fact that this book isn’t really about Belinda; it is about everyone else. It does revolve around her in a way – the balance is just about in favour of the actions and reactions in the book being in some way due to her presence, but she herself is a bit-player in a drama about other people. Despite being a living, breathing, person, Belinda has less pages spent on her than Rebecca de Winter. Perhaps Edgeworth’s point is similar to Du Maurier’s but she doesn’t have the story to keep it up, at least not in the context of what we expect from a novel today.

The ‘star’ of the show, then, is Lady Delacour – quite apt, you might say, considering everyone in society knows her, her notoriety helping Belinda, who is an unknown quantity and regarded only in relation to her disliked aunt. Lady Delacour is a good character in terms of fictional interest – she has a lot more going for her in terms of content, with more dialogue, opinions, and the like, than Belinda, but she’s also very difficult to get on with. She fits a certain stereotype, the one of ladies from yesteryear needing smelling salts and finding things all too much to handle, but in Lady Delacour the stereotype is turned up high. The drama and attention-seeking, irritating as they are, are not a match for the child neglect that becomes apparent as the book continues. Prior to the book’s beginning, Lady Delacour farmed off her young daughter Helena to someone else; essentially Lady Delacour did not understand her and made no effort to change that. As Helena re-enters her mother’s life at Belinda’s suggestion, whilst her mother starts to acknowledge that, perhaps, Helena is worth knowing (“I did not know Helena was worth loving”), she also demeans the girl and creates a home situation that we would now call ‘walking on egg shells’. Edgeworth does address the whole situation in the form of commentary: ‘Lady Delacour,’ she writes ‘was governed by pride, by sentiment, by whim, by enthusiasm, by passion – by anything but reason’ and addresses certain aspects separately through dialogue; but it doesn’t quite make up for the difficulties of the character in terms of readability. This all said, there are times when Lady Delacour is a genuinely good character, times when she finally stops trying to get the spotlight on herself, and these moments are excellent. She is also the chief – really the only – person who provides the light, comedic, aspect of the novel. Certainly it could be said the novel should bear her name; the reason why it does not is because Belinda is the catalyst for the change she undergoes.

“As to that, said Clarence, “I should be glad that my wife were ignorant of what everybody knows. Nothing is so tiresome to a man of any taste or abilities as what every body knows. I am rather desirious to have a wife who has an uncommon than a common understanding.”

Another character who has more page time than Belinda is Clarence Hervey. Early on and a fair way through the book, Clarence is a good enough character; he’s not exactly memorable and it’s difficult to see what people see in him – Belinda herself seems half completely taken by him and half completely indifferent – but it essentially ‘works’. However in the latter half of the novel he undergoes a personality change; whilst not something previously delved into, nevertheless Clarence’s preference for a wife (a woman who is a blank slate on which he can impose his teachings) is effectively a device Edgeworth employs to do – well, it’s hard to say. Clarence’s change brings some more content into the book (a Dicken-esque word count issue?), but as Edgeworth brings the book to a close, she makes another change so that Clarence doesn’t end it looking as awful as she had been making him. It’s hard to feel actively against Clarence because it’s really not his fault – it’s Edgeworth’s – but his taking on as a ward a girl who has been isolated from the world by a paranoid grandmother, and continuing that isolation whilst bringing in a governess to mould her into what he wants in a wife, which includes changing her name because he doesn’t think it suits her (the girl is in her late teenage years) is pretty horrific. There is a slight commentary here, which I’ll discuss in a moment, but unlike Lady Delacour’s actions, Clarence’s are never held up to scrutiny except by himself, momentarily. And the girl – Rachel, who he calls Virginia after a character in a (real) book, and who is referred to by this new name by Edgeworth herself – is understandably obedient, knowing no other way to be. Clarence is the patronising aspect of Austen’s Henry Tilney, exaggerated; he’s Newland Archer without Wharton’s stunning ending.

Hot on Clarence’s heels both literally and figuratively is Mr Vincent. Mr Vincent, another of Belinda’s suitors, is Creole; when this book is written about academically, his inclusion is often the subject. Mr Vincent brings with him from the West Indies his black servant, Juba, who is considered with more kindness and less prejudice than black people in many other books of the period, providing a bit of a relief from other narratives. But then comes the word I’ve used, ‘figuratively’ – whilst Juba escapes any form of authorial sanctions, Mr Vincent is, like Clarence, given a personality change so that Edgeworth can take the story where she wants it to go. Edgeworth does at least use Mr Vincent’s vice to inform another character’s actions, and he is effectively repatriated into the novel, but like Clarence, it’s difficult to move on from it. Certainly, had Edgeworth not fouled the characters of the two rivals for Belinda’s heart, the book would have been much better.

(Conjecture on my part: as Edgeworth’s changes are so illogical, this situation of personality change may well be due to the changes Edgeworth made for the Third edition.)

Where Belinda works, then, beyond the patches of good commentary and characterisation discussed above, is in a few areas not yet considered. Let’s pull out that idea of inspiration and Austen again – Belinda can be filed under the same category as Northanger Abbey when it comes to the perspective from which it’s written – it’s less overt than Austen’s story but Edgeworth’s is also a book about books, a book about the process of writing in the context of the time, wrapped in a thin sheet of theatre:

“My dear Miss Portman [Belinda], you will put a stop to a number of charming stories by this prudence of yours – a romance called the Mysterious Boudoir, of nine volumes at least, might be written on this subject, if you would only condescend to act like almost all other heroines, that is to say, without common sense.”

Suffice to say the very last sentences of the book are exceptional in their effect.

Of books and their value, and Edgeworth’s commentary on Clarence’s awfulness, Rachel is allowed to read romances because they’re considered worthless and thus nothing to worry about… Edgeworth follows the concept glanced at by Charlotte Lennox, both authors paving the way for the author whose name I’ve noted far too many times already.

Belinda’s sense of agency, in a time when such a thing for women wasn’t often considered, is also very good. Though aided in turn by Lady Delacour, Belinda’s decisions – bold, even brave – are her own from the outset (it’s what helps set her apart from her aunt’s marriage mill) and comments on it are left to the other characters, meaning that the decisions are generally accepted, if after a small shock, and after discussion (that is usually with Lady Delacour who is herself very independent – though married – and not always interested in going along with what society thinks). Edgeworth’s silence speaks volumes; a woman, or at least some women, should chose for herself.

Lastly there is the contrast to Lady Delacour’s situation with Helena, provided by the family Helena lives with (people who the Lady inevitably dislikes), a forward-thinking, fairly equal-minded group of people who don’t get nearly as many words as they ‘should’ but are wonderful to read about. Edgeworth actively compares them to the Delacours, citing the ways they are different.

So there is plenty to like about Belinda, it’s just that the good isn’t enough to out-way the bad, and there’s not enough interesting conversation to get past the era’s preference for conversation over action. If you’re after a broad sense of Edgeworth’s impact and writing, you’d do better to look at the books more commonly cited by today’s critics. Belinda is the book to read if you want to learn for yourself the specifics behind other writer’s novels and if you want to know about bestsellers of the past that have been largely forgotten. It is, of course, excellent for that. (And if you buy the Second edition from Oxford you’ll also have that benefit of reading about the interracial marriage.)

A word about the Oxford World Classics edition if you like contextual footnotes – although notes are included for a number of referenced books, people, and other things that have been lost to history, be aware that there are unfortunately many references that the editor has overlooked and so you may have to set aside a bit more time to fill in the gaps.

My asking a question in a review is a first: if you’ve read the first and/or second edition, could you comment in regards to the personalities of Clarence and Mr Vincent?

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Tracy Terry

May 30, 2019, 3:17 pm

Hmm! Interesting that in the third edition there is a change made in which a black man is written as a white man.

The arguments as to why it is felt necessary that these changes are made I (sort of) get, the fact that they are made I struggle with.

Thanks for an insightful and thought provoking post.

Charlie

June 5, 2019, 1:34 pm

Tracy Terry: I’m with you there. I haven’t read much about the specifics yet (I’d almost finished writing the review when I discovered it and so there was added work already just with the facts) but I’m guessing, particularly considering it was three editions, not just two, that they were published begrudgingly by author and publisher alike.

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