Belinda, Maria Edgeworth, 1801
I want to wake Maria Edgeworth from the dead so I can high five her for writing Belinda. That’s how much I love this book. After months of slogging through the dry, dense and dull literature of the 1700s, my faith in novels has been restored! I truly enjoyed reading this book. This is the first novel on the list that is more entertaining than edifying. Forgive me, but if I must learn something from a novel, I prefer a tiny kernel of knowledge or understanding swimming in a sea of delightful characters, thrilling plot, well-crafted prose and/or hilarity.
Let me tell you a little bit about this book. Belinda is a young girl in her first London season. She is pretty and pure of heart. I know, I know, I have been complaining about this character prototype for months. The title character is not what makes this book great. Lil’ Belinda is staying with Lady Delacour, a fashionable woman who knows all sorts of potential husbands. Lady Delacour is a complicated and relatable character with more than the 1-3 personality traits allowed to characters in earlier novels. She is by far the most active and opinionated female character I have encountered on the Book List so far. One of the most admirable traits for a lady in this era was “simplicity” meaning that she had no hidden designs behind her actions. Well, Lady Delacour has all kinds of hidden designs. She has secrets and schemes. Belinda is not actually about Belinda, but about the rise, fall and redemption of Lady Delacour.
The male lead is also fascinating. I know Jane Austen fans are numerous and fierce, but I am going to go ahead and compare her disfavorably to Maria Edgeworth now. I have a hard time feeling invested in the outcome of a Jane Austen novel. Austen tells instead of showing. She describes a character’s traits, but we don’t get to see those traits in action much. For example, why am I supposed to be happy about Elinor’s marriage in Sense and Sensibility? What do I know about her husband? Almost nothing. Elinor’s lover does not complete a single action in the course of the novel until he proposes. So, why on earth would I be rooting for their love? Belinda’s lover does all kinds of stuff. He gets in and out of trouble. He forms friendships. He demonstrates over and over that he is better than everyone at every possible competition, but he still has flaws. He hatches a mind-bogglingly hair-brained scheme that I will not give away right now, because at least one person (Simone) will read this book after reading this review. I love him and I want him to be happy, because I am invested in him as a character.
The plot of this novel kicks the pants off all preceding novels in English. ALL OF THEM. I actually called out in alarm during the climactic scenes. I hope you Austenites can forgive me for the thoughts above, because I think you would really like this book. Edgeworth was a major influence on Austen and I find their style quite similar in ways. Check out this first paragraph:
Mrs. Stanhope, a well-bred woman, accomplished in that branch of knowledge which is called the art of rising in the world, had, with but a small fortune, contrived to live in the highest company. She prided herself upon having established half a dozen nieces most happily, that is to say, upon having married them to men of fortunes far superior to their own. One niece still remained unmarried—Belinda Portman—of whom she was determined to get rid with all convenient expedition. Belinda was handsome, graceful, sprightly, and highly accomplished; her aunt had endeavored to teach her that a young lady’s chief business is to please in society, that all her charms and accomplishments should be invariably subservient to one grand object—establishing herself in the world.
Boom! Sounds Austen-y, right? We know so much about the situation and disposition of these two characters already, huh? You want to read the next paragraph, don’t you? I know you do. Here it is:
Mrs. Stanhope did not find Belinda such a docile pupil as her other nieces, for she had been educated chiefly in the country; she had early been inspired with a taste for domestic pleasures; she was fond of reading and disposed to conduct herself with prudence and integrity. Her character, however, was yet to be developed by circumstance.
OMG, she likes reading? Me too! What is going to happen to her undeveloped character when her prudence and integrity are tested by her aunt’s pressure to please society and marry rich? Read Belinda to find out!
I can’t get over how much I love this book. Two more points and I’ll stop raving. Edgeworth uses doubling really well, which is a device well-loved by Russian authors in which characters have doppelgangers who represent alternate fates. Actually, the more I think about it, Edgeworth doesn’t exactly use doubles. You could say that Lady Percival and Harriet Freke are doubles for Lady Delacour, but that would make Lady Delacour and Lady Percival doubles for Belinda. (Yeah, I know “triples” would be more accurate. Whatever.) More precisely, Edgeworth creates a web of characters that represent the possible life choices for women during this era. She uses this web to illustrate and analyze the influences, traits and decisions that make a woman into either a domestic goddess or a dissipated lady of fashion.
I should note that Belinda was controversial for depicting an interracial marriage. This was edited out of later versions. Edgeworth’s treatment of race is complicated. The interracial marriage is progressive, but there’s a clownish African servant minor character and some not so progressive minor Jewish characters too. A Jewish fan wrote to Edgeworth complaining about her depiction of Jews and Edgeworth responded by writing Harrington, which has the first sympathetic Jewish character in English literature. So. . .yeah.
You might like Belinda if:
- you like George Elliot.
- you like Jane Austen.
- you like British humor.
You might not like Belinda if:
- you are not into classic literature at all. In which case, you are probably not reading this sentence.
Final thoughts: I am stumped as to why I was forced to read Pride and Prejudice twice in school, but no one even told me about Maria Edgeworth. This book is wonderful. You should read it.