Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 831
Belinda’s aunt, wishing Belinda to acquire a husband of wealth and social position, sends her to live with Lady Delacour, a leading figure in fashionable London. At first Belinda is dazzled by Lady Delacour’s wit and elegance and by the glamour of her world. Quickly, however, Belinda becomes disgusted by the shallow frivolity that permeates this world and by the manipulative jockeying for social position that drives its players. In particular, she realizes that Lady Delacour’s social brilliance disguises a deeply unhappy woman who despises her husband and marriage, fears the aging of her body, and conceals a mysterious personal secret known only to her maid, Marriott.
Belinda’s aunt hopes to match her with Clarence Hervey, one of London’s eligible young men, who is not only wealthy but also clever. Lady Delacour, too, encourages Belinda’s interest in Hervey, though she considers him one of her own admirers. To Belinda, Hervey initially seems foppish and conceited, and Hervey is on his guard against Belinda because he assumes she shares the goals of her aunt, a notorious matchmaker. At a masked ball, a disguised Belinda overhears Hervey denigrating her before his male friends as a “composition of art and affectation.” Belinda is mortified and resolves to take no interest in Hervey.
After the ball, Lady Delacour reveals to Belinda the true misery of her life. To hurt her husband, whom she thinks an alcoholic fool, she encouraged a beau, Colonel Lawless; Lord Delacour shot Lawless in a duel, and Lady Delacour still suffers from guilt over his death. Motherhood means little to her, and her surviving daughter, Helena, is someone she thinks little about and seldom sees. Lady Delacour is obsessed by a rivalry with another London host, Mrs. Luttridge, and her best friend, Harriet Freke, joined Mrs. Luttridge’s camp. Finally, a breast injury she received in a duel with another woman, she thinks, became a disease that is killing her. Nevertheless, she feels compelled to keep her sickness hidden from the world and continue her life of social gaiety as long as possible.
Belinda is both horrified by Lady Delacour’s story and moved by it. She wants to help Lady Delacour. Hervey, who soon revises his opinion of Belinda, wishes this as well. They becomes friends in an effort to bring Lady Delacour closer to her daughter Helena. Helena was cared for on school holidays by Mr. Percival and Lady Anne Percival, whom Hervey meets when Mr. Percival saves him from drowning. Seeing Helena’s longing for her mother, Hervey maneuvers a meeting between Helena and Belinda, and Hervey and Belinda arranged a visit from Helena to Lady Delacour. Lady Delacour is stirred by Helena’s love and vows to reform.
When Belinda attempts to reconcile Lady Delacour and her husband, Lady Delacour becomes suspicious that Belinda is pursuing Lord Delacour, so Belinda goes to stay with the Percivals at Oakly-park, their country home. Before she leaves London, Belinda, who rejected a proposal from the stupid and pretentious Sir Philip Baddely, becomes more interested in Hervey, but when she sees a painting said to be a portrait of his mistress, she tries to stop thinking of him. At the Percivals’ she meets a new suitor, Mr. Vincent, heir to West Indian wealth. Belinda refuses his first proposal, but she is influenced by Lady Anne’s praise of his virtues to allow his continued courtship. Belinda also rejects Harriet’s efforts to alienate her from the Percivals and Lady Delacour, and she defeats the practical joke with which Harriet tries to persuade Mr. Vincent’s black servant, Juba, that he is haunted by a ghost.
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fears she is dying and summons Belinda back to London. In the hope that an operation might save her, she reveals her disease to her husband. She is spared the operation when Dr. X—— informs her that her illness is caused not by breast disease but by the opium she is taking.
Lady Delacour is convinced that Belinda still loves Hervey and tries to persuade her not to marry Mr. Vincent. Hervey, however, announces he will marry Virginia St. Pierre, the original of the portrait Belinda saw earlier. Hervey is the guardian of Virginia (then named Rachel Hartley, but renamed by Hervey) since her grandmother died. He planned to marry her, and, influenced by the theories of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, directed that she be kept as nearly as possible a “child of nature,” protected from exposure to frivolous social sophistication. He prefers Belinda’s strong, socially educated mind and character to Virginia’s ignorance and passivity, but he thinks that Virginia is in love with him and he is obligated to marry her. On the verge of marrying Mr. Vincent, Belinda discovers he is a gambler (though he was temporarily saved from ruin by the generous Hervey), and she ends the engagement. After further entanglements and disentanglements, Belinda and Hervey are free to marry each other.