During the first two decades of the nineteenth century, Maria Edgeworth was among the most popular and most critically admired of contemporary English novelists. Her reputation declined later in the century as standards of realism changed, although her novels helped to develop such standards. The novels of Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott came to eclipse Edgeworth’s in the public eye, but Austen and Scott admired Edgeworth’s fiction and were influenced by it.
Edgeworth herself came to dislike Belinda, particularly its title character, whom she called “cold” and “tame”; she preferred her novels with Irish settings, such as Castle Rackrent (1800) and The Absentee (1812). As a story about a young woman who must navigate social perils on her way to the choice of a suitable husband, Belinda is in many respects a conventional novel of its time. Its structure and manner show the influence of Fanny Burney and Elizabeth Inchbald, both well-regarded late eighteenth century novelists. Belinda is distinctive, though, in her combination of virtue and independent thought and in her refusal to submit to the authority of others. She can appreciate and act on wise advice from a friend, such as that of Lady Anne Percival, but she makes her own decisions. In the novel’s last scene, the stage is set for Belinda’s acceptance of Clarence Hervey, but she delays her acceptance, reinforcing the reader’s sense that Belinda is as much her own woman at the end of the story as she was at the beginning.
Edgeworth emphasizes Belinda’s independence by juxtaposing her against three other female characters: Harriet Freke, Lady Delacour, and Virginia St. Pierre. The outrageous Harriet—cross-dressing, proclaiming women’s superiority to men, and involving herself and Lady Delacour in an attempt to influence a political campaign—is a parody of a late eighteenth century feminist. She perhaps made a contemporary reader think of the scandals that had collected by 1801 around the pioneer feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. It became known that Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), openly bore a child out of wedlock. Harriet’s characterization seems to support the most conservative patriarchal ideology of the period by illustrating the chaos produced by women who discard the rules of female propriety, who are not subservient to men, and who act in the public sphere. In fact, Edgeworth’s thinking about women’s intellectual and moral equality to men and the importance of educating women to develop their capacity for reasoned judgment was actually close to Wollstonecraft’s.
Belinda comprises two major interpolated tales. One is about Lady Delacour, and the other is about Virginia St. Pierre. They serve as object lessons in the value of women’s rights. Lady Delacour’s life history is introduced near the beginning of the novel, Virginia’s near the end. These histories develop perspectives, on the one hand, on the pitfalls of a woman’s life that is apparently independent but in truth so out of control as to be prey to the whims of others, and, on the other hand, on the dangers of a woman’s life subject to rigid control by protective guardians. Lady Delacour seeks worldly power and evades the dictates of a moral code that would have her obey her husband. Fearing the loss of worldly gratifications and subjection to her husband that may come if she admits her illness, she begins to be destroyed by the opium she takes to ameliorate the pain of her imagined breast disease. She becomes the prey of her own compulsions and of a quack doctor. Virginia, on the other hand, is the epitome of an overly sheltered young girl. During her...
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childhood she is shielded from society because of her grandmother’s fears about female vulnerability to seduction and unfaithful men, and as an adolescent she is kept isolated because of Hervey’s enthusiasm for Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s romantic ideas about the moral purity of a life close to nature. He also accepts uncritically Rousseau’s ideas on the corrupting effects on women of an education that exposes them to worldly complexities. Whereas Lady Delacour is prey to her fears of loss of power and to the quack doctor’s opium, the barely educated Virginia is prey to the fantasies encouraged by the romances to which she has become addicted. Neither is able to think clearly about her situation.
Set against these two interpolated tales as well as the dramatization of Harriet, Belinda’s story is Edgeworth’s effort to define a mode of female behavior that is neither submissive to external authority nor willfully given over to excitements. Belinda’s name recalls the vain, frivolous heroine of Alexander Pope’s satire The Rape of the Lock (1712, 1714). Edgeworth’s Belinda, however, is not frivolous; she can make her way toward reasoned judgments without depending on the guidance of a “superior” masculine vision.
That Belinda’s character seems dull to her author and that the more dramatic assertions of the unreformed Lady Delacour sometimes threaten to take over the novel suggest that for Edgeworth herself there were tensions between the domestic ideology her novel advocates and her own resistance to the restrictions it places on women’s lives. Nevertheless, the model of egalitarian marriage and devotion to family represented by the Percivals and the reformed Delacours points toward the dominant middle-class domestic ideal of the nineteenth century. Belinda shows clearly how Edgeworth believed this model to be empowering for women.