Friday, December 7, 2012

Belinda, by Maria Edgeworth

Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) wrote her second novel, Belinda, as a ‘Moral Tale’, but that shouldn’t put readers off. Edgeworth’s fiction is full of invention and energy, with a plot that speeds (sometimes improbably) at a million miles an hour, all built around the sturdy, no-nonsense heroine Belinda Portman.  

Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849) is best known for her first novel, the comedy Castle Rackrent, which was published in 1800. Edgeworth is also familiar to many readers as a contemporary of Jane Austen (1775-1817). Austen was seven years younger, but nonetheless she was busy working on early drafts of her novels at the same time Edgeworth was a publishing sensation. Edgeworth’s second novel, a bulky three volume ‘Moral Tale’ called Belinda, was published the next year after Castle Rackrent in 1801. All the hall marks of quick writing and hasty publishing are clearly evident in the text, in stark contrast to Jane Austen’s finely wrought masterpieces. But strangely enough (for this reader anyway), the clunky aspects are quickly forgiven and the novel turns out to be a hugely satisfying page-turner. 

Edgeworth states in the advertisement at the opening pages that her book is to be considered a moral tale and not a novel. Novels, we learn, have disseminated too much vice, folly and error. And it’s true that the novel does have a lot of zeal in this regard. Many of the characters in Belinda learn the errors of their ways. Bad behaviour makes its practitioners miserable, and they learn that true happiness comes from good moral conduct. In this manner Edgeworth’s Belinda has quite a bit common with the writings of Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), especially his epic Clarissa (1747-1748). The longest novel in the English language, Clarissa dissects in minute detail the compromised position of women in society and points to a moral need for feminism. But unlike Richardson’s victim Clarissa, who lacks autonomy and is helplessly storm tossed by events, Belinda is unquestionably in charge of her destiny and needs no man to help her out life’s complex problems. 

The story could be described as a romantic comedy that also addresses serious themes. A young Belinda Portman is sent by her Aunt Mrs Stanhope to stay with the fashionable Lady Delacour. Lady Delacour, who is a fascinating mess, hits the pages like a racing car in top gear. She’s very much like one of the glittering society belles of Oscar Wilde’s early plays. The lines come thick and fast from Lady Delacour’s sharp tongue, but the wit is all a shimmering facade. Beneath, Lady Delacour is on the brink of ruin due to her own dissolute lifestyle. The canny Belinda, a shrewd observer and quick learner, uses Lady Delacour as an example of how not to live. Along the way Belinda meets other similarly ruined characters and uses these experiences profitably to consolidate her views on best way to achieve a happy and fulfilled life. 

The romantic plot involves a Mr Clarence Hervey. There are many twists and turns until Belinda at last secures Mr Hervey, who she considers to be her intellectual and moral equal. And so like a Jane Austen novel, the heroine isn’t forced to marry beneath her.  

As mentioned, Belinda has many problems and faults. The plotting is clunky and disconnected. Many of the characters are completely inconsistent. One moment a rotten husband is described as a useless drunk, then a few pages later he magically turns into a sweet, sensitive soul. Edgeworth kicks her characters around in this manner to fit them into a wild, freewheeling and improbable plot. Not only that, she develops Lady Delacour at the beginning pretty much as a major character, then has her missing in action for much of the third volume (although she does reappear in the last pages).  

A question kept running through my head as I read Belinda: if there are all these faults I have to keep forgiving or overlooking in the text then why do I keep reading on with such delight? I think there are two reasons. The first is the character of Belinda herself. If there are shades of Austen in this novel, then they come through in the heroine. Belinda sits at the centre of the novel as an irrepressible presence. She approaches life’s trials and difficulties with stoical calm and resolve. We listen carefully to her intellectual thought processes and moral reasonings, and find that we can do no better than her. She is uncannily an almost three-dimensional character. Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet sometimes flashes to mind when observing Belinda navigate life’s perilous shoals.  

The second reason the novel works so well is Edgeworth’s sheer sense of energy and fun. She mixes humour with a keen desire to tell a good yarn. She keeps the plot moving and her moral lessons are edifying without preaching to the reader.  

Edgeworth’s intent was to instruct the reader in proper conduct, which she achieves. Character’s like Lady Delacour and Mr Vincent are great examples of what happens when you follow the vain paths of easy self-gratification, seeking pleasure and fame in what Belinda dismissively calls ‘the world’, rather than living for yourself. But Edgeworth obviously also finds great pleasure in the act of writing and entertaining her readers. Belinda manages to be both a delicious entertainment and a piece of skilled literature, even if it does have its wild excesses. It’s as though Lady Delacour was doing a lot of the writing herself, with Belinda occasionally intervening to rein her in.



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