Classics Challenge: ‘Belinda’ Discussion

August 12, 2011 at 12:00 am 3 comments


Hey there, cats and kittens, to the discussion post for Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda! Next book in the cycle for this non-Atwood branch is Indiana by George Sand (available online to boot!) so stay tuned for that.

Until then, below are some starter questions and my thoughts on Belinda (also available online in a variety of techno-friendly formats including PDF and Kindle), but feel free to bring up anything you like about the novel in the comments. Any participants (here or at your own blog) are entered into a drawing to win a lovely LT Classics Challenge prize at the end of all this fun, so definitely chime in with your thoughts!

Spoilers ahead, as always:

Consider Edgeworth’s presentation of various female “types.” What do you think she is trying to tell her readers about ideal womanhood? Is she successful?

Ideal womanhood in Belinda, on the outside, appears to be the modern woman: self-assured, intelligent, unswayed by peer pressure, and able to do anything. How refreshing, I thought!

But the more I thought about it, the ideal womanhood Edgeworth advocates isn’t actually very revolutionary at all. Her heroine is possibly the most conventional woman in the entire book: she is quiet, submissive, and concerned above all with the preservation of her virtue, both literally and in the perceptions of society at large. She is praised constantly for her modesty and moral compass, rather than for any of her more fiery, modern attributes.

And Belinda’s main contribution to the lives of everyone else is to make them more like her. The women who receive happy endings are the ones who have been swayed by Belinda to become more traditional, not less, (see: Lady Delacour) or the ones who already were (see: Lady Anne Percival). Those who receive unhappy endings are the wicked women who manfully plot the social downfall of their peers. Thus, in terms of illustrating the efficacy of being a “good” woman, I think Edgeworth was very effective.

She also does lightly advocate for women’s education (Belinda reads extensively) and marriage between equals with shared interests, a fairly modern notion (Belinda, in the end, cannot marry Mr. Vincent because they are too different and he too uncontrolled, unlike Belinda’s perpetual calmness), so it isn’t a complete proto-feminist wash. I was just expecting something far less conventional out of Belinda as a character.

What is the role of Empire within the narrative? What part does foreign “Otherness” play in Edgeworth’s portrayal of characters from English colonies or other sites of Empire? Note that there are no actual “foreigners” in the novel in the traditional sense of foppish French or nefarious, Radcliffean Italians.

Empire, as is often the case in novels from this period, presents an identity crisis for both the characters from Empire and those from England. On the one hand, you have characters like Mr. Vincent who appear just as civilized and comely as an “true” Englishman but, on the other hand, this Englishness is revealed to be just a veneer of sorts as Mr. Vincent’s inability to control himself like an Englishman (Lord Delacour in this case being the obvious foil) when it comes to the gambling table. Thus Empire is used as a way to signal strangeness or an underlying lack of normalcy.

The English have always been hugely uncomfortable with their Empire as they consider themselves a people of liberty for all and Empire is more-or-less inherently about subjugation of one people or another, and this discomfort about people from Empire shows through in the contemporary literature. The most famous example here is, of course, Bertha from Jane Eyre (i.e. Mr. Rochester should have known better than to marry a seemingly normal woman from Empire because of the strange things being outside of England does to one), but Mr. Vincent and Virginia’s father in Belinda operate using the same principles.

It is also interesting to note all the foreign “Others” presented in the novel are, on some level, Englishmen. They just come from sites of Empire, even if there families are English and they themselves are racially English, so they are automatically dubbed someone strange and foreign.

Does the novel’s format as a triple-decker change the way it is read?

Honestly, I don’t think it did. I was expected something a bit more Kathy Reichs-ish, I suppose, with the ends of each of the first two books ending in massive cliff-hangers, but they didn’t. They ended slightly more suspensefully than the other chapters, but not greatly. It does definitely make me curious about why novels took on this triple-decker format, though, so if anyone has any factoidal information to share on that front, I’d be much obliged.

So what did you make of Maria Edgeworth and Belinda herself? Tell on!

–Corey

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Entry filed under: LT Classics Challenge. Tags: , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Eva  |  August 12, 2011 at 11:04 pm

    I don’t know, I think Belinda was a good role model in how true to herself and her principals she was. Granted, her principals aren’t terribly revolutionary, but she’s willing to risk losing the patronage of a powerful social figure, one much wealthier than herself, to follow them. And her moral compass seemed to be me to be most concerned with truth rather than her virtue. Lady Delacour’s problems stem from her inability to have a real relationship with anyone in her life; she’s surrounded by false friends, and she herself throws away the possibility of a true one by the veneer she puts up. Belinda, on the other hand, follows a practice of honesty, even when it puts her in uncomfortable situations. Her lack of artifice or deceit, and her genuine desire to help her friends for no reason other than to better their lives, strikes me as admirable (and seems to constitute a large part of Edgeworth’s ideal womanhood), and is in the end the cause of her good fortune. Compared to Sophia of Tom Jones, Belinda has far fewer adventures/escapades but still seems a less conventional character. Perhaps she just struck me as so fully realised and well rounded that she transcends the ‘type’ of ideal woman/angel of the house that so often characterises nineteenth century writing. That being said, I read the book in January, so I could be focusing on what seemed most important to me, rather than what was stressed in the text! ;) Also, I went into it now knowing/expecting anything, so perhaps my standards were a bit lower!

    I can’t remember enough about Mr. Vincent to analyse in a satisfying way the treatment of Others (although I’m deeply fascinated by the relationship between England and the Empire, in both directions), but I do remember being struck that his (black) West Indies servant ends up marrying an English farm girl and setting up in the countryside!

    I’m so used to the three-volume novel (which always makes me think of Wilde), that I didn’t really notice the format. I’m also curious as to its origin!

    This was my first Edgeworth read, and it definitely made me curious to get to know her better. I’ve since read Castle Rackwrent, which is far more political, and I’ve got a couple other of her novels loaded up on my Nook. Eventually, I’d be curious to read a biography of her, if there are any good ones!

    Reply
    • 2. Corey  |  August 14, 2011 at 11:35 am

      I would definitely agree with you about Belinda largely caring about honesty, but I also think that there was a strong connection in the book between her honesty and her virtue. Most of the times she wanted to make sure that everyone else had what happened straight it was to protect her womanly virtue (or someone else’s womanly virtue).

      On the other hand, you’re absolutely right about her being unique in her dedication to what she believed to be right to the point of abandoning her wealthy patroness, etc. I didn’t take as much note of the strength of her convictions when I read it, but it’s definitely in contrast to her scheming aunt who I suppose is the sort of woman Edgeworth is fighting against in her portrayal of Belindaish ideal womanhood. Clearly Belinda is an unusual heroine for the period and, while not revolutionary, she is at least so much more “modern” than other contemporary heroines! Just not as modern as I was necessarily expecting, which was just pure anachronistic ridiculousness on my part.

      And yes! I forgot about the black servant marrying the white English girl! I was so surprised by that just being slipped in that at first I thought I was misreading their relationship, but no. I wonder if that sort of thing was at all common or if Edgeworth was advocating for some kind of wildly forward-thinking form of racial equality.

      In terms of a biography, I guess she wrote some kind of autobiography in 1807 that seems to be available in print-on-demand form (or probably for Nooks) and then there are some out-of-print biographies you can get used on Amazon. I’m not sure if any of them are good, though, so I can’t recommend.

      Reply
      • 3. Eva  |  August 22, 2011 at 6:05 pm

        That’s a good point re: the connection btwn honesty and virtue! And I completely understand how expectations can change reading experiences; if I had picked it up expecting a ‘feminist’ novel I imagine I’d find Belinda a little lacking. ;)

        I read somewhere that in later versions Maria’s father made her change the black servant-white English girl storyline, but I’m not sure of the wider social aspects either! I’m rather curious about her autobio, although that seems awfully early!

        Reply

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