Many readers find it easy to ignore early Romantic era novels under the pretenses that they, aside from boring, do little more than dress up the English gentility, take it to fancy balls, and marry it off. Salman Rushdie bemoaned Austen’s male characters as goodlooking hunks whose purpose it was to provide a suitable conclusion for the stronger female protagonists. This assessment is not entirely untrue, yet it fails to distinguish an important discrepancy between the reader and the early Romantic novels. Why, when our modern culture is already dominated by an all-too-apparent, too-vapid entertainment culture, do readers condemn the purposeless leisure culture of these novels?
This is an important question because, while it does not provide much framework for reading Maria Edgeworth’s “Belinda”, it brings attention to a hypocrisy committed by many an un-reader who sees these novels as the product of an indulgent culture which modern counterpart he himself indulges in.
Dig through the pages of Edgeworth’s novel and you’ll see hypocrisy in abundance, some of it very similar to the hypocrisy summarized above. What’s more important to grasp, however, is that readers who don’t like Austen need not moan and groan at Edgeworth. True, “Belinda” is framed by marriage proposals and populated by the aristocracy, but Edgeworth is not Austen. One may argue that she is more effective as a novelist than Austen: something that the latter certainly would have agreed with (there is a reference to “Belinda” in “Northanger Abbey”).
If I had to draw the distinction between the two novelists, it would be this: Austen’s marriages, for all of their emphasis on harmonized circumstances, succeed because the reader becomes convinced that the characters truly do love each other. Belinda’s marriage in the final chapter succeeds because of the heroine’s free and utterly rational decision. We are told that it’s love that unites the couple, but what makes the novel strong is the fact that we don’t have to believe in the love to be convinced of the union.
Coming of age novels in the early nineteenth century are hardly unique in the characteristics of structure, character, or the female protagonist. This is because buyers of novels were wealthy, English women with the sole duty of cultivating themselves for distinguished society. As is typical nowadays, socializing required a great deal of bullshitting, which of course is never easy unless you are a natural. Novels were the retreat away from society.
Belinda, ironically, opens the novel by retreating into society and into a life of aristocratic two-headedness that’s a far cry from her rural upbringing. To cultivate her taste for the gentility, the fashionable Lady Delacour has agreed to take the teen under her wings and set her up with a nice-looking match as soon as possible.
But Belinda, wary of the idea of a courtship after seeing her siblings suffer under a series of unfavourable matches, grows disillusioned quickly with the glitz of the balls and fancy dress and hungers for a more mature satisfaction:
“ ‘Is it possible,’ thought she, ‘that I have spent three hours by myself in a library, without being tired of my existence? How different are my feelings now, to what they would have been in the same circumstances six months ago! I should then have thought the loss of a birthnight ball a mighty trial of temper…If I had never seen the utmost extent of the pleasures of the world, as they are called, my imagination might have misled me to the end of my life; but now I can judge from my own experiences, and I am convinced that the life of a fine lady would never make me happy.’ “
Belinda’s already rational character may have affected this change on its own accord, though Lady Delacour plays no small role in speeding the process along: her gaiety and excess, startling for society, is revealed to Belinda as an artifice to conceal her cancerous breast which became infected after a dueling pistol backfired.
Readers are quick to see the implications of the duel and Lady Delacour’s punishment when they read into the details. Dueling was undertaken to fulfill masculine satisfaction: Lady Delacour, who crossdressed in order to fight, betrayed her sex and is punished accordingly.
There are other instances in the novel of sex-betrayal but none are as dramatic as Lady Delacour’s. Still, a notable example is in Belinda’s future husband, Clarence Hervey. His initial character is summed up adroitly:
“Clarence Hervey might have been more than a pleasant young man, if he had not been smitten with the desire of being thought superior in every thing, and of being the most admired person in all companies.”
“Most admired person” accounts for his eccentricity in all manners public, be it gambling, swimming, or fitting himself out in Lady Delacour’s dress and hoop to win an outlandish bet. So much for the propriety of the aristocracy. Yet Hervey, unlike Delacour, never pretends to accept his eccentricity as his character, nor does he ever really recognize it as such. His behavior is simply that of a man who hasn’t been tamed by responsibility. Of course, there is social responsibility, but this is Hervey’s hobby, not his prerogative. His tastes for maturity mirror Belinda’s; he just doesn’t know it yet, and the novel is more about him (and Lady Delacour) finding out.
Belinda as a character was criticized for being too coldly rational by its early readers. A modern reader may be inclined to agree, citing, for example, the lines of this devastating letter a mature Belinda writes to a former suitor:
“You perceive, sir, that I am most willing, utterly to lose your esteem even when I renounce, in the most unequivocal manner, all claim upon your affections. If any thing should appear to you harsh in this letter, I beg you to impute it to the real cause—my desire to spare you all painful suspense, by convincing you at once, that my determination is irrevocable. I am persuaded that love cannot long exist without hope.”
But does extreme frankness amount to heartlessness? It is difficult to say, and equally difficult to immediately empathize with a character who is able to rebuff a lover with such candor. We may read this letter now as lacking the cushion of subtlety and Belinda cold for opting for the clean stroke rather than a more tactful display of non-affections. How we would reconcile a less painful approach to the breakup with Belinda’s character remains the problem.
In the realm of literature, Belinda remains a protagonist of Platonian feminism: strong-willed, rational, appropriately well read, and all without having to sacrifice her womanhood. Her inspiration can be felt keenly throughout Austen, but the shadow is long and some of it falls on the characters of Ayn Rand; Dagny Taggart and Dominique Francon being the primary examples.
“Belinda” also does a fair bit to distance itself from the typified society of the aristocracy, which even Austen cannot help but celebrate. Rural life is the epitome of happiness and society is exposed for its shallow glamour, likewise perceived in later novels, the obvious being Fitzgerald’s “Gatsby”. However, Edgeworth’s relationship between these two aspects of English life is not so simple, and society still has its merits. Belinda can only affirm her true character once she has been indoctrinated into Lady Delacour’s escort; Clarence Hervey would likely never have socialized with Belinda had he not met her at a ball.
Moreover, there is still another more interesting development to report. As “Northanger Abbey” would later demonstrate, the reading of novels was a hot topic for conversation as well as controversy. Aristocratic high-browers looked down upon the hobby as fashionable brain-rotting; something like premodern TV watching. Edgeworth herself darts nimbly in and out of the fracas with a complicated stance on the subject that both approves the empathetic powers of novels and decries those who take the hobby too far. Yet the argument reaches an astonishing, postmodern twist in these last words of Lady Delacour:
“ ‘Yes,’ said her ladyship; ‘it is so difficult, as the critic says, to get lovers off upon their knees. Now that I think of it, let me place you all in proper attitudes for stage effect. What signifies being happy, unless we appear so? Captain Sunderland—kneeling with Virginia, if you please, sir, at her father’s feet. You in the act of giving them your blessing, Mr Hartley. Mrs Ormond clasps her hands with joby—nothing can be better than that, madam—I give you infinite credit for the attitude. Clarence, you have a right to Belinda’s hand, and may kiss it too. Nay, miss Portman, it is the rule of the stage.’ ”
Aside from literally closing the scene, Lady Delacour is bringing the reader to an important conclusion. “Belinda,” operating under the auspices of tactful realism, cannot be mistaken from the romance that it really is. These last pages are humorous both for their originality and their theatricality however they bear the essential warning for the reader not to mistake the romance for reality. Bear in mind the fruits of humanity which the novel gives, but do not deceive yourself into thinking that life operates under the same control as the novelist. We are indebted to Edgeworth for providing us this moral and for the fact that the novelist, acting as total creator, is but a playwright in the grander scheme of life.