Maria Edgeworth is perhaps best known to readers today as one of the authors who influenced Jane Austen. Belinda is mentioned in Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and fans of Pride and Prejudice may well recognize a bit of Elizabeth Bennett in Edgeworth’s earlier heroine’s response to an unsuitable proposal of marriage. In this case, Belinda is refusing the hand of Sir Philip Baddely, and Baddely demands an explanation:
“My objections,” said Belinda, cannot be obviated, and therefore it would be useless to state them.”
“Nay, pray, ma’am, do me the favour—I only ask for information sake—is it to Sir Philip Baddely’s fortune, 15,000l a year, you object, or to his family, or to his person?—Oh, curse it!” said he, changing his tone. “you’re only quizzing me to see how I should look—damn me, you did it too well, you little coquet.”
Belinda again assured him that she was entirely in earnest, and that she was incapable of the sort of coquetry which he ascribed to her.
Belinda Portman is indeed no coquette, although she lives with a fashionable lady known for her flirtatious ways. Having agreed to take Belinda in to expose her to society (and potential husbands), Lady Delacour proves to be both friend and foe to Belinda, one day trusting her with her most closely held secret and another day becoming convinced that Belinda intends to steal her own husband away.
Some readers will consider Lady Delacour the more fascinating of the novel’s leading ladies. She’s certainly led a more exciting life—she was even in a duel! But her scandalous behavior has done her no long-term good. An injury incurred from the duel has affected her health, her husband is a drunk who she rarely sees, and she is estranged from her daughter. Lady Delacour has fun, but it’s all that she has.
Belinda, on the other hand, is a quiet woman, strongly attached to her principles without preaching about them. She attends parties with Lady Delacour, sometimes even participating in a quiet way with Lady Delacour’s mischief, but she sees her participation as an act of kindness and affection toward Lady Delacour, rather than a source of pleasure for herself. And as the novel goes on, she looks for ways to bring about a more permanent state of happiness for the Delacours than what they find through dancing and drinking.
One of Belinda’s central beliefs is that she herself will only marry for love. Money is not enough, nor is respectability. She is open about this principle, but less open about where her affections lie. In part, that’s because it’s not clear whether the object of her love is worthy—and he has his own misgivings about her. The misunderstandings among the characters do get tedious after a while. Still, I was pleased with how Edgeworth cleverly holds back on revealing the secrets of two of Belinda’s most appealing suitors, to the point that I wasn’t sure who Belinda would choose in the end.
I might have enjoyed Belinda a little more if it had been a little shorter—fewer misunderstandings to resolve—but I still found it worth reading. And the final pages, in which Edgeworth shows that she’s fully aware of just how silly her story became, made me laugh. This book was a lot of fun, and I’m glad to have read it.