feminist implications of Maria Edgeworth's novel, Belinda. In many ways, Edgeworth's Belinda seems to flaunt the 19th century ideas about the proper behavior of women in society.
Yet the novel also indicates and does little to challenge many the accepted roles of women in society. The relative success of Jane Austin's novels in comparison to Edgeworth's may be related to our modern conception of an English lady as cultured and demure above all. All in all, Belinda is an important look at women's roles in 19th century Europe.
A chapter-by-chapter summary of the plot may be useful in putting the rest of the essay in context. Edgeworth's novel is made up of an impressive 31 chapters. Chapter I simply introduces the reader to the characters, and chapter II Masks continues a conversation between Belinda Portman and the Lady Delacour, after which they leave to the house of Lady Singleton for a costume ball and meet Clarence Hervey, who embarrasses himself and Belinda in a case of mistaken identity. After the party, Lady Delacour reveals that she is dying to the grief-stricken Belinda.
In chapter III and IV the Lady Delacour tells Belinda the lengthy story of her life. In chapter V, Belinda reflects on Lady Delacour's life, and concludes that since money and a good marriage did not make the Lady happy, they may not make Belinda happy. She says as much in a letter to her potential benefactress and aunt, Selina Stanhope. She meets Clarence Harvey again who is determined to make up for his embarrassing behavior at the costume party. In chapter VI, Lady Delacour and Belinda discuss the charming young Clarence Hervey, and Belinda receives a letter from her aunt, Selina Stanhope that expresses surprise and indignation at Belinda's feelings.
In chapter VII, Sir Philip Baddely, Clarence Hervey and other men enjoy a feast of food and wine, and Clarence becomes unconscious during a drunken swimming contest, and thereby meets Dr. X. Chapter VIII finds the personable Clarence Hervey at a party thrown at the house of Lady Anne Percival, an attractive woman who is the unacknowledged daughter of Lady Delacour.
In chapter IX, Clarence Hervey takes Dr. X to see Belinda (of whom he is enamored) at Lady Delacour's house. After the men have gone, Lady Delacour describes her hatred of Mrs. Luttridge and disinterest in Lady Anne Percival. Chapter X shows Lady Delacour's desire to outshine Mrs. Luttridge during the king's birthday. Lady Delacour's carriage overturns on the way to the birthday in an accident with Mrs. Luttridge's carriage, and Lady Delacour is hurt, and Dr. X is summoned.
In chapter XI, Dr. X. arrives, but Lady Delacour has recovered, and he is dispatched after giving Belinda a letter regarding Lady Delacour's illness. Clarence Hervey comes to visit, and later Belinda hears a rumor that Clarence is in love with a girl named Virginia St. Pierre. In chapter XII, Sir Philip visits Belinda, and tells her of Clarence's affection for her. In chapter XIII continues the relationship between Lady Delacour, Belinda, and Clarence.
In chapter IV, Belinda and Lady Delacour discuss an operation that could possibly save the Lady's life, but Lady Delacour notes sourly that the suggested operation cannot occur without the Lord's consent. In Chapter XV, Belinda reads a letter from her aunt that suggests Belinda is behaving in an unladylike manner. The two argue bitterly over the letter, and Belinda leaves the house.
In chapter XVI, Belinda goes to Lady Anne Percival, and experiences domestic happiness in their house. Chapter XVII begins with a discussion between Belinda and Mrs. Freke, who spread rumor of the relationship between Clarence Hervey and Lady Delacour. Belinda meets Mr. Vincent. In chapter XVIII, Mr. Vincent brings up the differences obvious between the happy, domestic Anne Percival and Lady Delacour, but Belinda quiets him by noting her friendship with the Lady Delacour. Lady Anne Percival tells Belinda of Mr. Vincent's affection for Belinda, and Belinda tells Lady Ann about Clarence Hervey. In chapter XIX Belinda learns of Lady Delacour's poor health, and decides to return to Lady Delacour. In XX, Belinda is taken into the lives of Lady Delacour and Clarence Hervey. In XXI, we see the cold interaction of Lady Delacour and her daughter Helena.
Chapter XXII, titled A Spectre, Lady Delacour is attended by a surgeon, and prophesizes that she will die that night and speaks of a vision that has visited her three times. The specter turns out to be Mrs. Freke. Lady Delacour learns that she will recover completely, and the bruise on her breast was not truly cancer. In chapter XXIII Lady Delacour is so grateful for her recovery and the kindness of her family and friends that she reconciles with Margaret Delacour, and becomes a happier and friendlier person.
In chapter XXIV, the maid Marriott brings news that Clarence Hervey has deceived a young woman with a mock ceremony. Mr. Vincent arrives with an anonymous letter that states Belinda is in love with Clarence Hervey. Lady Delacour blames Harriet Freke for the letter. In XXV Marriott blames Mr. Champfort for the letter. It is revealed that Mr. Champfort and Harriet Freke were both responsible. Mr. Vincent pursues Belinda. Clarence Hervey arrives, and Mr. Vincent leaves in a fit of jealousy. In XXVI, Clarence tells his version of his relationship with Virginia.
XXVII tells the story of Clarence's growing affection for Belinda. He learns Belinda and Mr. Vincent are involved. In chapter XXVIII, Clarence meets with Lord Delacour, and Mr. Vincent is disturbed by Clarence's return, and the two argue heatedly. In XXIX, Clarence reflects on Mr. Vincent's pronouncement that Belinda loves Clarence. Lord Delacour accuses Mr. Vincent of an involvement with Annabella. He receives a letter from Belinda, and leaves for Germany to ease the pain of her rejection. In XXX, Lady Delacour and Belinda discuss Mr. Vincent and Clarence Harvey. In chapter XXXI, The Denouement, Lady Delacour and Belinda go to visit Mr. Hervey and Virginia, and Hervey learns that Virginia is in love with an image in a photograph.
Maria Edgeworth was born in 1767, and lived almost her entire life on her father's land in Ireland. Edgeworth was clearly an early feminist, as her first publication entitled Letters for Literary Ladies (1795) argued strongly for women's education. Her novels depicted life in Ireland, and include Belinda (1801), Castle Rackrent (1800), and The Absentee (1812), while her children's stories included Moral Tales (1811).
She passed away in 1849 (Columbia Encyclopedia).
In her time, Maria Edgeworth was a well respected and a popular and published author of some renown. Edgeworth was commonly was considered to be one of the Western world's best female novelists of the 19th century. The Columbia Encyclopedia notes, "Although her works are marred somewhat by didacticism, they are notable for their realism, humor, and freshness of style."
In many ways, Edgeworth's Belinda seems to flaunt the 19th century ideas about the proper behavior of women in society. In the novel, women conduct themselves with great violence and anger in their dealings with not only each other, but perhaps more surprisingly in their many interactions with the novel's male characters. However, even within Edgeworth's seeming refusal to play by societies rules, the women of her novel continue to be constrained in many ways.
Importantly, the arguments between Edgeworth's female characters are often larger-than-life and violent. Lady Delacour "absolutely seized" Belinda's letters in a seeming fit of rage and anger. Belinda, in response, attempts to physically restrain Lady Delacour's successful attempt to grab the letters. Even minor characters are bitter and violent, as the maid, Marriott, angrily seems bent on blackmail.
The ultimate example of this violent female behavior is seen in the famed duel between Lady Delacour and her rival. Not only is the duel an ultimate expression of female violence, but also it is instigated through the clearly malicious intent of Harriet Freke. This malicious intervention clearly showcases the ability of women to manipulate, on a scale equal or greater than that of the men in the novel. Eventually, the women are rolling on the floor and throwing punches at each other.
Arguments between male and female characters are also often violent and jarring. Lady and Lord Delacour speak bitterly and harshly to each other, revealing a true hatred. Lady Delacour notes, " -- "my husband hates me -- no matter -- I despise him. His relations hate me -- no matter -- I despise them (Chapter I). Even though the two later reconcile, the spark of this anger and hatred is memorable.
Even the women's reaction to this violence and strife is complex and understandable, rather than drawn in the purely emotional terms of the day. In speaking of her ability to go through with the duel, the Lady Delacour notes, "many would be cowards if they dared" (Chapter IV). Her description of Lady Delacour's reaction to the appearance of her rivals is also understandable. She notes, " poetic justice, and all other…