(Oxford World Classics edition)
The lively comedy of this novel in which a young woman comes of age amid the distractions and temptations of London high society belies the challenges it poses to the conventions of courtship, the dependence of women, and the limitations of domesticity. Contending with the perils and the varied cast of characters of the marriage market, Belinda strides resolutely toward independence. Admired by her contemporary, Jane Austen, and later by Thackeray and Turgenev, Edgeworth tackles issues of gender and race in a manner at once comic and thought-provoking. The 1802 text used in this edition also confronts the difficult and fascinating issues of racism and mixed marriage, which Edgeworth toned down in later editions.
Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda is an exciting Regency-era novel that throws scandalous characters together with kindhearted ones to tell a story that ultimately brings most characters their happily-ever-after (or, in some cases, their just desserts!).
I wasn’t sure what to expect going into Belinda, my knowledge of this time period, of course, being dominated by Jane Austen novels. I was startled to discover a novel that, at times, is a bit wild and over-the-top, with women challenging each other to duels and people playing scary pranks and all kinds of things. I had this vague idea I would be reading about balls and matrimonial maneuverings, and while those are part of the novel, their presence doesn’t make the book staid.
Protagonist Belinda herself, perhaps, will be accused of being dull by some readers; she’s a bit like Austen’s Fanny Price, very nice and proper, a young lady who could never be accused of anything by anybody. Personally I think her goodness grounds the book; if everyone were doing crazy things, the story might lose any sense of reality or any claim to its ability to comment on social issues or contemporary matters. (It does, for instance, quite directly address interracial marriage and the question of what women should look for in a marriage and domestic life in order to truly find happiness.) And Belinda, while a bit Mary Sue-ish, has her little challenges and frustrations to help make her more human.
The other characters are a bit more obviously fascinating. There is Belinda’s chaperone, who is wildly popular but has an unhappy domestic life and a secret she is keeping from even her husband. There are Belinda’s suitors. There is a mysterious girl who is beautiful and naïve and seems like something out of a fairy tale. (And, personally, I’d love to read some academic articles about this character in particular, if I had access to academic databases because I certainly have some questions about her that I’m sure have been explored in scholarship!)
In short, the book is wonderful. I enjoyed every moment of it (though the ending was a bit cheesy), and I’m not sure why I haven’t seen more people talking about this classic.