Back in the day when I was going to be an 18th/19th century scholar, I created a list of “Before Austen” novelists to read. On the list (among others) were Burney, Richardson, and Edgeworth. I managed to read Frances Burney’s Evelina and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, but until this semester, I had yet to get through any Maria Edgeworth novels. I started and restarted The Absentee about ten times before giving up. But now that I’ve become a contemporary scholar, I took an 18th century course this semester (hello, irony!), which included Maria Edgeworth.
So, Belinda. Mrs. Stanhope, a noted matchmaker of her zillions of nieces, sends her last single niece, Belinda Portman, off to Lady Delacour’s to find a man. Belinda is well-promoted, which provokes some teasing against her. She is sensible, neat, decorous, and quite possibly the coldest heroine this side of Cersei Lannister. Seriously, I’m pretty sure she’s a cyborg.
Lady Delacour is a far more interesting character. She keeps a bevy of men around her, and she marries her husband to spite him for his lack of interest in her. She’s also afraid of this ginormous bruise on her breast, which she’s pretty sure is cancer and which she obtained in sketchy circumstances. So, she throws many parties, and at one Belinda crosses paths with Clarence Hervey, who might be the douchiest hero designated by a novel ever. But he shames Belinda and then falls in love with her. Lest we think this is Pride and Prejudice high-jinks, however, Clarence also has a dark secret preventing him from pursuing Belinda. While Darcy’s dark secret is that he’s actually a nice guy, Clarence’s is weird and involves an underage girl who is in love with romance novels.
Basically, Belinda is the crazy, hookah-smoking ancestress of Lady Bertram and Mrs. Bennet. There is a duel, an aborted mastectomy, a cross-dressing parody of Mary Wollstonecraft, and a few uncomfortable (albeit, timely) racist references. There are moments of sheer delight in the battiness of the many players in the story that greatly overshadow the ostensible leads. Belinda, while boringly virtuous, is a good and faithful friend, and has her moments of endearment. Clarence, however, is so exceedingly dull. His “heroic” qualities don’t come in till the very end, not unlike one Mr. Edward Ferrars.
And he’s no spicy, sexy villain like Henry Crawford, either.