Belinda, by Maria Edgeworth (1801)

Published in 1801 this little tome is much the same as many other books that followed in its wake in terms of themes of marriage, friendships, family and coming of age.

But then it’s also quite different.

Young Belinda Portman is sent, by her Aunt Stanhope, to stay with Lady Delacour in London. Lady Delacour is dazzling as a beauty, wit and hostess and is, perhaps, seen by Aunt Stanhope, as a sure fire way of getting Belinda married. You see, Belinda has 5 other sisters and Aunt Stanhope has done her duty and seen to it that every single one of them is married. Never mind that one has left her husband and another has returned home – the scandal of it all! And it doesn’t end there.

There are affairs, cross dressing women, kept women, mixed race relationships, duels between women and even swearing. Not for the faint hearted then! So much so that, it is alleged, Miss Edgeworth’s father edited subsequent editions and the 1810 version was censored!

I would suggest the story falls somewhere between Dangerous Liaisons and Mansfield Park in terms of content. Think young unmarried woman in want of a husband who traverses the best and worst of what London society throws at her. Miss Portman has even been compared to Fanny Price. Rather unfairly I think as Miss Price would be aghast at the goings-on, whereas Miss Portman takes it in her stride and tolerates, to an extent, what is happening around her.

One of the reasons I read this book is that Jane Austen mentions it in Northanger Abbey. I think it might be fair to say that Austen had some regard for Edgeworth as a novelist and, allegedly, sent a pre-publication copy of Emma to her. Unfortunately, Edgeworth was less than complimentary about, what she considered, the rather pedestrian goings-on. I think the lesson learned here is ‘don’t meet (or engage with) your heroes’.

Edgeworth published the first of the three volumes anonymously but after the success of Volume I the subsequent editions bore her name. But why is she not as widely known as someone like Jane Austen or the Brontës or George Elliot?

A little search on the internet points to the Victorian sensibilities and their consideration of how a woman should speak and behave. Miss Austen ticks the boxes in that her main characters are flawed, yes, but morally acceptable. Peripheral characters (such as Kitty Bennet) are held up as examples in impropriety but ultimately their scandals are covered up so long as they ‘do the right thing’. In Belinda the titular character follows a fairly static line in terms of character development, which is not at all dissimilar to that of Fanny Price, but far more satisfying, whilst those around her all have character arcs that end in redemption or exposed flaws. So far so Austen, but Edgeworth herself breaks the mould somewhat and this is, seemingly, where the problem arises. As we move towards the end of the Regency era Edgeworth falls from literary grace and is held accountable for the words and actions of her characters. It’s all to do with ‘spittle’ and her use of this word in one of her later works. A reviewer took exception and deemed it ‘improper’ use of language for a lady. To which a rather indignant Miss Edgeworth asked (and I’m paraphrasing) why she should be held accountable for her character’s flaws?

Some time ago I asked a similar question about the longevity of Mrs Oliphant’s legacy (which can be found here). The writings of Dickens, Scott, Thackeray, Stevenson, James, Stoker, Collins (I mean the list goes on and on) live on well into the 21st Century and so, what we read today, still suffers from the patriarchal hang ups from 200 years ago. It is well documented that these early female novelists published anonymously or under a male name. In fact, finding a woman who published a first volume under her own name is rare indeed. Let’s consider the criticism Mary Shelley received on publication of her great work Frankenstein. Again, she did this anonymously, but word got out that these were the words of a young woman. A review stated:

If our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should…

British Critic: A New Review

If that wasn’t bad enough, the reviewer concludes with:

…we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.

British Critic: A New Review

Thankfully the name of the reviewer and the publication has faded into obscurity and Shelley’s excellent novel stands the test of time.

I must admit this is one of the wildest of the pre-Regency to late Victorian era novels I’ve read, showing that the Georgians had quite an appetite for this sort of thing. However censorious Mr Edgeworth was over his daughter’s work, he was progressive in many ways and was keen to educate his daughter. She, in turn, was imbued with wide ranging views on politics and religion and addresses these ideas in her novels. Although Belinda is very much about marriage being the end goal, we are taken on a journey that touches on the Enlightenment (Rousseau), abolition of slavery (Earl of Mansfield ruling) and the role of women in society. I don’t suggest these ideas offer any resolution or satisfactory answers, but they do give us some indication of Edgeworth’s leanings on certain subjects.

I very much enjoyed her writing and will probably get round to reading Castle Rackrent at some point.

Photo by Megapixelstock on

And just a couple of refs to show you where I poached some of my quotes from.

9 thoughts on “Belinda, by Maria Edgeworth (1801)

  1. Hi Sarah, this sounds right up my reading street. I am not the world’s biggest fan of Austen because her characters are so “morally acceptable” as you said. I think this book sounds like a really interesting characterisation. My favourite kind of book.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This novel sounds great, Sarah, as is your review! I like the way you discussed both the book and the context of it being published during a very patriarchal time when critics often treated women authors dismissively and complained when those authors didn’t stay in a certain writing “box.” I put “Belinda” on my to-read list!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you and so glad it’s going on your to-read list. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. I have to say it’s been quite a revelation reading this. As well as being highly enjoyable, it touches on so many aspects of Georgian life – so many avenues to explore!
      Do make sure you pick up the 1801 version and definitely not the 1810. I suspect though the 1801 version is in wider circulation and quite rightly so.

      Liked by 1 person

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