19. Belinda by Maria Edgeworth
I can't decide if Belinda is subversive for its time or not. It was left over from my eighteenth century class reading, my professor had us buy it and then decided not to cover it. It was the last book in my room that I hadn't read. So I am now free to buy a book from an indie bookstore on May 1st!
Belinda is, of course, the main character, and the book follows very typical patterns for an eighteenth or nineteenth century novel. The style was very similar to Jane Austen's novels, although distinct in some ways as well. The characters were less interesting, but also, I think, more realistic than Miss Austen's.
Belinda is a young lady in society under the care of the dissipated Lady Delacour. And what must ladies in society do but marry for money? Only Belinda learns, quite early, that she wishes to marry for domestic happiness.
Edgeworth drags the reader through some contemporary London society, introduces her love interest, Clarence Hervey, and then distracts with a long volume dedicated to Lady Delacour's mysterious illness and subsequent reformation. The book has every element of the eighteenth-century novel, it is a "moral tale," involves the criticism of partying and gossiping, the elevation of domestic life, two potential love interests (though one is clearly favored), a "good" advisor and a "bad" advisor, and a lost child re-discovered by a convenient mole.
Edgeworth does have unusually witty, and self-aware dialogue. The characters discuss books as well as morals, there is much criticism of clergymen, and best of all, no clear-cut villains and angels. The celebrated Lady Anne Percival promotes the "wrong" love interest to Belinda, while the society cougar Lady Delacour helps Belinda find her heart. The books ends on a somewhat satirical note, with Edgeworth blasting the speed with which characters suddenly fall in love and marry at the end of a novel, as well as the notion that they will live happily ever after. Since there is much poetry (and French) sprinkled throughout, the ending couplet feels well put.
"Our tale contains a moral, and, no doubt,
You all have wit enough to find it out."
Not just for the scholars, Belinda could very well please today's ravenous Austen fans.