Maria Edgeworth “Belinda” – book review

“Mrs Stanhope, a well-bred woman, accomplished in that branch of knowledge, which is called the art of rising in the world, had, with but a small fortune, contrived to live in the highest company. She prided herself upon having established half a dozen nieces most happily (…) One niece still remained unmarried – Belinda Portman, of whom she was determined to get rid of with all convenient expedition”

If you have got this far into the blogpost and are thinking “this sounds exactly like my cup of tea”, read on. If you think “it’s just another boring old novel”, this will not the blogpost for you. 

I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda. It is true that I hadn’t many things from the period in a while – but I was still surprised by how quickly I devoured it. I only slowed down in the second half, when I could guess how it would all end – and I thought it was getting there a bit slowly. 

Belinda Portman, a girl who has mostly lived her life in the country, is invited to spend the winter at the house of Lady Delacour “whom she thought the most agreeable – no, that is too feeble a word – the most fascinating person she had ever beheld.” But though lady Delacour is the belle of every ball in, in private she has a secret. Belinda is caught between her loyalty to lady Delacour, her wish to do what is right, and her fascination with the young and gallant Clarence Hervey.

This a fascinating novel – placed just at the crossroad between the 18th and the 19th century. It reminds one a little of Northanger Abbey – except Belinda does encounter proper 18th-century-style misbehaviour: – lord Delacour drunk and carried by his two manservants, lady Delacour acknowledging the death of her admirer in a duel, and the cross-dressing of Mrs. Freke. There are rumours that Clarence Hervey is keeping a mistress in town…

Amid all of this, Belinda Portman somehow has to find her happy ending. There is plenty of adventure and plenty of comedy: only in Belinda could a female duel be interrupted by two men racing geese and pigs against each other… 

Not going to lie, I loved this book but it’s a little bit crazy. Very definitely an awesome read for all the 18th- and 19th-century literature nerds out there..

P.S. A curious aspect of the novel is that it really matters which text of it you read. In the 1801 edition (which is the one I read, published by OUP), Juba, the black manservant marries a young white English servant. In the second edition of the novel Edgeworth’s father forced her to remove this subplot, as he found the idea “improper”…

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