Examining the Proposed Roles of Women in “Belinda”
Belinda by Maria Edgeworth seems to say that women’s roles aren’t simple to define. The focus on domestic happiness appears to imply that this lifestyle is the one that should be followed. However, it also offers alternatives to the domestic life and shows how unconventional lifestyle choices can lead to good decisions, happy endings and are ultimately, not as awful as they may seem. This is exemplified through the contrast between Lady Delacour and Anne Percival. Edgeworth finds a balance between the two women in Belinda, who tries to maintain the integrity of her beliefs and morals as well as her reputation amidst being bounced between two opposing households with each representing a set of contrasting ideals and concepts of what a woman’s role should be. She isn’t really placed by Edgeworth to “choose” one set of values over the other, but rather to take what is best out of each one to the best of her judgment to create her own set of values as she starts out her own life in society.
It is important to delineate what the book marks as the ideal or preferred role of women and the ways in which Belinda is exposed to examples of its manifestation as well as alternative lifestyles. Mrs. Stanhope teaches her nieces that they should be pleasing to society. The main object is to be established in society. Domestic pleasures such as reading should be solitary, silent and not draw attention to the self. Belinda, however, is an independent-minded woman and a thoughtful reader of serious literature. She rejects superficial measures of social status.
Lady Delacour’s fashionable household and lavish, theatrical lifestyle, and overall debauchery are shown as examples that Belinda shouldn’t follow. Belinda is at first fascinated by Lady Delacour’s wit and elegance and by the glamour of her world. Soon, however, Belinda becomes disgusted by the shallow frivolity that permeates this world and by the manipulated jockeying for social position that drives its players. She realizes that Lady Delacour is putting on an act to disguise her unhappiness. When she gets to know her story, Lady Delacour even divulges that she is not happy with her lifestyle but she “could not stop- I was fit for this kind of life, and for no other- I could not be happy at home” (pg. 41). The disdain with the word “home” in the sentence, in italics, suggests that there is a deep-rooted reason behind Lady Delacour’s resistance of domesticity and of male dominance in the home. Lady Delacour is a warning of what can happen if one doesn’t consult domestic values when choosing a husband. Lady Delacour couldn’t be “happy at home” because her home wasn’t ideal- her husband and her constantly fought for control; she failed as a mother which left her with an “aching void” that caused her life to lack domestic happiness.
Belinda at the beginning of the novel is inexperienced. However, character is strengthened rather than corrupted by her exposure to fashionable society. “Lady Delacour’s history, and the manner in which it was related, excited in Belinda’s mind astonishment-pity- admiration and contempt: Astonishment at her inconsistency- pity for her misfortunes-admiration for her talents- and contempt for her conduct” (pg. 69). Belinda’s “contempt” and “pity” are what make her stand above Lady Delacour and show that she is learning to assess the women around her for their actions as well as for the worth these seem to represent when compared to her own ideals of integrity and morality as she contemplates domestic life.
Then Belinda is exposed to a utopian enlightenment of domestic happiness in the Percival’s household. “There was an affectionate confidence, an unconstrained gayety in this house, which forcibly struck her, from its contrast with what she had seen at Lady Delacour’s” (pg. 215). When Belinda is at the Percival’s home, she begins to see a life of equality and openness (as opposed to the constant battle for control) in marriage she had never seen at Lady Delacour’s. Word- choices such as “tranquility of mind”, and “large and happy family” are contrasted with the very opposite at the Delacour’s “great fatigue and misery” to show how different these two worlds are and to place Anne Percival as the more “ideal” model of domestic womanhood for being able to maintain a happy and educational home, even going so far as raising Lady Delacour’s daughter Helena. It is clear that Belinda favors this lifestyle:
“Everybody must ultimately judge of what makes them happy, from the comparison of their own feelings in different situations. Belinda was convinced by this comparison that domestic life was that which could alone make her really and permanently happy. She missed none of the pleasures, none of the gay company, in which she had been accustomed to at Lady Delacour’s” (pg. 217).
The repetition of the word “none” when discussing Lady Delacour’s lifestyle as well as the choice to use both “really” and “permanently” cement Anne Percival as the perfect model of conduct for Belinda to follow and leave no doubt that this is in fact the correct path. By having the narrator step into Belinda’s mind to reveal her view on this scene, it is evident that the author herself doesn’t necessarily agree with this view (even if Belinda herself is quite “confident”) or it at least leaves room for another perspective to become evident later in the book.
Lady Delacour is perceptibly nowhere near this “ideal of womanhood” that Anne Percival embodies. However, the novel allows her character to succeed. Even though her actions and outrageous behaviors are not placed at the forefront of the ideal role of a woman- as contrasted in Anne Percival- she ends up finding hope that she can be herself-bold and impertinent- and still find domestic happiness in the end, when she reconciles with her husband after learning that her wound is not fatal and will in fact heal- a wound that she received as a punishment of her improper behavior. This is symbolic of not only her reconcilement but also of her potential to “heal” towards a closer approximation to domestic happiness- within her own means.
The more Belinda is exposed to the world, the more she realizes that she doesn’t have good role models and that she’s going to have to start depending on her own judgment. Belinda keeps her cool where Lady Delacour does not, but she also follows her heart, even against Anne Percival’s advice when she chooses to marry Clarence Harvey. She is sort of a satisfactory compromise between the two women. In this respect, Edgeworth investigates a third type of woman, a category Belinda fits into that’s somewhere in between the two polar opposites: that of a well-educated, rational woman, that still manages to have an identity of her own and maintains her integrity. She places value on fitting into this category by making Belinda’s character not fit the usual sensitive- type, as can be seen in her word choices when comparing Belinda to Virginia: “Belinda had cultivated tastes, an active understanding, a knowledge of literature, the power and the habit of conducting herself, Virginia was ignorant and indolent, she had few ideas and no wish to extend her knowledge” (pg.379). Juxtaposing the two girls directly, by using such potent words as “power” in contrast to “indolent”, is especially important because of the context in which they are being compared: as the possible wives of Clarence Harvey. By giving a male perspective of what is desired in a woman as a companion, and having what weighs more heavily be knowledge and power of conducting oneself, the role of the woman evolves to more than simply domestic. Mrs. Stanhope’s teachings of being “pleasing to society” no longer hold up to the expectations that are clearly stated by her potential husband.
There is no truly right or wrong lifestyle in the book however. As Ross Chambers discussed in Reading the Oppositional in Narrative: “Every rule produces its loophole, every authority can be countered by appeal to another authority, and every front-stage social role one plays has a backstage where we are freer to do, say, or think as we will” (Chambers,7). Edgeworth gives a place for thought about feminine identity as well as the moral and intellectual lives of women in a way that invites interpretation of the rights and wrongs by the reader’s terms. She presents conflicting “models of ideal womanhood” in exposing the roles of mothers and wives in the social order of Belinda, and then proceeds to showcase that neither one of them is truly “ideal”. In this way, the novel truly functions as what it claims to be: a moral tale. As found in the conclusion to the book- (stated by Lady Delacour to further exemplify her as a not-so-bad after all model) “Our tale contains a moral and, no doubt, you all have wit enough to find it out” (pg. 478). This closing statement serves as a reminder that the book is meant to be read as a tale that one should analyze and think about on one’s own terms, just as Belinda had to create her own standard of ideal domesticity and womanhood throughout her experiences with both these women.
-Edgeworth, Maria. Belinda. London: Oxford University Press, 1986. Print.
-Chambers, Ross. Room for Maneuver: Reading (the) Oppositional (in) Narrative. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991, 7