Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Breeding Classics for Profit and Pleasure

I realise I’ve not talked much about an actual book recently – I have been reading but it’s been a combination of a book for a postal reading group which I think it might have been bad form to talk about it, and Maria Edgeworth’s ‘Belinda’ which I’ve been desperate to talk about, but have been slow in finishing. I’ve also been distracted by shopping and baking but might gloss over that for now.

Despite having had Castle Rackrent' on the shelf for years I only read it, and finally discovered Maria Edgeworth last autumn. She was something of a revelation to me – I find it can be hit or miss with me when it comes to reading eighteenth century classics for fun, and I have no other reason to read them. ‘Belinda’ reminds me why I gravitate towards the classics in the first place.

The story is roughly as follows Belinda Portman is an orphan in (I guess) her late teens, she’s been bought up by an aunt who has successfully disposed of six previous nieces in advantageous marriages and Belinda is to be her final triumph. She’s not quite penniless but she doesn’t really have independent means either. After much manoeuvring she’s sent off to stay with Lady Delacour in town, and this is when the action begins. Belinda soon realises that not all is well with Lady D (suspected cancer, raging opium addiction, unhappy marriage) or with Lord D (alcoholic, gambling problem, dodgy mistress) still she sets out to be a good friend and does what she can to improve the domestic situation. Meanwhile she falls in love with a young man who turns out not to be all he seems (grooming a young woman to be the ideal wife in secluded Twickenham), becomes engaged to another who also turns out to be less than perfect (just gambling this time). All this without even starting on the vindictive cross dressing Harriet Freke who is determined to ruin both Belinda and Lady D, or the interesting insights into attitudes about race, or even the meditations on the courses open to middle and upper class women in the eighteenth century.

If I have a problem with the book it’s that it took me two weeks to read – it demands a little bit of concentration; more than I can give it on tea breaks – but that’s hardly a bad thing. On the plus side there are a lot of things to chew over at leisure; early on Belinda decides not to follow the examples around her and she starts to assert her independence. A risky thing for a girl in her position; throughout the book she is a guest in her friends’ homes – a precarious situation at best. Interestingly when Lady Delacour makes her will she leaves jewellery to Belinda making it clear that if she marries she can wear it, but if she chooses not to it will furnish her with an independence.

Belinda’s aunt sends her to London with this advice
“But nothing to my mind can be more miserable than the situation of a poor girl, who after spending not only the interest, but the solid capital of her small fortune in dress, and frivolous extravagance, fails in her matrimonial expectations, (as many do merely from not beginning to speculate in time). She finds herself at five or six and thirty a burden to her friends, destitute of the means of rendering herself independent (for the girls I speak of never think of learning to play cards) de trop in society, yet obliged to hang on all her acquaintance who wish her in Heaven, because she is unqualified to make the expected return of civilities, having no for the reception of company of a certain rank.”
 It’s harsh advice for a young girl, but still has a ring of truth to it more than two hundred years later. Like it or not unmarried women still lack a certain status – although thank heaven and feminism we have a few more choices these days.

Fortunately Belinda’s fate is happier than the one above. I love this book for the combination of almost sensation novel levels of action and serious issues. I have one more Edgeworth on the shelves after which I will be trawling amazon in the hopes of unearthing something good. Meanwhile I'm very pleased that Oxford World Classics are keeping Edgeworth available for people like me to discover, and  reminding me that classics are classics for a reason.  


  1. I keep meaning to read Edgeworth, but Castle Rackrent has never appealed. I like the sound of Belinda though. I want to read the books that inspired Austen.

  2. I have read and enjoyed Belinda but I couldn't get on at all with Castle Rackrent, so I was interested when you blogged about that to find you'd liked it so much. I wonder which is the other one you own!

  3. I still haven't read any Edgeworth, though I've been meaning to... I want to read some more novels from this period. Fanny Burney might be next... but they didn't believe in brevity, did they?

  4. This sounds excellent if a bit of a doorstop.

    Thanks for sharing


  5. I have had to come to the library on the way to work to leave a comment as my computer won't let me...

    Belinda isn't short, she's just shy of 500 pages, but it's not the length that made me take so long to read it, it's more that it takes me ten to fifteen mins to get going on the language and style, which meant I didn't really get into it at work, but only when I had a couple of hours spare.

    Vintage reading, I would certainly try belinda, I've been making Austen comparisons all the way along - not surprisingly I thing Austen has the edge, but only just, there's a lot in Belinda that's really interesting; attitudes to adultry, gambling, race, and drug addiction amongst them. I'm looking for more of Edgeworth's books at affordable prices now so I can get a fuller sense of her.

    I found Castle rackrent very funny and very short; both things that recommende it to me. I think it's worth a read partly because of the length - if it doesn't appeal by the time it's finished at least you haven't invested to much time in it.

    Harriet - what didn't you like about Castle rackrent? Was it to crude? Belinda is very different, I can see that one doesn't really lead you to expect the other. I have the Absentee to try next, and then will probably buy Ennui - although the cheapest way to do that seems to be in the penguin edition with Castle Rackrent which is frustrating because I don't much like having duplicates on the shelf.

  6. I've not heard of Edgeworth, but this sounds like a book I would enjoy. Thanks for posting :) I agree that classics are classics for a reason. I have read a few classics this month, and have discoevred some wonderful books.