- Comparative Gender in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda
I have covered my old carpet with a handsome green baize, and every stranger, who comes to see me, I observe, takes it for granted, that I have a rich carpet under it.—Aunt Stanhope to Belinda (Maria Edgeworth, Belinda 9)
Maria Edgeworth is a problematic figure for literary scholars. She is an emblem of bourgeois values for many, a progressivist to others. Feminist scholars interpret her variously as a radical anti-patriarchist and antiessentialist and conversely as a conservative polemicist enmeshed in the project of validating patriarchy and paternalism. One possible reason for these conflicting interpretations is Edgeworth’s own determination, as evidenced in her published writings, to avoid being shoehorned into any one extreme position. Her writings often straddle the spaces between extremes, forcing her readers into positions as uncomfortable as her own. Such is the case with her first domestic novel, Belinda, first published in 1801. Belinda has been subjected to a series of attempts to reinterpret its various and often self-contradictory depictions of gender, race, class, and nationalism in terms of its adherence to particular paradigms. For Toni Wein, “Edgeworth merely reifies the visions between the two types of prudence, materialistic and moralistic, making the former the province of men and the latter the preserve of women, and thus fostering the separation of spheres upon which the middle class will depend in the nineteenth century” (301). For Jennie Batchelor, the novel’s original title, Abroad and at Home, signifies it as Edgeworth’s attempt to “describe woman’s unachievable desire to dominate both the social and domestic spheres” (159). And Anne Mellor, attempting to situate Belinda within the emergence of Romanticism, calls it
a textbook example of the new feminine Romantic ideology [in which] Belinda succeeds in establishing a marriage of equality and compatibility because she has remained true to her moral and [End Page 131] rational principles, cemented by the solid example of the benevolent and egalitarian Percival marriage.(44)
And in contrast to all such interpretations of the novel as centered on various iterations of bourgeois femininity, Susan C. Greenfield would have it that “although Belinda, Edgeworth’s first ‘domestic’ novel, takes place in England, it centrally concerns the problem of the West Indies” (215).
Unfortunately for literary scholars, any and all attempts to place Belinda within a clearly defined paradigm are undermined by the text itself. Any reading of the novel as a tool for promoting the bourgeois separation of spheres is ultimately undone both by Lady Delacour’s reformation and by Clarence Hervey’s own preference for the eponymous heroine as a woman fit for public and private responsibilities. Attempting to read Belinda in terms of Romantic principles of egalitarianism is quickly subverted by the novel’s clear demonstration of class and gender differences rather than parity and of its general advocacy of social norms. And readings of the colonial and racial issues in Belinda are mired in a seemingly selfcontradictory text that condemns a white Creole as unfit to mate with English femininity at the same time that it unites a black former slave with a virtuous white female servant with an abundance of loyalty and common sense.
That Edgeworth’s text is, like most domestic novels, didactic is generally accepted, but what in fact is it teaching? Perhaps the difficulty lies not only in Edgeworth’s obvious ambivalence about the rational foundation of existing moral codes and social structures but also in the intense particularity of her examination of individuals’ and society’s failings. Deborah Weiss locates the reason for this particularity in what she terms Edgeworth’s “philosophical pragmatism:
As a philosophical pragmatist, Edgeworth was able to launch her attack on her culture’s debilitating gender codes in a carefully targeted fashion, using theory to identify the precise causes of social problems while at the same time employing the generic resources of the novel to put those theories into practice in the form of psychologically complex characters manoeuvering through a difficult and largely realistic moral world.(443)
It is my contention that Edgeworth’s philosophical pragmatism in fact combines with her interest in natural philosophy to produce...