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“MORALS FOR THOSE THAT LIKE THEM”: THE SATIRE OF EDGEWORTH’S BELINDA, 1801 MARJORIE LIGHTFOOT IN NORTHANGER ABBEY (1818), Jane Austen pays proper tribute to both Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth. Her narrator protests against readers—and authors?—who say of novels, “‘It is only Cecilia or Camilla, or Belinda’; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest eVusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”1 Austen objects to novelists’ piously disparaging or disclaiming their own genre. Camilla (1796), according to Burney, is not a novel: it is a work showing characters and morals in action; but Edgeworth has tongue in cheek in her apologia to Belinda (1801) when she preserves herself from the accusation of being a frivolous female scribbler by oVering Belinda as “a Moral Tale—the author not wishing to acknowledge a Novel.”2 Austen was right: Belinda is a novel. Certainly it is a Wctional prose narrative in three volumes, a courtship novel, which owes a debt to Frances Burney’s Evelina; its plot, like hers, details the adventures of a naive yet intelligent young woman making her entry into English society. Yet, Belinda deWes the limits of a realistic style that depicts actuality by an accumulation of detail. John Ward early complained that Edgeworth’s picture of society is pervasively inaccurate and the author guilty of a travesty of the social scene.3 By contrast, Marilyn Butler believes that Edgeworth’s “talent was as a reporter of the social scene, not as a satirist or parodist,” while THE SATIRE OF MARIA EDGEWORTH’S BELINDA, 1801 117 1 The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), 3rd edition, V: 38. 2 Maria Edgeworth, Belinda (London: Pandora, 1986), p. viii; hereafter cited parenthetically , thus: (B viii). 3 Marilyn Butler, Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), pp. 346–47. her didactic message was both blunt and naive.4 Edgeworth actually had little personal experience of English social life when she wrote Belinda.5 Many characters are composites drawn from literature and from the life of her father, rather than from her own experience.6 Edgeworth’s heroine , however, is something other than the embodiment of morality in didactic Wction7 or of the need for individualism and the education of the heart as well as the mind to secure happiness.8 Critics have judged Belinda according to its success or failure in meeting the standards of literary and historical conventions that they anticipate, or else they have given preference to certain material. Avoiding presuppositions and taking a fresh look at the work as a whole provides another perspective. Observing Edgeworth’s style as it aVects plot, theme and characterization reveals that Belinda, even in its revised form, is a strikingly satirical novel.9 Traditionally, satire is a style of writing that mocks the follies and foibles of typical characters in life as in art; it may even encourage reform. Authors employ satire in varying degrees: it may simply embellish a work or it may be diVused through every part of it. Belinda is Wlled with satire, evident in the way Edgeworth uses irony, burlesque, parody, sarcasm, invective and innuendo. Etymologically, “satire” denotes a dish Wlled with mixed fruits. Examining a variety of fashionable tastes, Edgeworth oVers readers a cornucopia. Her unexpected mockery of eighteenth-century assumptions about life and art may well account for the failure of many critics to do justice to Belinda.10 THE SATIRE OF MARIA EDGEWORTH’S BELINDA, 1801 118 4 Butler, pp. 319,317. 5 Edgeworth visited Mrs. Hoare at Roehampton in 1792. See Butler, p. 107. 6 Colin B. and Jo Atkinson, “Maria Edgeworth, Belinda, and Women’s Rights,” ÉIREIRELAND , XIX, 4 (Winter 1984), 94, 97. 7 Twila Yates Papay, “Defining the Educative Process: Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda,” Eighteenth-Century Women and the Arts, eds. Frederick M. Keene and Susan E. Lorsch, Contributions in Women’s Studies, 90 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), p. 143. 8 Elizabeth Harden, Maria Edgeworth (Boston...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1550-5162
Print ISSN
0013-2683
Pages
pp. 117-131
Launched on MUSE
2017-08-31
Open Access
No
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