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Synopsis of Belinda
    (Synopsis / Belinda, by Maria Edgeworth)
  Julie A Shaffer, Sept 1999
This novel, first published in 1801, takes place in late eighteenth-century England and concerns Belinda Portman, a young, handsome, graceful and highly accomplished girl who has been educated chiefly in the country. She is sent to her aunt, Mrs. Stanhope, to be introduced into society and there to find a well-to-do husband. Her aunt falls ill, however, so she is sent on to Lady Delacour, one of the leading figures in the beau monde.

At Lady Delacour's house, Belinda meets Clarence Hervey, a favourite of Lady Delacour’s who is as active in high society as is Lady Delacour herself. Belinda and Clarence seem attracted to one another, but Belinda cannot understand Clarence's unpredictable, occasionally distancing behavior. Readers, however, learn that it derives from Clarence's not wanting to fall victim to one of Mrs. Stanhope's notorious attempts to marry off otherwise unmarriageable young women. Here Belinda of course also meets Lady Delacour's husband, who drinks excessively and is under the influence of his man-servant, Champfort.

At a masquerade, Belinda overhears Clarence and his friends talking about her as one of Mrs. Stanhope's girls. When she returns home with Lady Delacour, her hostess tells Belinda her (Lady Delacour’s) history and the truth about her health. Her friend Harriot Freke betrayed her, and she used to love a man named Percival, whom she lost due to her caprices; her marriage to Lord Delacour is unhappy and she only agreed to it because provoked by her loss of Percival. She has borne three children, but only one has survived - Helena - and she is being raised by Lord Delacour's aunt, Mrs. Margaret Delacour. Then Lady Delacour explains she used a Colonel Lawless to incite her husband's jealousy; her husband killed the man in a duel and then turned to Mrs. Luttridge, an enemy of Lady Delacour's, for the solace of an affair. The two women duelled, which left Lady Delacour with a wounded breast that will not heal. The two women were about to be ducked by a mob when Clarence happened to show up; he saved them. After hearing this story, Belinda feels a mixture of pity, admiration, and contempt for her hostess. She promises to stay with Lady Delacour as her friend, however.

Clarence, who has learned that his judgment of Belinda was wrong, wants Lady Delacour to make peace between the two. He is on his way to propose but encounters some friends who convince him to drink wine with them. One, knowing that Clarence cannot swim, proposes a swimming competition. Clarence nearly drowns; his friends walk away; Percival shows up and saves Clarence. This episode leads Clarence to reconsider his way of life and the people he has chosen to be close to him. He becomes more convinced that he needs to change his life and friends after going home with Percival; there, he witnesses true domestic happiness and meets Helena and her guardian great-aunt, Mrs. Margaret Delacour.

Clarence then asks Dr X----, whom he meets at the Percivals’ home, for advice in courting Belinda. Dr X--- visits Belinda often and notices that Lady Delacour is suffering from some ailment. Belinda urges her hostess to consult the doctor, and at the same time, Dr X--- and Clarence concoct a plan to reunite Lady Delacour and Helena. Then, after a carriage accident, Lady Delacour is brought home in pain. Lord Delacour, who does not know about his wife's bad health, insists on entering her boudoir, believing she has a lover hidden there, although it is in fact the room in which Lady Delacour's ailment is treated. Here Belinda realizes that contrary to Lady Delacour's belief, Lord Delacour does love his wife.

When Clarence stops by to visit Lady Delacour, he accidently drops a lock of hair in front of Belinda, and this causes her to control her feelings for him, recognizing that he must be attached to some other woman.

Then Lady Delacour gets tired of her maid's loud macaw and Belinda goes to find a replacement pet; at the pet shop, she meets the Percivals and Helena, and Helena offers to get some nice quiet goldfish for her mother. Clarence takes the fish to Lady Delacour, and when Helena comes along later, the mother and daughter act lovingly toward one another. Now, starting to believe that she is in fact loved by husband and daughter, Lady Delacour finds a reason for living and agrees to see a doctor.

She thinks, however, that Belinda is trying to supplant her with her husband. Belinda gets fed up with Lady Delacour's unkindness and goes to live with the Percivals at Oakly Park. There she meets Mr. Vincent, who admires and ultimately declares his love for her, but Belinda realizes she still loves only Clarence. Then she gets a note of apology from Lady Delacour, which also informs her that Lady Delacour is suffering from bad medicine given her by a quack. Belinda goes back and convinces Lady Delacour to tell her husband about her illness; he feels pity and love for his wife, and together, they decide to call back Helena so that they can face Lady Delacour's problems as a family. A proper surgeon is then consulted and he informs them that Lady Delacour can be cured.

Belinda meanwhile decides to wed Vincent, but Lady Delacour wants her to await Clarence's explanation of his attachment to Virginia, whose portrait Belinda has seen at an art exhibit, and who is spoken of as Clarence's mistress. She is in fact his ward, originally named Rachel, but whom he calls Virginia because she reminds him of the eponymous heroine of Bernardin de St. Pierre’s Paul et Virginie (1790). He has raised her to be the ideal wife for him but realizes he does not love her; he believes she loves him, however, and feels that he has committed himself to marry her by allowing her to fall in love with him. The lock of hair he earlier dropped in front of Belinda was hers. Meanwhile, Clarence hears that Vincent is a gambler and soon after stops Vincent from committing suicide after he has lost his fortune to Mrs Luttridge, who, Clarence knows, cheats. Clarence makes Mrs Luttridge return the money, which saves Vincent. Belinda has no desire to marry a gambler, so this also saves her by giving her bad news in time to avoid a mistake. Then Virginia makes it known she has fallen in love with a man whose picture she has seen; this is Captain Sutherland. Clarence brings them together, which frees him from the obligation he has felt to marry her; he also finds Virginia's long-lost father. Now Clarence can propose to Belinda, and she agrees to marry him.

© 1999 Julie A Shaffer / Sheffield Hallam University