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    (Review / Belinda, by Maria Edgeworth)
  Critical Review /JAS, 1802
  ns vol. 34 (1802): 235-7.
Art. 41. - Belinda. By Maria Edgeworth. 3 Vols. 12mo. 13s. 6d. Boards. Johnson. 1801.

'Every author has a right to give what appellation he may think proper to his works. The public have also a right to accept or refuse the classification that is presented.

'The following work is offered to the public as a moral tale - the author not wishing to acknowledge a novel. Were all novels like those of madame de Crousaz, Mrs Inchbald, miss Burney, or Dr Moore, she would adopt the name of novel with delight: But so much folly, error, and vice are disseminated in books classed under this denomination, that it is hoped the wish to assume another title will be attributed to feelings that are laudable, and not fastidious.' P. V.

Such is miss Edgeworth's apology for appropriating a new title to this species of writing: yet we cannot consider the apology a good one. Is it at all necessary to discard the title of novel from its own rank and place, because many bad novels are in existence? or would it not be deemed silly in Dr Moore and Mr Coxe to have rejected the appellation of travels for their publications, because sir John Mandeville's travels were filled with lies and extravagances?

Miss Edgeworth has made honourable mention of a De Crousaz, an Inchbald, a Burney, and a Moore. Many other persons might have been added to this list, in whom virtue and talents are eminently conspicuous. There are a far greater number, we are sensible, and we have often lamented it, of whose productions nothing can possibly be said in commendation. But what has this to do with other authors? Their books are to be judged by their own merits, not by the merits of either of these different classes. Let a novelist publish his work under the title that best befits it; and the public will determine where is its proper classification. That much error and folly have been disseminated in novels, is an indisputable truth; but we doubt if it will appear so clearly that vice has been equally disseminated, at least intentionally. Folly and error are frequently arbitrary terms. We call that error which dissents from principles received by ourselves as true; and folly is an appellation often bestowed on such conduct as agrees not with the particular notions we have formed of wisdom. The precise limits of virtue and vice are, on the contrary, fixed and unalterable; and a writer must have no ordinary share of imprudence who should attempt, unmasked, to confound their distinctions. [236] Novelists in general we must acquit of this charge; and when any of them are hardy enough to lay themselves open to it, they must expect, in a country whose religion is an exemplar of every thing praise-worthy, to meet with just and, we may venture to say, general contempt. But evil intention we should be sorry to affix to the most imperfect novel-writers. We have no doubt that they introduce defective characters, to render them as contemptible as they know how; and they do not finally make them happy, till they have made them as penitent as they are able. Has not the author of Belinda done the same? We have not frequently met with a personage in whom a portion of vice, far from inconsiderable, is compounded with a greater quantity of folly than in miss Edgeworth's most prominent character - the fashionable lady Delacour.

The heroine of these volumes, miss Belinda Portman, is a young lady of an admirable understanding, and the best regulated frame of mind. Her simple history might have been comprised in almost one hundred pages; and therefore we have, and we think with reason, denominated lady Delacour the most prominent character in the work. Belinda is sent so [sic] her ladyship by her match-making aunt, Mrs Stanhope: she goes from her on a visit to lady Anne Percival; returns to lady Delacour after captivating the heart of a Mr Vincent; and is in the end married to Clarence Hervey, a gentleman of ten thousand a year. Lady Delacour is introduced to us in the third page, and lady Delacour concludes the history. She is not long together out of the reader's sight in any part of the performance; but the first volume is wholly dedicated to her and her haut-ton conversation: in fact, she is the primary planet, and Belinda but a satellite.

Amongst the variety of tribes who inhabit this metropolis, it is not wonderful to find a variety of dialects in use. There is the St Giles's dialect, and the St James's dialect, the dialect of the Royal Exchange, and the dialect of Shadwell-dock - each of which is but imperfectly understood by persons of a different classification, and all of which are removed, at nearly the same distance, from the standard language of the learned, and what we call the well-bred, part of the nation. When miss Edgeworth wrote her five volumes of moral tales, she wrote them in this language of approved standard, and people of taste and learning were pleased with them. In Belinda she has adopted the dialect of the ton; and to those who understand, or affect to like it, we shall leave its panegyric. In our eyes it appears flimsy and impertinent, able by no means to bear that weight of thought which the world knows miss Edgeworth to possess; flying from one subject to another without concluding any; fit only to describe a pig and turkey race, or to display Clarence Hervey's folly, when dressed out in the guise of the countess de Pomenars. In a word, we are sorry to see miss Edgeworth wasting so much of her valuable time, as she must have done, in the company of those from whom she learned it.

The moral intended to be conveyed by the tale is a very useful one - that there is little happiness to be expected from wedlock, without prudence before marriage in the choice of the object; and firmness of mind afterwards, to fulfil with energy and tenderness the various duties arising out of that state. Lady Delacour's want [237] of the latter of these requisites, and miss Portman's possession of the former, bring them forward as examples of the truth of the doctrine. An author cannot possibly do more service to society than by using every occasion, and trying every method, to bring this theory into practice, and to check that romantic folly of first love which daily turns the brain of some young novel-reader. But the matter should be handled with discretion. Miss Edgeworth is sensible that 'the means which are taken to produce certain effects upon the mind may have a tendency directly opposite to what is expected.' Why then does she overstrain the string, and propose a stoic as a pattern? for Belinda is as much a stoic as Zeno. She can love without passion, and transfers her affections from Mr Hervey to Mr Vincent, and from Mr Vincent back again to Mr Hervey, with as much sang froid as she would unhang her cloak from one peg and hang it upon another. All the world have agreed that love is a passion; and, when acting on a proper object, love with enthusiasm is the will of God and nature. With love as her stimulus, the tender female flies into the arms of her husband as pure as the sun-beams: divest her of this enthusiasm, and bid her look on marriage with the eye of reason only, and she will see sexual intercourse as its immediate consequence. Will this, or will it not, decrease her delicacy?

Upon the whole, miss Edgeworth's literary fame is not benefited by the appearance of Belinda. Novel-writing does not seem to us to be her fort [sic]; for after all that she can say or wish to the contrary, the world will call Belinda a very novel, and will rank it with the productions of many a writer whose name does not appear in her advertisement. [complete]

Provided by Julie A. Shaffer, January 2000