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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Austen's world, but wilder and more fun, 5 Jan. 2009
This review is from: Belinda (Oxford World's Classics) (Paperback)
It seems a little bit unfair that Maria Edgeworth's name isn't better known - she's far more readable than any Wollstonecraft treatise. Her 1801 novel "Belinda" is a riot - and a very refreshing counterpoint to the "little piece of ivory" on which Jane Austen was working, in her magical but terribly refined way. Edgeworth's cast of characters is painted on an altogether rougher canvas, and drawn from a very much broader range of `types' of people.

Belinda Portman, one of her "catch-match-maker" aunt's numerous nieces, is sent to London to spend time with Lady Delacour. The aim is to get her married; but the aunt's intended `victims' - being the eligible gentlemen and Belinda herself - have other ideas. The most interesting characters are the wonderfully foolish, but fascinating and witty Lady Delacour; Clarence Hervey - dashing young bachelor living the society life to excess, but capable of so much more if he would only make better use of his time; and Mr Vincent, a wealthy West Indian (see below) who is determined to enjoy all of life, reckless of the consequences. Belinda's contact and her evolving relationship with them forms the backbone of the story.

It's appalling that slavery was so integral to well-off Regency life that it didn't even need to be mentioned. Your wealthy West Indian gentleman (meaning a white or Creole man who lives off the West Indies, rather than a black West Indian) had `negroes', not slaves, on his plantation. He travelled abroad on the security that there would always be `fresh remittances' from the West Indies plantation off which he lived.

Yet Edgeworth did something I have never yet seen in fiction of that period: mixed up white, black and (possibly) mixed race characters in one story. Some stereotypes are still in place, but Juba, the African slave who serves his Creole master, has a voice of his own, and marries a white girl. Irish characters are not ridiculed or despised as in so much fiction contemporary to that period. The list of extraordinary firsts goes on and on. Lady Delacour and her great `friend' Mrs Freke compete - for a time - to be more masculine, dashing and `harum-scarum'. They duel with pistols in men's clothing, and the society world they inhabit seems, to put it mildly, rather daring and scandalous. Not all of Jane Austen's characters would, I suspect, have entirely approved (though I've read that Austen liked it very much). But it sounds quite exciting to my modern ears, in marked contrast to the refined, charming but infinitesimally dull rural occupations of the elegant and intelligent Percivals, Belinda's friends. However, Edgeworth was first and foremost an educator, and her task here, through the somewhat opaque heroine Belinda (whose name may as well be replaced by "Good"), is to make the reader wish for a life like the Percivals' (she almost suceeds, but perhaps not quite!).

Edgeworth prefigures some of what Jane Austen refined so succinctly and lastingly: themes of sense over sensibility, for example, the notion of reason conquering romantic feeling - an important literary theme of the time. But unlike Austen, she had more fun doing it, and, to her lasting credit, she didn't neglect the `little' people who make up ALL of society. Worth a try if Austen's world is just a little too refined for your liking.
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Location: Kent, UK

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