Okay, so pretty early on, Belinda discovers at a masquerade that all the men think she’s a coquette trained by her aunt to snag a rich husband. Embarrassing. Then things start getting awesome. She begins to realize that Lady Delacour is unhappy, and Lady D admits she’s dying; she promises to give Belinda her history, or “The Life and Opinions of a Lady of Quality, related by Herself” (and how great is that? Edgeworth is on fire with this metatextuality shit), but first takes her upstairs to “the mysterious cabinet”:
“She then, with a species of fury, wiped the paint from her face, and returning to Belinda, held the candle so as to throw the light full upon her livid features. Her eyes were sunk, her cheeks hollow—no trace of youth or beauty remained on her deathlike countenance, which formed a horrid contrast with her gay fantastic dress. ‘You are shocked, Belinda,’ said she, but as yet you have seen nothing—look here—‘ and baring one half of her bosom, she revealed a hideous spectacle.”
Say what you want about this novel (it’s cool; Maria Edgeworth’s totally dead, she won’t mind), but Belinda has 100% more Gothic tits than any other book you’ll read this week.
It’s also great because everyone keeps thinking the mysterious cabinet is like a sexy room, and the book is full of these weird conflations between the medicalization and sexual objectification of the female body, as well as things going with the danger of female secrecy vs. male examination, which are totally fascinating.
So, she gives the history of her dissipation, and her dealings with Harriet Freke (yep), who cross-dresses, and Colonel Lawless (yeeep), and her duel in men’s clothes with Mrs. Luttridge, who kind of steals her husband, or at least his attention (more like Sluttridge, amirite ladies?), and how the duel caused her breast cancer (it’s, well, you know, the eighteenth century)(oh and also that’s what happens to female bodies when they transgress gender norms, you know). Whew! Clarence Hervey saves the women during the duel scene (long story, involves pigs), and Delacour says, “The only thing I had to console me for all this, was Clarence Hervey’s opinion, that I looked better in man’s clothes, than my friend Harriet Freke.” And how fucking great is that?
Meanwhile, we get this scene: Belinda is with Lady Delacour and Clarence Hervey when, discussing awkward women walking in hoop skirts, Clarence claims “he could manage a hoop as well as any woman in England, except Lady Delacour.” An older woman is just arriving to visit, so to win the bet, Clarence goes upstairs to change and reappears as Madame de Pomenars, and “really made his entrée with very composed assurance and grace.” So much drag.
Then they start talking hair, and:
“as she spoke, lady Delacour, before Belinda was aware of her intentions, dextrously let down her [Belinda’s] beautiful tresses—and the countess de Pomenars was so much struck at the sight, that she was incapable of paying the necessary compliments. ‘Nay, touch it,’ said lady Delacour, ‘it is so fine and so soft.’” (76)
HOT, YOU GUYS, THAT IS SO HOT. My marginalia for this page: “hot! !!!” My favorite thing is that even though both these women know the countess is Clarence, Maria wrote “she.”
There’s this thing you see a lot in anime—not that I’m a big anime person, though I did use to be really into ‘Naruto,’ don’t judge—where a dude will see a sexy lady and have a sudden nosebleed of horniness. Let me demonstrate with this clip from ‘Girls High’ (LISTEN IT WAS ON NETFLIX STREAMING A FEW YEARS AGO WHEN THERE WASN’T THAT MUCH ON NETFLIX STREAMING OKAY STOP JUDGING ME):
There are a lot of moments where I imagine Clarence having a violent nosebleed. This is one of them.
Anyhow, Belinda and Clarence decide to reform Lady Delacour particularly through friendship with wise Dr. X–, who is not Dr. Xavier from the X-Men, but you can pretend that he is, if you want. Also through friendship with Lady Anne Percival, who is all sweetness and light and babies, and got the man Delacour wanted first so you can imagine how well that’s going to go. Meanwhile, Lady Delacour intends to keep Clarence as her public admirer until she dies, which she thinks will be in the next few months, and then hand him off to Belinda for marriage. BUT! BUT THEN! She begins to think that Belinda is trying to seduce Lord Delacour into marrying her after Lady Delacour’s death! J’accuse! Belinda puts up with it for a while and then leaves her to go stay with Lady Anne Percival, who btw is sort of raising Lady Delacour’s daughter. !!!
I’m not giving Harriet Freke her due here partly because I don’t want to spoil it for you. She’s fantastic and awful and it’s awful that she’s awful, but the Oxford Intro argues that you have to read her in the context of being the manly woman monster that antifeminists feared, rather than as an expression of Edgeworth’s antifeminism, and I agree, though OF COURSE that’s still really binarist and heteronormative and I don’t mean to downplay that. (If you’re wondering if there are erotic overtones between Delacour and Freke then I would say you are correct, sir or madam, especially when Delacour gets all freaked out (no pun intended) by Freke’s manly arms shoved in her coach window, just sayin’.) Oh and also, Freke at one point argues with Mr. Percival and he says, “Fortunately for society, the same conduct in ladies which best secures their happiness most increases ours,” and I know you can read that in Wollstonecraftian context promoting women’s education BUT I just think it’s so DREAMY when he says it. Really, it doesn’t make me want to throw up AT ALL.
Yeah, but what I’m trying to say is that this book is way weirder and better than you’d expect from that stupid dress-booty cover or the wiki synopsis that says “it deals with love, courtship, and marriage.” You can kind of see now why, when Jane Austen sent her a copy of Emma, Edgeworth wrote to her half-brother that, “There is no story in it, except that Miss Emma found that the man whom she designed for Harriet’s lover was an admirer of her own–& he was affronted at being refused by Emma & Harriet wore the willow–and smooth, thin water-gruel is according to Emma’s father’s opinion a very good thing & it is very difficult to make a cook understand what you mean by smooth, thin water-gruel.”*
*(I mean, I’m just kidding; I love Jane Austen. But that quote is too good to pass up. SICK BURN!)