Lessons from Literary Heroines: Belinda Portman - Verily

After reading (and re-reading) Jane Austen’s novels to death, I decided to do a little digging back in time and to read books by the authors who inspired her work. First, I stumbled on Fanny Burney’s Cecilia, Camilla, and Evelina (read all about my love affair with her books here).Then I discovered Maria Edgeworth, who wrote novels such as Belinda, Castle Rackrent, and The Absentee. Austen herself pays homage to Edgeworth’s Belinda in a rousing defense of the novel as a literary form in her earliest completed novel Northanger Abbey:

“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 effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.

Edgeworth’s 1801 novel Belinda tells the delightfully comical story of a 17-year-old girl named Belinda Portman, who is brought up by her opportunistic “catch-match-maker” aunt Mrs. Stanhope. The novel opens when she is sent to live as a companion to the wealthy, witty, and eccentric Lady Delacour.

On its surface, Belinda is the quintessential courtship novel of the Georgian era, but more than that, it is the coming-of-age story of a young woman as she navigates fashionable society. Rather than become corrupted by its superficiality, she increases in virtue and self-conviction, and in the end, helps those around her return to what matters most. It is a story about thinking you know someone’s character and then really getting to know someone’s character.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading this novel yet, I highly recommend it. But if you need further convincing, here are just some of the lessons I learned from one of my new favorite literary heroines.

01. Always look deeper into a person’s heart before condemning them.

In a time when judgment was easy and criticism was quick, Belinda sees the best in others and refuses to make assumptions based on people’s reputations. When she meets Lady Delacour, she finds a woman who is adored by the superficial and condemned by the morally righteous. Instead of picking one of these two extremes, Belinda decides to develop her own opinion of her. She takes the time to truly get to know her older friend’s heart, finding that at the root of her superficiality and over-the-top gaiety is profound loneliness, guilt, and fear. The author writes: “At a distance, Lady Delacour had appeared to Miss Portman the happiest person in the world; upon a nearer view, she discovered that her ladyship was one of the most miserable of human beings.” Belinda discovers that a faulty self-diagnosis of terminal breast cancer resulted in paranoia and self-inflicted isolation, and eventually she convinces Lady Delacour to seek medical help and confide in her family.

In the relationship that blossoms between Belinda and Lady Delacour, we see the power of female friendship. In an emotionally supportive environment, Lady Delacour is able to grow and heal in ways she hasn’t been able to in years, and Belinda helps her reform the behaviors that had led her into a life of misery. In a similar way, when Belinda meets Lord Delacour, she is confronted with a boorish alcoholic who is fed up with what he views as his wife’s manipulations. Belinda sees past his wounded ego, and when she shows him kindness, he softens before her eyes and becomes more like the man her friend married all those years ago. Belinda helps strengthen their estranged marriage, and by the end of the novel has successfully reconciled them with their daughter as well.

However, unlike some romantic heroines who cast their own needs aside in their selfless quest to help others, Belinda does not allow herself to be abused. She makes allowances for others in moderation. When Lady Delacour falls victim to raging jealousy and misinterprets Belinda’s faithful companionship to her and her husband as a ploy to place herself as his next wife after Lady Delacour’s death, Belinda is shocked and insulted. She immediately leaves the Delacour household and temporarily lives with her acquaintances, the respectable and kind Percival family, who are a striking foil to the fashionable Delacours. There, she observes domestic bliss and a marriage built on mutual respect. She misses her old friend dearly, but knows that she cannot allow herself to be mistreated, and through this decisive action, she stands up for herself. Belinda’s forgiving nature in the end allows her to give Lady Delacour a second chance, but only after receiving a heartfelt apology.

02. Stick to your convictions and forge your own path.

Belinda’s aunt, Mrs. Stanhope, would have led her into a miserable match purely based on wealth and status, but over the course of the novel, Belinda learns to forge her own path forward instead. When she first arrives in fashionable London society, Belinda discovers that the reputation of her aunt as a matchmaker precedes her, and she feels the stigma of her aunt’s ways. Belinda becomes a social pariah as gossip circulates, and young men try to keep away from her and protect their wallets, knowing that her aunt had already “established half a dozen nieces most happily, that is to say, upon having married them to men of fortunes superior to their own.”

She becomes repulsed by her aunt’s methods, with which she becomes familiar through the instructive letters she receives in the mail, and is determined to make it clear that she is not what everyone thinks. Throughout the novel, Belinda follows her own convictions, and slowly, her reputation changes as it becomes evident to everyone that this Stanhope niece is not like the others. Instead, she is a young woman of great virtue and integrity.

At the risk of offending others by rejecting their instructions, and going against social norms and thereby insulting her elders, Belinda follows her own beliefs, and in the end inspires those around her by living as an example of honesty and independence. However, she is still open to hearing the advice of the women who try to persuade her towards one suitor or another—at first, her aunt Mrs. Stanhope, and later, Lady Delacour and Lady Percival—weighing each of their opinions. But ultimately, she comes to her own decisions. She finds a balance between hearing others’ advice and following her own beliefs. She is open to growth and receiving insight. This ability to both welcome the potential wisdom of others while remaining true to oneself is a useful strength to cultivate, especially today, when everyone’s opinions are constantly at our fingertips, threatening to overwhelm our own convictions.

03. Take time to discern love and marriage.

This is no love-at-first-sight-and-happily-ever-after tale. For Belinda, her journey towards finding the right match is one of patience and prudence—she would rather grow old as a spinster than marry the wrong man. She refuses to settle for anyone she does not feel both affection and esteem for, knowing that she could only bind herself with someone who she respected and who was her equal. Instead of jumping into a romantic entanglement right away, she takes time to get to know the fashionable and socially exalted Clarence Hervey, the romantic hero of the novel, who is at first too “smitten with the desire of being thought superior in every thing, and of being the most admired person in all companies” to be trusted fully by Belinda, a woman of strong self-conviction.

Lady Percival’s wise words sum up the trials and tribulations of courtship during this era:

“In the slight and frivolous intercourse, which fashionable belles usually have with those fashionable beaux who call themselves their lovers, it is surprising that they can discover any thing of each other’s real character. Indeed they seldom do; and this probably is the cause why there are so many unsuitable and unhappy marriages. A woman who has an opportunity of seeing her lover in private society, in domestic life, has infinite advantages; for if she has any sense, and he has any sincerity, the real character of both may perhaps be developed.”

Despite the urgings of those around her to declare her attachment and put herself forward to secure Hervey’s affection, when she realizes that she may be developing feelings for this flighty man who is only paying inconsistent attention to her, she is wary and prudently guards her heart, trying to remove herself from a situation in which she could get hurt (or, since this is Georgian society, her reputation could be harmed).

Likewise, while she is with the Percivals, they encourage her to accept the courtship of their ward Mr. Vincent, a handsome man from the West Indies. He is wealthy and flattering and kind, and available in a way that Hervey has not been. However, Belinda is careful not to lead him on, and promises that though she will spend time with Vincent to get to know him better, she is not making any promises. She approaches marriage with a sense of calm moderation, not rushing into anything but also not completely closing herself off from developing romantic feelings.

Over the course of the novel, Belinda watches Hervey’s emotional growth, and as they get to know one another in a more private setting, they bond over the shared project of bettering the lives of their mutual friends the Delacours, and they ultimately inspire one another to become better people. It is only then that she comes to see him as the right man for her.

Despite the separation of more than two centuries, the lessons we can glean from this literary heroine are timeless. Seeing the best in others, staying true to our own convictions, and patiently discerning the right path for ourselves are always virtues that we can hope to emulate, and for that, Belinda Portman is a source of inspiration.