The battle between sensibility and reason is not only central to the plot of Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda but is sustained until its very last page. They butt heads quite a few times but most often when the figure of sensibility is represented in the character of Lady Delacour and the figure of reason in the protagonist, Belinda. In this ensuing feud, the language used to describe values of sensibility is associated with wit and entertainment in fashionable society whereas sense is attributed to values of domesticity within upper middle class society. The novel also comments on its status as a novel distinct from the romance genre. Thus, Belinda is referenced as the heroine of the novel, Clarence Hervey as its hero, and Lady Delacour the “woman of great sensibility” (103) whose conversion to the philosophy of reason is representative of the triumph of an ideology that is gaining tractability in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, we see the same battle and triumph of the former ideology over the later.I agree with Terry Robinson’s claim in, “‘Life is a tragicomedy’: Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda and the Staging of the Realist Novel,” that Edgeworth lays the foundation for a genre in novel-writing that significantly influences later authors such as Jane Austen and Walter Scott (142).
Belinda, compared to other characters, quickly appropriates the values of prudent conduct after observing Lady Delacour’s mistake in neglecting her domestic duties. Lady Delacour not only cares little for domesticity but she insists on overpowering her husband. The counterparts and better examples of martial bliss are Mr. and Mrs. Percival as in their family there is “no discordance of temper or struggle for power” (215). Mr. and Mrs. Percival embody the state of martial harmony for they are companions and not competitors. Thus, Mr. Percival does not have to resort to the company of his own sex because his wife possesses as “much accurate knowledge, and …taste for literature” (216) as he does. Furthermore, they are also model parents. Edgeworth is making a statement about children’s education in the example of the Percival family. Belinda notices something unconventional is the way they educate their children. She hears no voice of instruction that lectures and directs the students, instead, they are independent. Because of their father, who is a man of “science and literature,” they cultivate a “taste for knowledge” (216). He is instructive but also “interesting.” In Belinda, there is an appeal made to making learning fun, an activity supplemented by “literary allusions” that will allow its participants to stay engaged.
The value of domesticity over sensibility, practiced by fashionable society, is one the narrator also offers its readers. The narrative often comments on its status as a novel in comparison to other genres. The war between sensibility and reason can be translated to one between romances and novel of manners for the former is presented as dangerously sentimental and the latter as socially valuable. Characters like Virginia adopt unrealistic notions about love that are too much based on sentiment and feeling because she reads too many romances. “Unjust novel writers,” as Mr. Percival maintains, give too much credence to the “omnipotent power of a first love” ( 274), a theme often glorified in romances. Edgeworth offers readers a guide to fulfilling domestic harmony in outlining how men and women should judge love, namely as a way to obtain suitable husbands/wives. She does this while addressing her readers’ disbelief of Belinda’s special preference for domesticity over fashionable society:
She had not been at Oakly-park a week, before she forgot that it was within a few miles of Harrowgate, and she never once recollected her vicinity to this fashionable water-drinking place for a month afterward. ‘Impossible!’ some young ladies will exclaim. We hope others will feel, that it was perfectly natural.
It is not only characters like Lady Delacour that must be converted to the ideology of domesticity but also readers. Edgeworth is adopting a value system that is gaining currency and that will attract a wider audience of middle upper class status.
In defining the criteria for marriagbility, Mr. Percival outlines the characteristics a gentleman should seek in a wife. Mr. Vincent, when first introduced to Belinda, has a bias for Creole women and describes them as possessing exceptional delicacy. Mr. Percival rejects this quality as representing model femininity. He tells Mr. Vincent that he finds Creole women “indolent” because they have failed to “cultivate their minds” (233). Mr. Vincent responds by making an appeal to the relative values of their respective cultures but Mr. Percival admonishes that he has “left reason quite out of the question” (233), convincing Mr. Vincent of his folly. In the example of Mr. Vincent, it is difficult to access Edgeworth’s position on domesticity because, under the influence of an authoritative European guide, Mr. Percival, Mr. Vincent finds himself becoming overburdened and suicidal. He experiences an identity crisis in failing to appropriate the dominant, rising culture of sense, perceiving himself in terms of the savage other.
An insertion of figure that is a product of colonialism interrupts the general progression of domesticity. Mr. Vincent crumbles under the pressure of such a European ideology as feels a slave to a culture that reminds him of the inferiority of his roots – of his inherent inability to assimilate due to his origins. In the figure of Belinda, it is evident where Edgeworth stands in the feud between sense and sensibility. Additionally, other characters such as Lady Delacour and Mr. and Mrs. Percival, also choose a side in this feud. Mr. Vincent’s story, however, disrupts the narrative’s progression toward the triumph of domesticity over sensibility. In the concluding pages, a picture of domestic harmony is presented to the reader without Mr. Vincent – this becomes a telling portrait that displays closed borders to race but not class.