What I would like to do in this post is compare Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility by examining their treatment of first and second loves. Edgeworth narrates the reformation her hero and heroine undergo before they are united as lovers, one that acculturates them to the discourse of sense/prudence. Austen also relies on a transformation but it is one that is enforced by experience rather than by self-reflection and understanding. Marianne, for instance, must experience the tragic loss of a first love before she changes – her sister, Elinor, is primarily rewarded for her consistency in marrying a first love. As Marianne imprudently chooses the wrong type – a type unsuitable to be a husband in upholding domestic harmony – she is punished for her choice, and eventually, marries a man that is as old her mother. Belinda is also rewarded for her consistency and sense as she escapes a potentially crippling engagement with the creole character, Mr. Vincent, and marries her first choice, the genius Clarence Hervey.
One of the qualities that makes Colonel Brandon a better choice over Willoughby is his open-mindedness, which is the product of an experienced and traveled mind who has also “read” (39). To Marianne and Willoughby, he is too dull, but to people of sense, such as Elinor, he is a person who deserves their praise rather than their ridicule. His ostensible insipidity is not a innate attribute but one that is the cause of suffering and the loss of a first love. Colonel Brandon also loses a first love who he describes as like Marianne in her “eagerness of fancy and spirits” (153). Such a love does not survive in the novel as it too much like the love between Marianne and Willoughby – too much influenced by errors of sentimental and imprudent attachment. Like Marianne, Colonel Brandon has long ago been reformed by experience, and when Marianne undergoes this same hardship, they can unite in domestic harmony. It seems that those who lose a first love are better suited for marriage to those people have experienced the same loss. In Marianne’s case, the loss has reformed her and her unrelenting regard for the culture of sensibility. In Colonel Brandon’s case, though the loss has been suffered by circumstance and not conduct, he is rewarded with a wife that is a reformed version of his first love.
Though Elinor does not experience the loss of a first love, Edward has had a previous attachment with the disagreeable Lucy, a character who functions as a counterpart to Elinor. However, Edward tells Elinor that he was never in love with Lucy but just passing time. He was educated by his uncle at nineteen and had nothing better to do but entertain Lucy’s affection. This experience removes him from the narrative configuration Austen is constructing, of marriages resulting from the loss of a first love. Moreover, Edward feels neither remorse nor heartache after quitting Lucy. Thus, an attachment between characters of sensibility must be either be interrupted by circumstance or by reformation but cannot result in harmonious marriage. It is this reason that the marriage between Lady Delacour and Lord Delacour is unsuccessful as Lady Delacour is a woman of sensibility who is too engrossed in fashionable society to nurture domesticity. As Lord Delacour is not a man of sense, he’s an alcoholic, it is up to Lady Delacour to reform, adopt of the culture of domesticity, and save her marriage.
If the correct tastes are alike, of prudence and restraint, between two characters, such as Elinor and Edward, then marriage is a natural outcome of the unification of such ideas between woman and man. If, on the other hand, incorrect tastes are alike, such as between Marianne and Willoughby, then marriage is impossible as individuals of sensibility will breed more sensibility, particularly when they have children. Hence, the Percivals are the exemplars of the domestic family as such a family is the result of marriage cultivated by the culture of sense.
Compared to Edgeworth, Austen seems to be more conservative for one of her aims in writing is to promote national ideas – ideas that a nation distinguishable from others in its strict adherence to the culture of sense, propriety, and reason. Had Colonel Brandon been like Mr. Vincent, he wouldn’t have married the heroine of the novel. Even though Mr. Vincent is a gentleman and property-owner, he is simply not British enough. It is not only the loss of a first love that makes Colonel Brandon a better husband for Marianne but also the fact that Colonel Brandon is a respectable figure of the British Military, a man who has undertaken the mission of expanding the empire in the East Indies, and thus deserves Marianne as a reward for his service, even, unlike Mr. Vincent. Edgeworth problematizes this conflict in the novel – of the colonial gentleman – by making Mr. Vincent a sympathetic character, but Austen, in Sense and Sensibility at least, is more conservative and strategic in uniting first and second loves.