In the course of Edgeworth’s 1801 novel Belinda, the fashionable Lady Delacour suffers from sexual, physical and mental health problems caused, in part, by her dissipated London lifestyle. First, she becomes entangled in the pseudo-feminist Harriet Freke’s homoerotic desires, cross-dressing, engaging in political campaigns, and fighting a duel with her female rival, Mrs Luttridge, which results in a self-inflicted wound to her breast. Because she disguises this wound, and consults a trendy quack doctor, Lady Delacour’s health declines throughout the novel to the point of death. Poorly prepared for her seemingly imminent demise, Lady Delacour turns in desperation to Methodism, causing delusions exploited by her one-time friend, Freke.
The original plan of Edgeworth’s novel climaxes in Lady Delacour’s tragic death, providing a somewhat clichéd conclusion to a standard anti-fashion satire. Her survival, rehabilitation and, indeed, triumph in the published novel causes havoc with Edgeworth’s moralistic framework. Lady Delacour’s redress hinges on her overt questioning of the healthiness of the female body, the naturalness of her position as wife and mother, and, in a startlingly metatextual manoeuvre, the marriage plot of the eighteenth-century novel itself, revealing each to be fashionable constructs. Lady Delacour orchestrates the final scene of the novel, challenging both characters and readers with her final words, ‘Our tale contains a moral, and no doubt, / You all have wit enough to find it out.’ If the novel does contain a moral, I argue, it is a vindication of the rights of women to be just such fashionable constructs which Edgeworth reveals them, and men, and marriages, and novels, to be.
|Title of host publication||Picturing Women’s Health|
|Editors||F M Scott, Kate Scarth, Ji-Won Chung|
|Place of Publication||London|
|Publisher||Pickering & Chatto|
|Number of pages||208|
|Publication status||Published - 2014|
|Name||Warwick Series in the Humanities|