Mrs. Stanhope, a well-bred woman, accomplished in that branch of knowledge which is called the art of rising in the world, had, with but a small fortune, contrived to live in the highest company. She prided herself upon having established half a dozen nieces most happily, that is to say, upon having married them to men of fortunes far superior to their own. One niece still remained unmarried—Belinda Portman, of whom she was determined to get rid with all convenient expedition. Belinda was handsome, graceful, sprightly, and highly accomplished; her aunt had endeavoured to teach her that a young lady’s chief business is to please in society, that all her charms and accomplishments should be invariably subservient to one grand object—the establishing herself in the world:
“For this, hands, lips, and eyes were put to school,
And each instructed feature had its rule.”
Mrs. Stanhope did not find Belinda such a docile pupil as her other nieces, for she had been educated chiefly in the country; she had early been inspired with a taste for domestic pleasures; she was fond of reading, and disposed to conduct herself with prudence and integrity. Her character, however, was yet to be developed by circumstances.
Summary: Belinda is a young woman who lives with her aunt, Mrs. Stanhope, who as a woman of the world prides herself on being a 'catch-matchmaker', having set up all her other nieces with very nicely lucrative marriages. She sends Belinda to the lively and witty Lady Delacour so that she can get a better sense of the world. The association with Mrs. Stanhope, however, will cause her some problems; everyone assumes that Belinda is herself a worldly girl out to seize some money-laden bachelor with money, including the handsome and somewhat frivolous Clarence Hervey, who otherwise gets along well with her. She discovers very quickly that Lady Delacour's marriage is less than ideal, with both Lady Delacour and Lord Delacour constantly engaged in a kind of petty warfare with each other, and that Lady Delacour herself, despite being friendly and charming, often stretches the bounds of propriety with her friend Mrs. Freke (who likes dressing up as a man and doing shocking things for no other reason than that it is a "frolic" and bit of fun). It takes a bit longer for Belinda to discover a more serious secret: Lady Delacour is so frivolous and even superficial in her ways because she is hiding the fact that she is dying from cancer, and she would rather go out mocking the world than being pitied by it. Due to gossip, both malicious and unthinking, Belinda is several times suspected of rather seriously bad things by Hervey, by Lady Delacour, and by others, and will have to protect her reputation, and perhaps win through to a marriage that whether or not it is a good marriage in Stanhope terms, will be one that is genuinely good.
Just summarizing the plot makes it sound like the heart of the story is the potential romance between Belinda and Hervey, but in fact the novel is a story about the friendship between Belinda and Lady Delacour, two very different people who like each other and -- slowly, and occasionally with difficulty -- learn how to do each other the best good. While Hervey and other episodes take up quite a bit of the book, they are all occasions for the development of their friendship. A great deal of the work can be read as revolving around the theme of how our relationships with others are a considerable part of how good we are and how good are lives can be. Belinda and Lady Delacour both grow through their friendship, of course. In some ways the marriage between Lord and Lady Delacour is an even better example. They don't hate each other; they've just both, through foolishness and pride, descended into a cycle of pettiness. When, through Belinda's help, they reconcile, things change considerably. The exact same people, with the same strengths and weaknesses, the same decencies and flaws, are infinitely better in a healthy marriage, which amplifies their strengths, than they were in a degenerating one, which amplified their flaws. And I think that's very much it: our friendships, our marriages, even at times our relationships of mere acquaintance, take what we are and amplify either the good or the bad in us, sometimes subtly and sometimes in ways that make a vast difference.
Favorite Passage: Mrs. Freke conversing with Belinda:
“You read, I see!—I did not know you were a reading girl. So was I once; but I never read now. Books only spoil the originality of genius: very well for those who can’t think for themselves—but when one has made up one’s opinion, there is no use in reading.”
“But to make them up,” replied Belinda, “may it not be useful?”
“Of no use upon earth to minds of a certain class. You, who can think for yourself, should never read.”
“But I read that I may think for myself.”
“Only ruin your understanding, trust me. Books are full of trash—nonsense, conversation is worth all the books in the world.”
“And is there never any nonsense in conversation?”
“What have you here?” continued Mrs. Freke, who did not choose to attend to this question; exclaiming, as she reviewed each of the books on the table in their turns, in the summary language of presumptuous ignorance, “Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments—milk and water! Moore’s Travels—hasty pudding! La Bruyère—nettle porridge! This is what you were at when I came in, was it not?” said she, taking up a book in which she saw Belinda’s mark: “Against Inconsistency in our Expectations. Poor thing! who bored you with this task?”
Recommendation: Highly Recommended.