The Female Freke: Crossdressing, the Gothic, and Female Education in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda

Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801) is a curious novel that, despite feeling disjointed in its plot, is perhaps Edgeworth’s greatest, being more fully developed than other works like Castle Rackrent (1800) and The Absentee (1812). It is novel of manners with Gothic elements, much like Fanny Burney’s Camilla (1796) and The Wanderer (1814), and belongs on the same bookshelf as the works of Mrs. Radcliffe, Fanny Burney, Charlotte Smith, and Jane Austen, who refers to the novel in Northanger Abbey. While Belinda is very much a traditional romance novel, detailing how the heroine, Belinda, ends up marrying the hero, Sir Clarence Hervey, after they overcome the obstacles to their relationship, two far more interesting women, Lady Delacour and Harriet Freake, are at its core.

Belinda (1801) by Maria Edgeworth

Belinda Portman is rather a bore to the reader. Her character is not well developed and she has no real adventures. Her only purposes in the novel are to fall in love with Clarence Hervey and reform Lady Delacour. It is Lady Delacour who first brings life to the novel when Belinda is sent by her aunt to stay with her. Lady Delacour introduces Belinda to the world of fashion, including Clarence Hervey, but she also introduces her to her own dysfunctional life. Lord Delacour is a drunk whom Lady Delacour cannot abide. Her thirteen-year-old daughter, Helena, she ignores and shoves off on friends or relatives. She also associates with the wrong people, most notably Harriet Freake. Harriet thinks nothing of behaving in unruly ways, as seen when she instigates events that lead to Lady Delacour fighting a female duel with her great society rival Mrs. Luttridge. Of course, the women dress as men in the process. Neither woman dies in the duel, but the pistol backfires and hurts Lady Delacour’s breast, causing her to be convinced she has cancer. Ultimately, however, everything will be improved for Lady Delacour because the sweet Belinda will reconcile her to her husband and daughter. Unfortunately, her good behavior also brings upon Belinda the wrath of Harriet Freake.

Harriet now befriends Mrs. Luttridge, Lady Delacour’s enemy. She then involves herself in several adventures to harass Belinda and her set. When Belinda learns that Clarence Hervey has another love interest, a young woman named Virginia, she allows Mr. Vincent, a gentleman from the West Indies, to pay court to her. Mr. Vincent has a negro servant, Juba. Harriet shares apartments in the same building as Mr. Vincent, and when a dispute occurs over who has rights to the building’s coach house, Harriet swears she will punish Juba. Juba fears her, referring to her as a “man-woman” and an “obeah-woman” (a West Indian witch). It’s death to mention an obeah-woman so Juba becomes convinced he will die. Soon he is seeing an apparition at night of a woman in flames at the foot of his bed, and he believes this woman will kill him. Belinda, however, realizes the flaming woman is a head drawn in phosphorus by children and that Harriet is playing a trick on him. Because Belinda ruined her fun, Harriet is now out to get revenge on her.

Harriet’s behavior suggests she may be a lesbian. She is not above dressing in men’s clothes. In one scene, she is out shooting with the men. In referring to her past, she remarks upon when she was a “schoolboy.” She also states that when a woman likes a man, she should tell him so, although she makes no professions of love to any man. I suspect she’s just not interested in men, although her forwardness and directness are in keeping with that of literary women who throw themselves at men, such as Lady Olivia in Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison (1753-4), Joanna, Countess of Mar in Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs (1809), and Elinor Joddrel in Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer (1814). (See also my previous blog post “Male Imprisonment and Female Wanderers: Sir Charles Grandison’s Influence on the Gothic Novel.”) Edgeworth is really more daring than these other novels in suggesting Harriet is a lesbian. Not only does Harriet show no interest in men, but she lives with Miss Moreton, a young lady who ran away from home, and who may be Harriet’s lesbian partner; we are told Harriet leads Miss Moreton a rough life, getting her to dress up like a man. Belinda concludes that Harriet is obviously unhappy. However, no analysis is given to the cause of her unhappiness. I suspect it’s because her society has no place for lesbians, and her feelings of rejection by her society result in her anger and meanness. Even Edgeworth is not on Harriet’s side, having given her the name Freke to emphasize to readers what a freak she is.

It is hard to feel any sympathy for Harriet, a woman who uses the supernatural to terrify others. Besides frightening Juba, she plays upon Lady Delacour’s fears. Lady Delacour eventually sees a doctor and learns she does not have cancer, but she does need an operation. She is fearful she might die from the operation and turns to religion. At this point, Harriet decides to dress up like a man whom Lady Delacour previously wronged and appear outside her window to haunt her. Fortunately, she is caught in the act, actually having her leg caught in a trap in the yard and being found by the gardener.

Later, Harriet and Mrs. Luttridge decide to get revenge on Belinda by ruining her engagement to Mr. Vincent. They lure Mr. Vincent into gambling at the Luttridges’ house where the tables are fixed so that he cannot possibly win. Clarence Hervey tries to step in and save Mr. Vincent from ruin, but Mr. Vincent refuses, seeing Clarence as his rival for Belinda’s hand, even though Clarence is planning by this point to marry Virginia. Ruined by gambling, Mr. Vincent attempts to borrow money in secret from a Jew to pay his gambling debts, but when his gambling addiction is revealed, Belinda decides to break off the engagement.

This gambling plot is interesting for several reasons. First, gambling is considered a transgression against God, as I’ve discussed at length in my book The Gothic Wanderer. A long tradition of gamblers appear in Gothic novels, the most notable being Valancourt in Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). His gambling causes Valancourt problems with the novel’s heroine, Emily St. Aubert, but in the end, Emily still marries him. In William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799), the title character also brings his family to ruin through gambling. Edgeworth had Godwin’s novel in mind as evidenced when at the end of Chapter 15 she has Lady Delacour ask Belinda whether she’d rather have rouge or the philosopher’s stone and whether she’s read St. Leon. St. Leon actually acquires the philosopher’s stone in the novel, which is itself a form of gambling since it can turn lead into gold, thus disrupting national economies. Also of interest in Belinda’s gambling plot is how the Jew is a stereotype in the novel, wanting to extort unreasonable interest from Mr. Vincent. This and similar depictions of Jews in Mrs. Edgeworth’s novels resulted in a Jewish-American reader complaining about such depictions, leading to her writing Harrington (1817), perhaps the first novel to contain positive depictions of Jewish characters, predating Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) by two years.

Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) was an English born author who lived in Ireland and created the first Irish regional novels, which ultimately inspired Sir Walter Scott to write his novels.

Although Belinda is now unengaged, her true love, Clarence Hervey, is not. Up to this time, we’ve heard little about his betrothed Virginia, but the end of the novel goes into detail about how Clarence found the orphan Virginia as a child and decided to raise her in the forest and educate her with the view of someday making her his wife. Her name isn’t even really Virginia, but he calls her that as a tribute to Paul et Virginia (1788) by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de St. Pierre.

Virginia grows up respecting Clarence and feeling obligated to love him, but she has seen the picture of a young man whom she believes is a hero, and that is what she grows to want—a hero. She has not been allowed to read novels because novel-reading is what caused her mother to lose her virtue; however, she does grow up reading romances, which distort her understanding of the world, especially since she grows up in isolation save for the woman who cares for her and occasional visits by Clarence. (Edgeworth based this story of a man educating a young woman with the intent to marry her on the real-life story of her father’s friend Thomas Day, the author of Sandford and Merton (1788). Day, inspired by Rousseau’s Emile (1762), raised two young ladies, Sabrina and Lucretia, but Lucretia he decided to discard as not suitable for him. Sabrina he eventually also gave up on ever becoming his wife and she ended up marrying another.)

Lady Delacour, determined that Belinda shall marry Clarence, now steps in to resolve matters by revealing that Virginia does not love Clarence. She does this by showing Virginia a picture behind a curtain. Virginia faints when the picture is revealed. This scene is a play on the horror behind the veil in Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, but with better, if fanciful results. When Virginia faints, Clarence realizes she does not love him but the imaginary hero pictured in the image. Clarence has just recently discovered Virginia’s father is Mr. Hartley, a man who, like Mr. Vincent, has made his fortune in the West Indies. Mr. Hartley now comes forward to reveal to Virginia that the man in the portrait that she found in the forest is none other than Captain Sunderland. The captain had watched her through a telescope and fallen in love with her. He had left behind his portrait for her to find before going to the West Indies, where he saved Mr. Hartley’s life during a slave rebellion. Consequently, he is a hero and worthy of Virginia’s hand.

Clarence is now free to marry Belinda, and everyone lives happily ever after, except Harriet Freake. We are never told what becomes of her, but we are left with the feeling that she will continue to cause trouble. Even though her efforts to appear as an apparition and frighten people in the novel have been unsuccessful, she continues to haunt the reader long after the book is finished. One wishes Edgeworth had written another novel from Harriet’s perspective, but this female Gothic wanderer, even in the eyes of her creator, was unredeemable.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and numerous other books. For more information about Tyler and his books, visit him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com, www.GothicWanderer.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

2 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Literary Criticism

2 responses to “The Female Freke: Crossdressing, the Gothic, and Female Education in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda

  1. ellenandjim

    This is very interesting to me, Tyler: first thanks for the summary of the novel: I’ve never had the patience to read it carefully, always dipping and skimming and staying with the Lady Delacour character whose sensual lesbianism is another aspect of this first (?) lesbian middle class English novel.

    I also found the Harriet portrait so offensive as it is a caricature of Mary Wollstonecraft, and that poor woman was already dead. Burney has a similar caricature: it’s cruel and unfair. But over the past year or so my eyes have been opened to regard as “lesbian” characters or simply real people women who are behaving with intense anger and what seems meanness. According to someone on my WomenWriters list this is a sign of a justifiably writhing lesbian — the person saw this pattern in Vita Sackville-West, in Katherine Mansfield and elsewhere. Well here is the type at the beginning of writing lesbian characters; wrathful, envious. And even in the early 20th century the understanding that would bring in compassion is not put into the books — it is there a little in Tomalin’s life of Mansfield.

    Ellen

    • Thanks for the comment, Ellen, and bringing in Wollstonecraft, who I do not doubt inspired Harriet’s character. I wish some modern novelist would write a book from Harriet’s perspective, but I fear the novel is not well enough known to warrant such a project.

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