Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Reading Journal: "Belinda"

Rhoda Broughton, Belinda. Originally published in 1883 in Great Britain. Reprinted by Virago Modern Classics in 1984.

"All my energy was directed upon one end," Professor Mark Pattison writes in his memoirs, "—to improve myself, to form my own mind, to sound things thoroughly, to free myself from the bondage of unreason, and the traditional prejudices which, when I first began to think, constituted the whole of my intellectual fabric. I have nothing beyond trivial personalities to tell in the way of incident. If there is anything of interest in my story, it is as a story of mental development."

Pattison, the Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford, devoted his life to scholarship. His major work was a biography of the late sixteenth-century classical scholar Isaac Casaubon, and it is as the putative model for another Casaubon—Mr. Edward Casaubon in George Eliot's Middlemarch—that Pattison is remembered today. Although the identification of Pattison with Eliot's Casaubon is disputed, Pattison was indisputably the model for Professor Forth, the dull, irritable "Professor of Etruscan" in Rhoda Broughton's Belinda. The unflattering likeness was so widely acknowledged that Pattison himself, on a visit to Broughton's home in Oxford, had himself announced as "Professor Forth."

The novel begins in Dresden in the spring. Belinda Churchill and her spirited, dog-loving younger sister Sarah are on holiday with their grandmother. While Sarah avidly collects beaux as if they were Dresden figurines, Belinda falls for the young English student David Rivers. Unfortunately, Belinda's shyness and insecurity make her appear cold, and Rivers fails to press his suit. The couple is parted, and Belinda, believing she has lost her true love forever, resigns herself to a loveless marriage with Professor Forth, who proceeds to suck every ounce of joy from her life.

Then Rivers reappears, still ardent and unattached. These days, Belinda would feel little hesitation about writing off her mistake and leaving the Professor. But in late Victorian England, she finds herself in a bind. Although Broughton's novel is a shocking depiction of the soul-crushing tyranny of a bad Victorian marriage, it's difficult to warm to Belinda. Her beautiful cold exterior masks a rather foolish and rather shallow interior that easily fills up with bitterness and self-pity. Even her relationship with Rivers fails to generate enough of a spark to thaw Belinda. Her reserve freezes her out of her own life.

Belinda's husband is a monster—but so, in some way, is each of the characters: the flirtatious Sarah, the self-absorbed Mrs. Churchill, the tactless Miss Watson. Broughton creates a world in which the seeds of sympathy fall upon barren ground.

Professor Forth's major contribution to scholarship is an edition of the fragments of Menander. He is Professor of Etruscan, a language that exists only in a few scattered fragments and loan words. With the professor, Belinda is only able to find fragments of happiness, and Broughton seems to imply that such is life.

After she had posted a copy of her wedding announcement to Rivers, Belinda sits down to read to her husband. Curiously, the passage she reads to him is from Darwin: "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous successive slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case. No doubt many organs exist of which we do not know the transitional grades."

There is growth and change and survival. There is something that connects the apparent fragments of life, but poor Belinda cannot find it. She falteringly reads the passage to her husband, he asks her to repeat it ("pray repeat that last paragraph; I am unable to follow you; you are making nonsense of it!'), and she faints.

1 comment:

Louise said...

Have checked my tea stained, pencil marked, crumpled VMC list. Regretfully do NOT have a copy of Belinda. Off to put it at top of to be acquired list!

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