“A woman’s soul is such a small room”, you write at some point in your novel Belinda (1883). You will trap your eponymous protagonist in such a room, as you will trap her inside herself, and she will bang her heart hard against her cage bars – thwarted love, bad luck, hurt pride, and the overall claustrophobia of a society where marriage for convenience is a woman’s only accepted vocation.
You will trap your eponymous protagonist in such a room, and you will do it with pleasure and a strange sense of humour – as if your eyes were dry and you were laughing at everything that lies outside this cage you borrowed for Belinda from the world outside your book.
We are in Dresden, sometime in the 1880s, it’s spring, and Belinda Churchill and her sister Sarah are on holiday with their grandmother. Sarah is about to ditch her seventh consecutive fiancé, Professor Forth, while Belinda has just fallen in love with a young ‘Oxbridge’ student, David Rivers.
We follow them in a series of darkly humorous scenes, as Belinda gets frequently misunderstood by her beaux; Sarah ends up “almost engaged to three men“; and both try (in vain) to evade the insisting meddling of the local gossip, Miss Watson. The characterisation, dialogue, and comic timing in this novel are a sheer delight: you always have the right word at the right moment, and no character is perfect. All are full of contradictions and, precisely for that reason, they make themselves strangely endearing to us.
Sarah is a man-eater with a gift for flirting: full of the thrill of the hunt, she avidly collects (and readily discards) one admirer after another. Belinda is her exact opposite: a shy, reserved girl who is always sending the wrong signals to men. Miss Watson, on the other hand, is like a rhino in a china shop, with a gift to tactlessly invite herself to lunch and to barge in at the most inappropriate moments. Mr. Forth, a pedant scholar whose stale research has been read “by no less than three people”, thinks of himself as a man occupied by the most abstract realms of thought, but is in fact so petty as to hide the bacon in the cupboard lest his servants steal it. The girls’ grandmother, Mrs. Churchill, is a self-absorbed old lady with a penchant for slightly distorting her sense of duty, so as to fit her convenience and salve her own conscience.
When the awkward flirting between Belinda and David starts, we know we are in for a treat. They are frequently misunderstanding each other’s silences and advances: all the other characters seem to know more about their mutual affection than the two lovebirds themselves. There is also an underlying sensuality in their smallest gestures, as in the scene when Rivers runs his lips over the palm of Belinda’s hand. Their courting alone makes for a strange page-turner: even when nothing concrete happens, each chapter is rich with tension and thwarted expectations, so that we are often left with clever cliff-hangers from one section to the next.
Particularly interesting is your exploration of Belinda’s psychology, as she battles her chronic shyness, her insecurity, her inability to express herself, and her unshakable pride. The fact that the novel is narrated through short sentences in the present-tense draws us deep into each of the characters’ immediate thought processes – and, particularly in Belinda’s case, this narrative choice manages to deliver, from inside out, one of the best explorations of introversion and shyness I’ve read in fiction, as well as an exploration of the different ways shyness is often misunderstood by others. “How is it that her heart is so burning hot and her words so icy cold?”
As in all great comedies, we cannot help but sense an unmitigated pessimism running underneath the novel’s comic vein – and perhaps this is also what makes for such a layered reading experience. When Rivers is suddenly called back to England, Belinda is caught in a web of miscommunication and, pressed by her grandmother, she ends up making a hasty decision that will slightly remind us of George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-72).
However, our Belinda is far from sharing Dorothea’s idealism: quite on the contrary, she resigns herself to a loveless marriage to a dull Professor, as an escape route not only from the dependence on her grandmother, but also from her thwarted love. In an oddly funny scene that manages to also be deeply tragic, she makes it very clear to her fiancé that she does not love him and never will – and that, in deciding to marry him, she is merely seeking the comfort provided by the pursuit of knowledge, with a husband as her guide, as a form of distraction from sadness. More than anything, her marriage acceptance resembles a death wish – and the fact that you manage to mix in some comic elements and an Austen-esque touch only makes it all the more unsettlingly, uncanny even.
As it turns out, by distracting her from sadness, this decision will distract her from life – or, at least, from everything that is worth in life. Any time soon, David Rivers will suddenly reappear like an awkward, broken-winded Phoenix, and Belinda will be brought to the edge of infidelity – whereby you will briefly explore the dilemmas faced by a woman who, having fallen out of herself, is now on the verge of falling out of Victorian society as well.
Yours is a merciless portrait of a woman trapped in a bad marriage, with nowhere to go, and full of bitterness and self-pity – but a portrait told with a disenchanted, wry sense of humour. Whether Belinda is trapped from the outside or from the inside, we will never quite know for sure. Is there any difference? And where are we to draw the line if the walls keep moving and pressing in?
“Must I always be an angel, or a goddess?” If anyone knew how sick I am of being a goddess! I declare I should be thankful to be called a Fury, or even a Ghoul, for a change!” – Rhoda Broughton, Belinda