‘The cambrick handkerchief sensibility’: Re-figuring Sentiment and fashion in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda

  • Jennie Batchelor


During the 1780s and 1790s the literature of sensibility and the woman of feeling it reified increasingly came under attack from critics who argued that the fine line between virtue (affect) and its mere performance (affectation) had blurred to the point of obscurity. The assault on sentimental literature during these decades was the product of a complex conflagration of social, political and literary concerns which cohered in response to the French Revolution, but it was not without precedent. As the backlash against Pamela suggests, and this book has argued throughout, sentiment and sensibility had always been subject to intense scrutiny and debate.1 Nevertheless, the intensification and politicisation of these debates in the 1790s irrevocably tainted the literary mode in a way in which earlier criticism had not.


Public Image Diseased Breast Moral Legibility Patriarchal Family Literary Mode 
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  1. 1.
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    Recently, such readings have been challenged by Jordana Rosenberg, who argues that the ‘struggle between the seductions of the social and the superiority of the domestic’ is problematised by the fact that ‘the seduction is proven to have been a sham all along’ and by Belinda’s complicity with the fictions she is supposed to debunk. The fact that Belinda is also taken in by Lady Delacour’s illness signals for Rosenberg the limits of the heroine’s rationality and the bourgeois ideology she is supposed to embody. Jordana Rosenberg, ‘The Bosom of the Bourgeoisie: Edgeworth’s Belinda’, ELH, 70: 2 (2003), pp. 575–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Several such experiments to educate young women as future wives were inspired by Rousseau’s Emile, including Romney’s ‘education’ of Emma Hamilton. Belinda’s subplot was inspired more specifically, however, by the experiment made by Thomas Day, a family friend of the Edgeworths, to create a real-life Sophie by educating Sabrina Sidney to become his wife. Sidney and Day did not marry, however. Eight years after being sent away from Day following an argument, Sidney married Day’s friend, John Bicknell. See Marilyn Butler, Maria Edgeworth: a Literary Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), p. 39.Google Scholar
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    Falls and bruises were deemed one of the possible causes of breast cancer in the eighteenth century. For a discussion of the medical understanding of the disease in the period, see Ruth Perry, ‘Colonising the Breast: Sexuality and Maternity in Eighteenth-Century England’, Eighteenth-Century Life, 16: 1 (1992), pp. 185–213.Google Scholar
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    For a more detailed discussion of the eighteenth-century female Bildungsroman, see Lorna Ellis, Appearing to Diminish: Female Development and the British Bildungsroman, 1750–1850 (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press; London: Associated University Press, 1999).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Jennie Batchelor 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jennie Batchelor
    • 1
  1. 1.School of EnglishUniversity of KentUK

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