Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801) demands to be read through the dual meanings of “character”—the literary persona and the moral sense. Through performances of literary character that work to reveal moral character, Edgeworth generates a theory of novelistic character that is shaped by impersonation and interiority. Often considered an unfortunate episode in an otherwise sophisticated novel, Edgeworth’s incorporation of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie (1788) in Belinda is in fact central to the novel’s consideration of character. Edgeworth’s meditation on character illuminates a number of issues: first, relationships between the genre of the novel and subject-formation; second, fictional representations of surface legibility and psychological interiority; third, the ideological function of the marriage plot. In her consideration of imaginative identification, psychological interiority, and subject-formation through Belinda’s recasting of Bernardin’s novel, Edgeworth presents her theorization of character, which postulates that the moral sense—what we might call a living person’s “character”—depends on an engagement with literary character.
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