"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 10, 2013

Evelina (1778) by Frances Burney (Book review)

Evelina or the History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World is a novel written by English author Fanny Burney (1752-1840) and first published in 1778. The novel is a comedy of manners that provides a fascinating and also savagely funny look at both high and low society in late eighteenth-century England. It is an epistolary novel, the story is told in letters, mainly those by Evelina, the young female protagonist, to her ward, Mr Villars.

[Frances Burney - portrait from Wikipedia]

Already at a tender age, Francis Burney gave proof of possessing a sharp ear for spoken idiom and a strong talent for mimicry. In other words, she was a natural dramatist. Not only did she continue by writing a play after Evelina, in Evelina there are many scenes which seem lifted from the comedy of the day. That play, by the way, was never performed - it was not suitable for a lady to write plays - but she became well-known as a novelist and is today also famous for her minutely observed and witty journals. Burney was also a risk-taker, as can be seen from Evelina, which is daring and experimental.

Thanks to the sharply differentiated idioms and their speakers, Evelina is an exuberant novel. The protagonist is the unacknowledged but legitimate daughter of a dissipated English aristocrat (Lord Belmont, who has torched the marriage certificate), who after the death of her mother has been raised in rural seclusion by her elderly guardian Mr Villars, and who now gets the chance to make her debut in London. Despite misunderstandings and embarrassing social errors, she learns to navigate the complexities of 18th. c. manners and even earns the love of a distinguished young nobleman, Lord Orville. As a satire of contemporary fashionable society, with its lies and pretensions, its hypocrites and rakes, the novel is a fit precursor of Jane Austen, although it is also very different from the works of that author in its often broad humor.

In London, Evelina meets her stubborn and ignorant French grandmother, Madame Duval, who threatens to carry her off to Paris; she has to fend off the unwelcome attentions of Sir Clement Willoughby, who courts her with flamboyant speeches and almost becomes a stalker; she is embarrassed by the uncouth behavior of Captain Mirvan, the father of the friend with whom she is staying in London, who despises foreigners (his comments sound uncomfortably modern...) and who constantly annoys Madame Duval because she is French; during her second London visit, Evelina has to suffer the crass behavior of her lower-class cousins, the Branghtons; at the Branghtons, she meets a poor Scottish poet, M. Macartney, the butt of many contemptuous jokes, whom she saves from a desperate act - and who, in good 18th c. style, later is revealed to be her half-brother; in the same style there is finally a reconciliation with her father, Sir Belmont, so that in the finale she can marry Lord Orville on equal terms.

There are certainly many weaker elements in the novel: the humor is too gross and farcical, with weak persons or women (Madame Duval) not only as the butt of jokes, but also the victims of beatings; the plot is too contrived. But the book is a real page-turner and there are also many strong points, such as the above mentioned social satire. Above all, we see the 18th c. through the eyes of an intelligent and witty woman - and can be surprised at the dangers women had to navigate in that society, where many men seemed to think that their "natural superiority" guaranteed them the easy gratification of every desire - even by force.