I wrote yesterday a little bit about the life of Fanny Burney; perhaps it would have been more appropriate here, in a post about Evelina, Burney’s first novel. This book was written in secret at the tender age of seventeen and published without her knowledge, and it instantly became a sensation. In reading Evelina, I always feel a little pang of envy (the same with M. G. Lewis, who wrote his own Gothic masterpiece at the age of 19) that something so accomplished could have come from the pen of a teenager, when I, at 24, can’t even finish a manuscript. Haha, oh well. On to actually discussing the book–just something to keep in mind if you do decide to give Evelina a try (which you should definitely do–especially if you like Austen, because Burney’s influence is definitely felt there).
I almost didn’t give it a try, because I first bought my Norton edition (which is fantastic by the way, more on that later) for British literature class, 1688 – 1800, taught by Professor Olmert at Maryland. We never actually got around to reading it during the school year, I don’t think (Tristram Shandy took the lion’s share of the time) but I eventually got around to it on my own and I have that professor to thank for discovering one of my favorite authors. In addition, this is a great edition because it has footnotes instead of endnotes, making it infinitely easier to just glance down if you want to read them, and also, because it is a comedy of manners but these manners are somewhat outdated, it is occasionally useful to provide a context for some of the humor or general references, and this book does it admirably.
Anyway. On to the book itself!
Evelina is an epistolary novel, consisting mostly of letters written between the titular seventeen year old Evelina, the unacknowledged child of a distant Lord and a dead mother who ran off with him; her good friend and contemporary Miss Mirvan; and her guardian, the Reverend Mr. Villars, greatly concerned with Evelina’s reputation as she heads out into the world. As a consequence of the circumstances of her birth, Evelina was raised in seclusion in the country, and as a result is unschooled in how to handle the society into which she is abruptly thrust through the offices of Lady Howard, a friend of the family’s, setting her up with her daughter Mrs. Mirvan and family.
The plot of the book is concerned mostly with Evelina’s reaction to society and her eventual mastery of it; she meets, at her first ball, Lord Orville, who she admires greatly for the correctness of his manners and conduct, as well as Sir Clement Willoughby, who assiduously attempts to recommend himself to her by flowery and extremely inappropriate (comically so) language and achieves the total opposite effect. She writes home to Mr. Villars who, considering the fate of Evelina’s mother, is very worried for his young charge’s safety–as he should be. Through the efforts of varyingly horrible characters (from Sir Clement to the awful Branghtons, vulgar relations of Evelina’s, to the fearsomely outre grandmother of Evelina, Madame Duval–one of funniest scenes in the book is this rouged, elderly woman attempting to dance a minuet), Evelina is thrust into many unfortunate social situations. From her first faux pas at a ball where she doesn’t know any better to the Miss Branghtons leading her down a “long alley” in a bad part of town, where Evelina is rescued from roving men of the town by a pair of prostitutes, though it is a comedy of manners the belly laughs aren’t lacking.
Though it’s an entertaining and impressive book, and a genuinely enjoyable read, it’s obvious that Burney was young when she wrote it. It’s lacking Camilla’s more complex characters; Evelina is a bit of a blank slate existing merely to be horrified at the various ridiculous things that happen to her throughout the novel. Similarly, Lord Orville is mostly described by his actions in summary, as in, he is very correct, pleasant, etc. though not much else is written about him until the end of the book, where Evelina actually gets to know him.
But still, for a seventeen-year-old–really damn impressive, and a book that I enjoy re-reading often.