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Fanny Burney — Evelina

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just glance down if you want to read them, and also, because it is a comedy of manners but these manners are somewhat outdated, it is occasionally useful to provide a context for some of the humor or general references, and this book does it admirably.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.

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Fanny Burney — Camilla

‘Oh! It is only a novel!’ replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. ‘It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda’; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language.
—Jane Austen, from Northanger Abbey

This is a pretty fantastic summary of my feelings about Fanny Burney and Camilla in general. First of all, a bit about the author: born in 1752, she was self-educated and became a rather famous diarist (her diaries are fabulous), novelist, playwright, and general woman of letters in a time when this wasn’t quite as common—especially considering she supported herself AND her family with her writing. She married a French exile and military general late in life, had a child at 43, and traveled all over Europe. In 1810 she and her husband suspected she had developed breast cancer; a year later, she underwent a mastectomy without anesthesia, and lived to write a riveting account of the experience. She died in 1840.

On to Camilla. A bit of a daunting epic at almost 1000 pages, this is one of the grandmothers of the genre of comic novels. The influence that Austen drew from Burney is palpable; though Burney’s writing is a little more flowery, less dry and obviously sarcastic than Austen, the pointed social critiques centered around young women’s marriage prospects, the parade of ridiculous characters designed to stand in the way of the heroine’s progress… And as in Austen, at the end everyone gets what they deserve, though Burney seems more apt to believe that even the most incorrigible people can be redeemed (with some small exceptions, as there is one character in Camilla at least that is almost so awful and evil that it can’t quite be believed).

The plot centers around a trio of young sisters, beautiful, meek Lavinia; charming and emotional Camilla, and bookish, sweet Eugenia, deformed by smallpox, as well as their rakish brother Lionel (who often steals the show with his ridiculous dialogue). In addition, their “lovely automaton” of a cousin, Indiana, provides some antagonistic qualities as a beautiful but vapid foil to the more moral and feeling Tyrold sisters. Many fortunes are changed when Sir Hugh, their unlearned, generous, and impractical uncle first gifts Camilla with the promise of inheriting his fortune and then, when he becomes inadvertently responsible for Eugenia’s deformities by exposing her to small pox, shifts the fortune to her, inadvertently almost ruining the lives of more than one person.

The book follows these youths as they grow; Camilla is in love with Edgar Mandlebert, a somewhat priggish and undeserving suitor (you can almost see the genesis of Edward Ferrars or Edmund Bertram in him), but a series of unfortunate and increasingly ridiculous events conspire to keep them apart, not the least of which is the suspicion of Edgar’s tutor Dr. Marchmont that Camilla is disinterested or unworthy. And it only gets more ridiculous from there.

A number of fantastic comic grotesques pad out the pages of the novel, from the ridiculously self-serving Miss Margland, the “cracked” scholar Dr. Orkbourne, never to be parted from his books, the almost impossibly awkward Mr. Dubster, the foppish but kind Sir Sedley… on and on it goes. Their antics are worth reading the book, alone.

As for the main character, Camilla is almost too good to be believed, of the usual mold of 18th century heroines. She is saved from being too sickly sweet by Burney’s witty writing and her own sometimes horrifying naivete. Characters like the shrewd and widowed Mrs. Arlbery provide a sarcastic commentary pointing out the foibles of Camilla and her cowardly beau, Edgar, and preventing the whole thing from being too disingenuous. And the plot is intricate enough, though not complicated (comedy of errors ending in marriages, oh so many marriages) that it can easily keep one’s interest.

It saddens me that Burney is neglected outside of certain niche studies; she really deserves to be read more often. Next up is her epistolary novel, Evelina.

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