Evelina by Frances Burney
I’m not normally one for the unimaginative author theory—you know, the idea that results in movies like Shakespeare in Love, which posits that Shakepeare only came up with Twelfth Night because it happened to him—but my class has been particularly taken with the parallels between Frances Burney’s life and the narrative presented in Evelina. Burney had a very close relationship with her father, struggled against ideas of female writing as improper (as evidenced by the alternating shame and confidence she presents in the introduction to the novel), and, hearteningly, ultimately married a Frenchman and supported him and their children by her own pen. (Why, yes, I’m definitely going to read a biography of Burney.) But enough about the author—what about the novel?
Evelina is subtitled The Entrance of a Young Lady into the World. Evelina Anville is a young woman robbed of her inheritance—despite her mother’s brief marriage to Lord Belmont, he refuses to acknowledge her as his lawful daughter. Instead, Evelina has grown up under the care of the Reverend Villars in the seclusion of Berry Hill. But when Evelina becomes a young woman and visits London with her friends the Mirvans, she runs into her formidable harpy of a grandmother, Madame Duval, who has returned from the Continent hellbent on turning the young Evelina into a lady of the court and forcing Lord Belmont to acknowledge her. And then there’s Evelina’s habit of making a fool out of herself in front of the elegant Lord Orville, a parade of unpleasant suitors, and the general awkward position of being a country girl in the city. What’s a young lady to do? Well, write endless letters, of course…
After the hideous disappointment of Pamela and the fantastic, but supporting women of Joseph Andrews, Evelina was a breath of fresh air. She’s smart, polite, good-natured, and endearingly awkward, especially as she tries to navigate the posh world of lords, earls, and balls. There’s a moment early on when Evelina, attempting to dissuade a particularly repugnant suitor, lies and says that she’s already engaged to dance, is made an object of fun by Captain Mirvan, who tries to find her imaginary suitor. She’s forced into associating with horrible people, especially the Branghtons, her relations, who are the sort of people who don’t like opera because it’s not sung in English. And then there’s the particularly awkward moment when, fleeing from a drunken sailor, she’s rescued by prostitutes who get invited into her party by the Branghtons. Lord Orville, of course, walks by at that exact moment. This is the kind of girl who can’t keep anything a secret from her father figure. The girl can’t get a break and reacts with all the shame, mortification, and hindsight that any reasonable person would.
And she’s also remarkably active; even though she wants to sit down and faint, she still pushes through a weak spell in order to thwart a suicide. She does what she can to be a grateful ward and a woman of polite society, and it’s the fact that she’s always trying that makes me love her. And she’s not without moments of sharp wit, although she tries to suppress them and detests them in her friend Mrs. Selwyn; when Madame Duval mistakes the prostitutes for fine ladies, Evelina notes that she gets an element of amusement out of the old bat. Evelina is not the only strong female character; although I don’t know if this novel passes the Bechdel Test (I firmly suspect that it does not), we get to see a wide variety of women. My particular favorite is Mrs. Selwyn, a sarcastic widow who snarks at anyone she damn well pleases, which, as you can imagine, can and does upset the kind, good-natured Evelina. I was a bit perturbed to see a lack of Maria Mirvan, who, we’re told, is Evelina’s best friend, but then, they don’t have much opportunity to interact.
The plot is a traditional coming of age story, but Burney brightens it up with variation in setting (Evelina travels a bit across England) and a cast of colorful characters. Captain Mirvan and Madame Duval butt heads to the point of slapstick; even Evelina is forced to acknowledge that one of her suitors is the “most egregious fop” (after he does battle with a monkey… no, no context for you!); and there’s even a young lady who spends her time languishing because she thinks it makes her more attractive. There’s also the twists of Evelina’s attempts to be recognized by Lord Belmont, but those come towards the end of the novel. Ultimately, you keep reading because you’re rooting for Evelina to make a good match—not in the sense of modern romance, of course, because marriage is the only way abandoned and identity-less Evelina is going to secure her future. The stakes are much higher than a simple love match. (This is, incidentally, why I don’t like people comparing the romances in Austen to modern romance; I mean, the opening of Pride and Prejudice is “We have five daughters and no money oh my god what are we going to do?”, not “I’d really like to be in a fulfilling relationship”.) On top of that, you want to see how silly high society looks to someone like Evelina.
Bottom line: Frances Burney’s Evelina is a breath of fresh air, as we watch the good-natured and awkward country girl Evelina try to navigate through through city’s high society as she tries to establish herself in life. Fans of Jane Austen should take to it nicely.