Evelina

“There is nothing…which requires more immediate notice than impertinence, for it ever encroaches when it is tolerated.”

Frances Burney

I was pleasantly surprised by Evelina.

It’s an eighteenth-century epistolary novel, a recognisable precursor to Jane Austen’s novels, which I read as a course text, and thus naturally expected to be either dull as ditchwateror mind-numbingly stupid. As it turns out, it’s neither.

The novel is narrated mainly by its eponymous heroine, who’s been disowned along with her dead mother by her aristocratic father and is consequently brought up by a virtuous parson in social seclusion and retirement. At the age of eighteen, she goes to stay with a family which takes her to visit London, where she enters society completely unaware of the various social customs whose breaking practically causes social apocalypse for Evelina: there is much genuine hilarity as she dances with the wrong person, ends up in a carriage alone with a scoundrel, and gets chased down dark alleys by rakish young men. The supporting characters are awesome, too, and almost Dickensian in their satire: the vulgar prankster Captain Mirvan, the reticent Monsieur du Bois, the roguish Sir Clement. Generally, the first half of the novel is a fascinatingly funny portrait of eighteenth-century society.

And then it all falls apart somewhat. Evelina, despite having no money, title, or manners to speak of, becomes the object of the attention of every single male character at once, even the ones who are supposedly engaged. One or two suitors I can credit. But six is, I feel, pushing the point too far. As if this was not enough, various sub-plots involving Evelina’s father and Captain Mirvan’s Famous Views On Stupid People begin to distract from the main romantic narrative, and enough swooning, exclaiming and general overreacting goes on to make the whole thing descend into what I’m sure is unintended farce. It is as if all the characters suddenly realise that they have only twenty more pages to exist in, and are thus determined to make those twenty pages the most emotionally stressful possible.

I realise that all of this does not exactly sound like a rousing endorsement of Evelina, but I do think Burney deserves to be more widely read than she is now. Evelina is at least as well-written and interesting as Collins’ The Woman in White, if not more so: there’s always the question of the unreliable narrator (is Evelina really as naive as she says she is?), and Burney’s satire of the rigid customs of her society is really very sharp. And, perhaps most importantly, Evelina is that rare thing: an eighteenth-century novel that does not require three weeks and the patience of a saint to finish. A good, light read for fans of Jane Austen.

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