When I first read Evelina, my observation was that Frances Burney’s style “represents a shift nearing the latter part of the 18th century from fiction as a didactic tool to fiction as a pleasurable reading experience.” While I’m good as saving my literary observations (I have copies of everything I wrote in college), I’m apparently not very good at taking my own advice. This is the first time I’ve read Evelina for pleasure rather than analysis
I chose Evelina for a reread on my Classics Club Book List, and it also fits neatly into the Classics Club’s year-long Women’s Classic Literature Event (Tweet about it with #ccwomenclassics). The first time I read Evelina was in Spring 2010 for an upper-level course on The Early British Novel. Though I didn’t hate any of the other 4 books in this course, Burney’s little epistolary novel from 1778 was by far my favorite.
It’s no wonder, then, that when our professor asked me and one other student if we’d like to read more Burney in an independent study I said “yes.” We read Cecelia (1782) and Camilla (1796) – both weighing in at a solid 900+ pages. Then we branched out into Ann Radcliffe with The Romance of the Forest. That lead me to my first undergraduate research project titled “Unmanned Heroes: 18th Century Female Writers and Male Sentimentality. That turned into a 25-page research paper titled “Biblical Answers to the 18th Century Gender Crisis” (click on the title if you’d like to read this), which led me back to reading Evelina academically.
Now, 4 years later, I’m back reading Evelina and enjoying it more than ever. Frances Burney was a fantastic (and, sadly, under appreciated) writer. Though Evelina was first published anonymously, Burney never hid the fact that she was a female writer. Her novels were quite popular with the general reading public and in artistic circles even during a literary age we often think of as belonging only to “dead white man.” Her style and success paved the way for writers like Jane Austen. In fact, Austen took her title Pride and Prejudice from a scene in Burney’s second novel, Cecilia, and when Austen’s father was seeking publication for that novel he described it as “about the length of Miss Burney’s Evelina.”
Comparing Burney to Austen (another favorite writer of mine), there are clear similarities, especially in Evelina. Both writers focus on a young woman who “marries up” by the end of the novel. Both critique society and social norms with a thinly-veiled sarcastic wit. But the differences are at times even more striking than the similarities. Nowhere in Austen will you find a scene like the one in Evelina when Captain Mirvan impersonates a highwayman and drags Madam Duval into a ditch where he terrifies her for sport. And, though Austen does have her Mr. Willoughbya and Mr. Wickhams, you’ll not find any of her main characters in situations so dangerous as Evelina’s.
Throughout the course of the novel, Evelina is persecuted by a man named Lovel, hounded and even kidnapped by Sir Clement, affronted by a staring Lord (in front of his fiancee), and rudely accosted by strange men at Vauxhall. To quote an essay by Judith Newton that appeared in a 1976 edition of Modern Language Studies, there are few places Evelina can go “without being forced, intruded upon, seized, kidnapped, or in some other way violated.” Newton describes this persecution as a “woman’s fate” once she entered into the marriage market in the 1700s, and points out that Burney “is one of the few writers in the century to take the discomfort of it seriously.”
Indeed, while I’ve frequently thought I might like to visit Jane Austen’s England, Burney’s is much less appealing. It’s populated with aggressive and vulgar people, the public places are unsafe without a large party and/or male protection, and it’s painfully obvious how vulnerable and option-less women were without family and fortune to their name. But it also feels more real. Sense and Sensibility came out in 1811 and Pride and Prejudice in 1813 – a scant 33 and 35 years after Evelina. Things had changed, but not that much. Much as I love Austen, I wonder if Burney was in some ways the braver novelist for calling out her contemporary society on its darker sides.