I finished Frances Burney's Evelina today. I read it long ago, in an 18th-century literature class, and I remember liking it very much, though I had forgotten everything but the premise: a young and beautiful girl of murky origins makes her entrance into the world, where her artlessness and apparent lack of proper adult supervision and fortune leads her into a variety of scrapes, from which she is usually rescued by the exquisitely polite Lord Orville, who finally marries her.
I remember what I liked about it: That, the cardboardy Lord Orville aside, it was all so bracingly astringent compared with Jane Austen (who I had read, of course, but was not yet a huge fan of). It was as if we had turned from the always-proper world of Jane Austen (and I believe people who don't like Jane Austen often suffer from the same misapprehension that I did at 21, that everything in Jane Austen is always excessively proper) and gone through the looking glass, into a rough-and-tumble world where sexual assault in a carriage, say, or in a dark lane at Vauxhall Gardens were very real risks to a young girl with beauty and no apparent social connections. Where people play rude practical jokes, behave with shocking rudeness to their presumed inferiors, drink too much, steal letters. If I had read Tom Jones or Clarissa first, this work probably would not have seemed so astonishing.
Alas, it does not improve on rereading. It is entertaining enough, but the comedy of the coarse Captain Mirvan and his attempts to torment Madame Duval and Mr. Lovel seems poorly integrated with Evelina's bildungsroman. The good characters are far too perfect, the bad ones very one-dimensional, and the whole thing gives off a moldy whiff of Regency farce. I could imagine it as play, in fact: It is very playlike, despite being a novel in letters.
But reading it does sharpen the sense of what Jane Austen achieved a generation later. Evelina was a sensation in its day, and led to the young author's becoming friends with people like Hester Thrale and Dr. Johnson. She was among the first avowed female novelists. And yet -- comparing her to Jane Austen, one cannot help being struck by how much subtler Austen's humor is, how much more successfully the illusion of realism is created.
Frances Burney was born in 1752 and lived to 1840, or about 50 years longer than Jane Austen. In addition to being friends with Dr. Johnson and many other prominent people of the age, she worked for Queen Charlotte as "Second Keeper of the Robes," married a French emigre at 41, gave birth in her 42nd year, underwent a mastectomy without anesthetic at 59 after she got breast cancer, which made medical history because she wrote about it in her diary, like nearly everything else in her long and eventful life -- she was a tireless diarist. All in all, a woman to be reckoned with, and a repudiation of the common notions of the circumscribed nature of women's lives before the 20th century. I just wish I could like her writing more!
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