Tuesday, March 24, 2009


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!

Debating requesting Cecilia or Camilla. Will it reward the effort?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Secret of the Castle Rackrent

Daisy: Are you in love with me? [...] Or why did I have to come alone?"

Nick: "That's the secret of Castle Rackrent. Tell your chauffeur to go far away and spend an hour."

Daisy: "Come back in an hour, Ferdie." Then in a grave murmur, "His name is Ferdie."

Why does F. Scott Fitzgerald reference Maria Edgeworth's c.1800 work at the point when Nick invites his cousin to meet her long-lost love, Jay Gatsby? Had F.S.F. ever, in fact, read "Castle Rackrent," or did he just like the way it sounded? Not being an F.S.F. scholar, I have no idea.

I think I was riffing on F. Scott Fitzgerald, or just grasping at straws, at one point early in "The Jane Austen Project" when I needed Rachel and Liam to have something to read and I gave them "Castle Rackrent," as being of the era. I knew should go back and read it, since they had, but it took me a while to do so, probably because I was so busy with "Clarissa." Finally, I have.

It is, not to put too fine a point on it, God-awful. Trying to be funny (I guess) but failing. I don't think Liam would have tolerated it, since it is packed with insulting and stereotypical observations about the Irish, and we know he is sensitive about these things. For good measure, there is also an insulting, stereotypical portrait of a Jew (or a "Jewish," as the narrator refers to her) -- truly there is something to offend everyone in this brief work!

Being no stranger to literary irony, and informed by the introduction that Maria Edgeworth, though born British, lived much of her life in Ireland and apparently liked it. I have struggled to overcome my initial reaction to this work, but without success.

It is also, I learn from a cursory Google survey, one of the first works of fiction to feature an unreliable narrator, a device I am partial to and which ought to win me over, except it doesn't. A theme of the work that has struck some modern scholars is that of female imprisonment. A more prominent theme, though less academically fashionable, is the feckless nature of the Ango-Irish landowners, who squander their fortunes in drink, gambling, frivolous lawsuits and excessive entertainment, sucking their tenants dry while their estates fall into hopeless disrepair. Being in every way horribly un-British, in other words: The antithesis of restraint, order, duty, Empire, self-effacement and what Mr. Knightley would do.

Thinking about it this way, I find myself returning to "The Great Gatsby." Perhaps the reference is not so random. F. Scott Fitzgerald, of Irish descent himself and heir to the stereotypical Irish vices of drink and extravagance, is reminiscent of many characters in "Castle Rackrent." His eponymous Gatsby gives wild parties, much like Sir Patrick O'Shaughlin, the first of the doomed inhabitants of Castle Rackrent. A stereotypical Jew even wanders through the novel, too, in the person of Meyer Wolfsheim (whose human-molar cuff links have always stuck in my memory when so many more useful facts have been forgotten). Gatsby's mansion, like the Castle Rackrent, stands as a monument to hubris and excess even after its living residents have departed.