18 January 2007

Book Review: Evelina by Frances Burney

Winter Classics Reading Challenge #1
2007 TBR Challenge #1

Evelina Evelina Anville has a curious past. Her late mother eloped and married without witnesses, allowing her father to later claim there was no marriage at all. In the seventeen years since his wife’s death, he has never acknowledged his daughter’s existence. Entrusted to her mother’s guardian, she has been raised in obscurity and with a fictional surname, for were the truth to be known she would be regarded as illegitimate, a most unfortunate circumstance in the 1770s.

The kindly Reverend Villars hasn’t the heart to refuse Evelina a trip to London with the family of her friend Maria, whose seafaring father is due back in England. A chance meeting leads to her making the acquaintance of her maternal grandmother, Madame Duval, who immediately decides to take Evelina’s future into her own hands. And what Madame Duval wants, Madame Duval gets. So Evelina’s adventures in the capital are continued, and later extended to the fashionable spa town of Bristol as she learns to make her way in the world beyond Berry Hill. (Having written that, it occurs to me that you could call it an eighteenth-century coming-of-age story.)

Evelina is a wonderful window into the society of the 1770s, which was the main reason I bought it. It shows the manners not just of the gentry but, through Evelina’s cousins the Branghtons, the middle classes as well. But in the end there were too many ‘buts’ for it to be really enjoyable.

I liked Evelina well enough, and was pleased to see that she wasn’t perfect and was prone to do things without thinking, though I did have to raise my eyebrows at the number of men who dangled after her in spite of her lack of fortune or antecedents. But she didn’t have the sparkle of, say, Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse, and was terribly concerned about propriety. The real problem was the other characters she encountered during her month in London with her grandmother. The woman herself was ignorant of propriety, and uncaring of the effect her actions might have on Evelina’s reputation or the wishes of others. Once she set her mind on something, no matter how unsuitable, nothing could talk her out of it. The Branghtons were common in the worst sense of the word and too ignorant to realise it, and kept up a continual petty bickering amongst themselves. Mr Smith was obnoxious and ill-mannered, and Sir Clement Willoughby was so oppressive that in the present century he’d be slapped with a lawsuit faster than you could say ‘sexual harassment’. Taken altogether I couldn’t bear to stay with them for much more than twenty pages at a time. Adding to my frustration was the knowledge that, according to the customs of the time, the poor girl was stuck with them.

Things improved markedly with Evelina’s return to Berry Hill and subsequent trip to Bristol, but then Sir Clement made a reappearance and the story slid into melodrama at her reconciliation with her father. His previous lack of interest in her was explained in a clever and believable way that allowed everything to work out not just for Evelina, but for another character as well (fortunately one of the nice ones). Of course the end of the novel for Evelina involved a highly advantageous marriage, to an earl, no less. Lord Orville was as watchful of propriety as Evelina herself, and this combined with her ignorance of the world and her lack of guidance (and consequent faux pas) led him to run hot and cold on her before it occurred to him that perhaps her odd behaviour could be explained by her being 17 and from the country. Having compared Evelina to Elizabeth Bennet I couldn’t help thinking of the equally proper Mr Darcy; while Darcy came across as a man of great honour, Orville just seemed like a prig.

The mildest yet most pervasive flaw is the style in which the book is written. It is told entirely through letters, a technique used to advantage in the opening pages to explain Evelina’s origins and set up the impending action. After that, however, I could never quite shake the consciousness of the inherent artificiality of the epistolary form. What is the likelihood of someone being able continually to recall hours on end in great detail, and reproduce entire conversations verbatim, regardless of the number of people involved? I’ve kept diaries, and keeping track of events alone is hard enough.

Rating: C (as novel); A (as historical resource)


Anonymous said...

I would like to read this, despite its flaws. I think the historical aspect would be appealing. Love the bathing costume! Can you imagine!

Amat Libris said...

Evelina is well worth reading just for the history. What I want to know is, did the people who wore wigs remove them before taking a dip?

Anonymous said...

I wonder how often they even bathed?! I always love reading about history and wondering what it would have been like to have lived then--I have to say I don't think I would be happy without daily baths and toothpaste!!

Anastasia said...

I love Evelina and have reread it a few times. The historical details are wonderful and it's great fun comparing the book to Jane Austen's works. But I mostly enjoy it because of its flaws - it's so melodramatic and over-the-top that you can't help but have fun.

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776