Book Review: Evelina: The History of a Young Lady’s Reentrance into My Life

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Here is a review of a much older book, a book, in fact, first printed in 1778 (goodness, this book is barely younger than my country!): Evelina by Frances Burney.  This is a book familiar to a number of this blogs’ potential readers as assigned reading from our 17th and 18th Century Literature class, and those same readers will probably know that I enjoyed this book enough the first time through to rescue it from resale on Half.com.  An epistolary novel of letters primarily between the young Evelina Anville and her guardian Rev. Villars, the letters tell of Evelina’s emergence from the country house of her childhood into society, the splash that she makes among the men there, and ends as so many of these novels do, with her marriage to a good man above her station.  The innocence of Evelina’s youth and the delicacy of her upbringing make her an apt lens through which Burney can critique the society—and the gentlemen—of the day.  Full of flowery language, plentiful flattery, and larger-than-life characters, those willing to wade to through the dense 18th century prose, will find a number of amusing though at times grotesque stories to delight as well as love-story worthy of the admiration that Jane Austen’s have received and a tragic family drama.

As enjoyable a second time around as the first, though I have never much been a fan of epistolary writing in general, Burney perhaps succeeds in the medium where more modern writers fail because of the ample letter-writing practice that I’m sure she received.  The letter is a dying art form in the wave of more immediate message-sending methods.  Here, the letters seems less forced than they frequently seem to me to be in other novels, and Burney does not struggle, as some writers seem to do, with how or whether to include details.  I have realized that this is another book like Austen’s where the reader is given very few descriptions of the characters, but the reader hardly notices the absence.  More frequently, Evelina describes in brief the clothes that characters have on (Burney reserves a particular distaste for the fop) than their physical appearance.  I think I would have to read the novel again with the intention of looking to discover whether even anyone’s build is stated.

What Evelina has that many of Austen’s characters do not is a truly horrific back-story upon which to found her entrance into society.  For that, Evelina is perhaps darker than most Austen novels, as Evelina must deal with cruelties that few Austen characters ever know.  It is early in the novel revealed that Evelina is the unacknowledged daughter of Sir John Belmont, who cast-off her mother, unlawfully annuling their marriage, and that she has been unlooked for too by grandmother, Madame Duval.

The first half, filled as it is, with balls and faux pas, I actually, romantic that I am, find less enjoyable than the last book, where both the romance and Evelina’s petitions to her father are more central and more emotional.  My least favorite is volume II, of which the grossness of Captain Mirvan or the Branghtons is a large part.  Though these characters serve as amusement and Burney’s command of dialect is impressive, some of the Captain’s tricks really are terrible.

****

Burney, Frances.  Evelina, or, The history of a young’s lady’s entrance into the world.  Ed. Edward A. Bloom.  New York: Oxford World’s Classics-Oxford UP, 2008.

This review is not endorsed by Frances Burney, those in charge of her estate, Edward A. Bloom, or Oxford University Press.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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One response »

  1. I loved Evelina when I read it in college–for a class called “Jane Austen and Her Contemporaries,” actually. I need to read it again! It was the first epistolary novel that I’d read, but I enjoyed it quite a bit more than I expected to at first. I thought it would be hard to follow the story between letters, but since most of them were written by Evelina anyway, it worked.

    One of the things we discussed in class was Evelina’s past, and how it seemed like not really a big deal to us in the 21st century, but how it was completely and utterly life-altering in Burney’s time. Nowadays it’s like, “Big deal, so she doesn’t have a dad!” but back then, it must have been scandalous even to write a fictional account of something like that, much less ever acknowledge it out loud…

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