Way Beyond Retro: Frances Burney – Evelina

Welcome to another instalment of my semi-regular feature Way Beyond Retro. In this feature I’ll be reading the non-speculative books still in my TBR-pile. You can find more details on Way Beyond Retro in this introductionEvelina was one of the books I bought as research for the thesis I never finished and consequently I never read the book. It is the last of four 18th century novels in this series, as the previous three books are also leftovers from the thesis-that-wasn’t-to-be.

Frances Burney - Evelina
Not actually the cover of my copy,
but I can’t find that online!

Written in secret, the manuscript copied for her publisher in disguised handwriting, Frances Burney’s first novel Evelina appeared anonymously in 1778.

It was a sequel to Caroline Evelyn, the novel burned by its author when she was fifteen; Evelina, the apparently illegitimate daughter of vanished Caroline, happily enters a society much more dangerous than she realizes. Subtitled The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World the novel records in letters its young heroine’s encounters with society, both high and low, in London and at fashionable watering places.

The novel explores representation and performance, social mores and masks, in a world full of distractions, from overturned coaches to golden automata, from opera to malevolent monkeys. Evelina is also a ‘family romance’, and, as Margaret Anne Doody’s Introduction indicates, it is acutely observant of the social laws regarding power, authority and authorship, which the author herself had to subvert, at least in part, like her naïve letter-writing heroine.

The above is a great summary of what the novel is about. It describes the themes, the content and the importance of the work in the author’s life and body of work. What it can’t convey is the book’s wonderfully engaging tone of voice. Evelina is an epistolary novel, which follows Evelina in her first year out in society. The letters are those written by Evelina, on the one hand, and her foster father Reverend Villars on the other. Evelina writes mainly to the Reverend Villars and her best friend Maria Mirvan, but there are also a few loose letters to others. Some other authors appear, but their letters are always included in the letters written by Evelina and Villars. The tone of the novel is fun and it is very readable despite its 18th century peculiarities of spelling and words.

The novel is about class in both senses of the word: status and manners. You may be of a higher class, but still have no manners and vice versa. The story seems to illustrate that class is something you’re born with, you either have it or you don’t. If you’re born without it, you can put on the mask but it doesn’t make you genteel. Both Sir Clement and Mr. Smith are examples of this; Sir Clement is an unmannered oaf, who based on his title and status in society thinks he can behave as he likes and get away with it. Mr. Smith, in contrast is not born of the upper class and hopes to convince people that he has a claim to gentility by adopting upper class manners and opinions. Of course, he gets it wrong most of the time. Evelina is the opposite; seemingly born out if wedlock to a Lord, she is raised in less exalted circles than her birth would have entitled her to had she been legitimate. Despite this she possesses all the social niceties and virtues expected of her when entering society, although she is hampered by her great naivety.

Both Sir Clement and Mr. Smith gave me the creeps, their almost obsessive pursuit of Evelina is disturbing, but shows the vulnerability of young women in society in the era. Reputation is key, something of which Evelina is well aware. When she’s forced to go out in public with her low relations, she fears running into anyone she knows from higher up in society especially Mr. Orville. The vicarious shame Evelina feels for the Branghtons and Mrs Duval is at once hilarious and tragic. It a different sort of shame than the one she feels for the rudeness of Captain Mirvan and, to an extent, Sir Clement. The latter springs from her feeling they should know better, but being powerless to correct them, where with the Branghtons it is more shame to have to acknowledge the connection.

With its romantic story, the hilarious shenanigans instigated by Captain Mirvan, its almost satiric look at class and society and, most of all, with its endearing protagonist, Evelina is a lovely read, which kept me thoroughly entertained. Evelina deserves to be read today and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes the works of Jane Austen.