Sunday, February 15, 2015

Evelina: Or the History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World

Frances Burney by her cousin, Edward Francis Burney
Most people know who Jane Austen was. A mention of her most famous book, Pride and Prejudice, will probably conjure up the vivacious and lively Elizabeth Bennet, and the rich and enigmatic Mr Darcy. Miss Austen’s books, and life, have been made into so many movies that, chances are, you’ll know what all her most famous books were about without even having read them.  
However, unless you are an 18th century literature enthusiast, you probably don’t know who Frances Burney was. The name ‘Evelina Anville’, won’t ring a bell; neither will ‘Lord Orville’…but I think it’s safe to say, that without them, the world would never have been introduced to Elizabeth and Mr Darcy. It’s not even going too far to mention their influence on Charles Dickens.
A facsimile edition of Evelina from 1903
Evelina had a rather tumultuous beginning. Its author, Frances Burney, was the daughter of Charles Burney, who knew everyone there was to know in the higher circles of life. Frances had met Doctor Johnson of the Dictionary, and, in relation to my last post, WilliamBligh, who had sailed with her older brother alongside Captain Cook. She was self-taught, literally. She read books compulsively, teaching herself grammar and spelling; by the time she was ten, she was writing to keep herself company. Her first attempt at a novel was The History of Caroline Evelyn, which she burned in its entirety when she was fifteen. Evelina, in many ways is the daughter of the lost manuscript; Frances Burney was trying again, and the title character, Evelina, was the daughter of the unfortunate Caroline.
Robinson Crusoe as imagined by N. C. Wyeth
A hundred years of English novels proceeded it. In the late 17th century, novels were thought of as shocking and crude; not fit for the better classes of people. Novels were considered improper, and indeed, many of them were, but ever since Daniel Defoe had fictionalized and romanticized Alexander Selkirk’s four-year,self-imposed sojourn on a desert island in the form of Robinson Crusoe in 1719, novels had taken England by storm. No longer was reading for instruction; analogies like Pilgrim’s Progress, from 1678, which taught as well as entertained, were giving way to reading material that was meant for pure enjoyment. 
When Frances Burney was busy writing at the end of the 18th century, there was still a clash between lurid, graphic reading material like Tom Jones of 1749, or the later (and disturbing) gothic novel, The Monk of 1796 (satirized in Northanger Abbey), and proper novels, like the books of manners that Jane Austen would eventually pen. It was a risky business publishing a book, but Frances Burney persevered; in 1778, her older brother managed to publish Evelina for her under a pseudonym to public and critical acclaim.  Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson praised it highly; little did they know it was written by a shy, young women of only twenty-six whom they both knew.
A plate from A Rake's Progress by William Hogarth, showing
the 18th century for what it was: almost completely lacking in 
the decorum and modesty that would become hallmarks of the 
Victorian era
Evelina is written in the form of letters, exchanged between a seventeen-year-old girl on her first venture into the great world, to her guardian, Reverend Villiers of Berry Hill. This was not an uncommon way of writing novels in those days; Jane Austen wrote her first novel, Love and Friendship, in the form of letters between 1783 and 1790. One of the first epistolary novels was Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (yes, it’s every bit as bad as it sounds) written by Aphra Behn in the 1680s. Evelina bears some minor resemblances to this, and other earlier novels, like those by Samuel Richardson, but is, in many ways, a very new and different sort of book than had ever been written before. 
The Pantheon in London, modeled after its namesake in Rome,
was once one of the grandest assembly rooms in England
The most important aspect of Evelina, is its incredible realism. Unfortunately considered long-winded and cumbersome by today’s standards, Evelina was revolutionary in its day. Over a period of seven months, the letters meticulously describe aworld that is completely alien to us today. Though the eyes of the heroine, we see London, hot, dirty…but terribly exciting. There are balls to visit, gardens, Cox’s Museum, which was an array of elaborate mechanical devices. Evelina writes, “They tell me that London is now in full splendour. Two playhouses are open, – the Opera-house, – Ranelagh, – and the Pantheon. – You see I have learned all their names.” When she goes to visit them, we find out first-hand, what it’s like to sit in an 18th century box and watch an 18th century opera. 
Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea were at their height when
public gardens were all the rage
And of course, no period romance would be complete without balls, and Evelina goes to her share of them and has her share of misunderstandings when she accidentally breaks the social codes; "[she is] A poor weak girl!” Lord Orville remarks when asked his first impression of her ('weak' in this instance meaning 'weak-minded'). In this way, at least, Evelina isn’t quite accessible to the modern reader. Frances Burney was writing for her time; she didn’t realize that two hundred years after the fact, people would still be reading her book. Word usage has changed and there are many other things taken for granted that her readers would have known, such as realizing the full import (or the impossibility) of an Earl proposing marriage to seemingly penniless (and possibly illegitimate) young girl; this doesn’t detract from the story…it’s all the more interesting for learning about how different it was to live then.
The Colonnade at Hotwells, Bristol in 1788
by the Swiss artist Samuel Hieronymus Grimm
one of the locations for Evelina
On the other hand, Evelina is a very modern book. We still feel the emotions they felt then and are delighted by the same things. Not only are the circumstances surprisingly easy to relate to, but the language is modern. Contractions are scattered liberally through the dialog and Miss Burney’s ease at writing dialect marks her as a fore-runner of Charles Dickens. Many expressions which we still use today are scattered throughout Evelina, such as ‘in a huff’, ‘sick of it’, ‘the man in the moon’, ‘putting in one's oar’, ‘point-blank’, ‘changing with the tide’ and ‘thing-em-bob’. Even some of our prejudices can be dispelled; women might not have had the vote in 1778, but they had a voice. Mrs. Selwyn, an independent woman with a large fortune, regularly runs rings around the men with her wit and intelligence. As Mrs. Selwyn says, “Come, gentlemen…why do you hesitate? I am sure you cannot be afraid of a weak woman?”
We all know Shakespeare had wit, but so did Fanny Burney. I don’t think any of Jane Austen’s books are as laughter-inducing as Evelina. Partly because she was so young and partly because she had a natural turn for humor, Frances Burney often turned serious moments into comedy. There’s a pre-planned hold-up and mugging of Evelina’s pretend-French grandmother by pretend-highway bandits and Sir Clement Willoughby, Burney’s hilarious and good-natured villain, is always ready to be amusing. Even the near-perfect hero, Lord Orville, on closer inspection, becomes a flawed, but humorous and kind-hearted character.
Frances Burney went on to write other books, but the spontaneity and light-heartedness of Evelina set it apart. Yes, it deeply influenced Jane Austen and her much more famous books, but Evelina can stand very well on its own two feet. It marked a turning of the tide, the opening of the door to a genre that we still can’t get enough of. It is tragic, then, that Evelina, and its author, are not better known. They deserve to be.

Excerpt from Evelina:
THERE is to be no end to the troubles of last night. I have this moment, between persuasion and laughter, gathered from Maria the most curious dialogue that ever I heard. You will at first be startled at my vanity; but, my dear Sir, have patience!
It must have passed while I was sitting with Mrs. Mirvan, in the card-room. Maria was taking some refreshment, and saw Lord Orville advancing for the same purpose himself; but he did not know her, though she immediately recollected him. Presently after, a very gay-looking man, stepping hastily up to him cried, "Why, my Lord, what have you done with your lovely partner?"
"Nothing!” answered Lord Orville with a smile and a shrug.
"By Jove," cried the man, "she is the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life!"
Lord Orville, as he well might, laughed; but answered, "Yes, a pretty modest-looking girl."
"O my Lord!" cried the madman, "she is an angel!"
“A silent one," returned he.
"Why ay, my Lord, how stands she as to that? She looks all intelligence and expression."
"A poor weak girl!" answered Lord Orville, shaking his head.

I don’t know about you, but there’s something about this excerpt that reminds me of a discussion between Mr Bingly and Mr Darcy about Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, and Mr Darcy’s comment, “[She is] not handsome enough to tempt me.”

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