I believe that many people will find my attachment to this novel to be somewhat singular, yet I must confess that my affection for Evelina can hardly be surpassed by that of the hero for the eponymous heroine.

Fanny Burney, who would later become Madame d’Arblay and write a moving account of her unanaesthetized mastectomy in 1811, wrote a novel in her teens called Caroline Evelyn, about a nice girl who gets lured into a private marriage and then abandoned, pregnant, with no proof of her child’s legitimacy. This type of story was quite common among novels written by women in the eighteenth century, actually, and even Charlotte Temple, America’s first bestseller, was a similar don’t-trust-handsome-men warning tale for young women. Writing was not seen as an appropriate activity for a young lady in the 1770s, though, so Burney burned all her early writings. By her mid-20s, when she had passed the age that women of the era pinned all their future hopes on marriage, she wrote a sequel and got it published without her family’s knowledge. Caroline Evelyn is summarized in the first few chapters, and then we move on to the story of her daughter, Evelina.

The novel is in the epistolary style so popular to the eighteenth century, and chronicles a young lady’s first introduction to society. It reminds me of Lydia Melford’s letters in The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, but Lydia’s letters are balanced by others of her family while Evelina’s are so numerous that the few other writers hardly seem mentioning. The structure of the story lends itself well to the three-volume division that was common at the time, as Evelina spends each volume with a different set of people, the Mirvans, the Branghtons, and Mrs Selwyn. At one point there is a mention of Justice Fielding, and I can’t help thinking she’s consciously referring to Henry Fielding, the comic novelist who later became a magistrate. The humor of the novel is very much in his style, and I sometimes feel sorry for Evelina because her writer makes her narrate so many practical jokes that she herself fails to enjoy. It’s a bit like asking Richardson’s Pamela to become the protagonist of Tom Jones.

Burney seems fully aware of some of the issues that we in the twenty-first century recognize as of prime importance: gender and class. Women are expected to be decorative, and one of the characters actually says that he doesn’t understand why women live past the age of thirty because then they’re only in someone else’s way. The same guy later has a conversation about how important it is that a woman never seem to be more intelligent or stronger than any of the men around her. Compare this with Burney’s own life, and the fact that she didn’t marry until she passed forty. After she was considered a confirmed old maid, she met someone who found her desirable enough to marry and gave her time to continue her writing, and they seem to have been very happy together. And as for strength, she was almost sixty years old when she had a breast removed, let me repeat with no anaesthetic, and then she lived for nearly thirty years more in apparent good health. She’s kind of amazing. However, the best she can do for her time is to have the moral centre of her novel say,

Though gentleness and modesty are the peculiar attributes of your sex, yet fortitude and firmness, when occasion demands them, are virtues as noble and as becoming in women as in men: the right line of conduct is the same for both sexes, though the manner in which it is pursued may somewhat vary, and be accommodated to the strength or weakness of the different travellers.

Today we would cavil at the idea that women are somehow essentially gentle and modest, and indeed, Burney’s characters call this idea into question. But think of the 1770s, before Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, and give her credit for the gesture toward gender equality.

Class is rather an important issue in the novel. At the time the novel was praised for its accuracy in portraying working-class dialect, but I didn’t meet any characters I could really think of as working class. There are servants, of course, but they rarely speak. I think they must be referring to the Branghtons, who are only working class in that they do work. Mr Branghton owns a shop and rents rooms – he is an employer, not an employee. He is in trade, which separates him from most of the characters, but there are hardly any Dickensian brickmakers, or even any of Fielding’s shrill dairymaids. Evelina’s world only contains one named character who is really poor, and even he is revealed to be the son of a baronet. The Branghtons torture Evelina by trying to seem aristocratic, as in this description of one of their close friends:

In the afternoon, when he returned, it was evident that he proposed to both charm and astonish me by his appearance; he was dressed in a very showy manner, but without any taste; and the inelegant smartness of his air and deportment, his visible struggle, against education, to put on the fine gentleman, added to his frequent conscious glances at a dress to which he was but little accustomed, very effectually destroyed his aim of figuring, and rendered all his efforts useless.

This group is entertaining to us who don’t have to associate ourselves with them, but Evelina is miserable with them. Mr Branghton is always insisting on doing everything as cheaply as possible while his children want to live the high life with the upper class who frequent their shop. In the end nothing is done well and they are only spared embarrassment by their colossal insensitivity. They are Evelina’s cousins through her grandmother Madame Duval, an English barmaid who married up twice and now has a rich French husband, so she pretends to be native French gentry. But no matter how she’s dressed, she’s still a barmaid with an inflated sense of self-worth. In this, she’s not really that different from ‘the quality.’

The Mirvans are more highly placed than the Branghtons, but it seems that Burney isn’t quite sure what to do with well-behaved people. Mrs and Miss Mirvan are so self-effacing that they practically disappear from the narrative. It’d be tempting to forget the family altogether if it weren’t for the Captain. Captain Mirvan has just arrived in England after a seven years’ absence at sea. His time abroad has unfit him for the life his wife and daughter lead, and he compensates for this by abusing Madame Duval for being French. He concocts several practical jokes to play on her; he only injures her dignity and her clothes, but that may be more of an accident than evidence of care. He’s often joined by Sir Clement Willoughby, one of Evelina’s suitors. Sir Clement is one of those guys who can’t take a hint; he pursues Evelina through three hundred pages without realizing that she can’t stand him. Captain Mirvan and Madame Duval seem equally matched in terms of manners, and Sir Clement only talks better than they do. The people who don’t need a profession are just as vile as those in trade; money and status aren’t the best indicators of worth or respectability.

The shining star of the aristocracy is Lord Orville, who alone seems to care how other people are feeling. At first, Evelina mistakes his manners for ordinary:

These people in high life have too much presence of mind, I believe, to seem disconcerted, or out of humour, however they may feel: for had I been the person of the most consequence in the room, I could not have met with more attention and respect.

But more contact with Sirs and Ladies puts that notion out of her head. Indeed, I find that to encounter such a person is just as rare in real life as it is in this book. This passage reminds me of a line from the otherwise-forgettable Brendan Fraser/Alicia Silverstone flick A Blast from the Past, when he explains to her that a gentleman is someone who tries to make everyone around him feel comfortable. I try to be like this, but generally I fail through oversensitivity. My emotions shout so loudly within me that it’s sometimes hard to hear what anyone else has to say; I only seem still and silent to others.

In fact, I am far more like Evelina than I feel I ought to be. Being a seventeen-year-old raised in isolation, she has a marvelous excuse that I can’t claim. I’m twice her age and was raised in a large family, so I was constantly around people. Maybe the problem is that I was with too many different kinds of people, so I never learned to ally myself with any particular cultural niche. Even today I feel uncomfortable if I find that I’m typical of any group of people. If I’m told that I’m classic gay, I’ll ‘straighten’ myself out. If I seem too high for my company, I’ll start dressing like a lumberjack. And if I’m too much of an Appalachian cracker, I read plenty of books, and especially books that are hundreds of years old or written by international authors.

But as I mentioned, she and I are similar in a lot of ways. I felt that Mr Villars was talking to me when he tells Evelina,

But you must learn not only to judge but to act for yourself: […] do not, by a too passive facility, risk the censure of the world, or your own future regret.

I have been blessed with a splendidly passive facility, which leads to my own future regret and sometimes the censure of the world. I need to struggle against it, particularly as the time comes for me to re-embark on the job search. I’m great at thinking for myself, but taking active steps comes less easily. And even though I’ve been travelling all over the country and the world, I still find myself, like her,

unused to the situations in which I find myself and embarrassed by the slightest difficulties, I seldom, till too late, discover how I ought to act.

The ex was once in a group of students listening to a well-known author, and someone asked what it took to become a good writer. He explained to the group that from his youth he had had the habit of replaying events from his day in his mind, imagining how things would have happened if someone (usually himself) had behaved differently. This tendency to correct reality doesn’t guarantee a writing career, but he had never met a successful writer who didn’t have it. I do this all the time. It’s annoying, frankly. But when I’m dissatisfied with my own behavior, I play the scene back and write myself a different part. Sometimes that part fits my character, sometimes not. Sometimes I picture myself acting so far out of character that I wonder if I really know who I am at all, and who I would have been if the circumstances of my life had been different. But things being as they are, I keep making false steps, offending where I mean to comfort, wasting time being shocked, and ignoring real affection in favor of the conditional love that I expect. Like Evelina,

my intentions are never wilfully blameable, yet I err perpetually!

Which may explain why I’m alone on the wrong side of the world, and why I keep remembering things that I probably ought to have apologized for, but that happened so long ago that I doubt anyone else remembers, or cares. My perpetual erring is particularly noticeable when I’m around people I’m attracted to. I don’t know how to act, so I’m offensively silent, or I interrupt when I ought to have kept my mouth shut; I’m either too aloof or too familiar; I start to get close and then I push people away. Or run off to another city, state, or country for a few years.

Perhaps my closest affinity for Evelina is in the manner in which we fall in love.

Young, animated, entirely off your guard, and thoughtless of consequences, Imagination took the reins, and Reason, slow-paced, though sure-footed, was unequal to a race with so eccentric and flighty a companion. How rapid was then my Evelina’s progress through those regions of fancy and passion whither her new guide conducted her! – She saw Lord Orville at a ball, – and he was the most amiable of men! – she met him again at another, – and he had every virtue under heaven!

I mean not to depreciate the merit of Lord Orville, who, one mysterious instance alone excepted, seems to have deserved the idea you formed of his character; but it was not time, it was not the knowledge of his worth, obtained your regard; your new comrade had not patience to wait any trial; her glowing pencil, dipt in the vivid colours of her creative ideas, painted to you, at the moment of your first acquaintance, all the excellencies, all the good and rare qualities, which a great length of time, and intimacy, could alone have really discovered.

You flattered yourself, that your partiality was the effect of esteem, founded upon a general love of merit, and a principle of justice: and your heart, which fell the sacrifice of your error, was totally gone ere you suspected it was in danger.

Yup. That’s me. I might be in my thirties, but this passage still describes me well. It was eleven years ago that I met the ex and imagined her to have all sorts of good qualities that I desired, rather than knew, her to have. In eight years of marriage, continually treating her as if she were kinder than she is helped her to develop that quality, and her treating me as I were more assertive than I am helped me to develop that as well, but after the breakup we snapped back to our original characters like rubber bands suddenly relieved of pressure. Not quite back to where we had been, of course, but separating from a spouse is such a paradigm-shifting event that you change very quickly, mostly by rebelling against the person the former spouse wanted you to be. And it was just this summer that I had that sudden crush on the guy I’m trying not to think about, because I don’t want a repeat of the same experience. The ex and I spent all our free time together for nine weeks and got married (not decided to get married – I proposed after twenty-three days, and she had already made up her mind to accept if I should ask), and it was good for a while, but I don’t want to rush into things again. I certainly don’t want to end up smitten with someone who’s going to treat me badly, again. This time I’m going to pay more attention to reality – how does he treat strangers, for instance. The ex could be nice to me, and to people she knew were important to me, but not to cashiers or office clerks who didn’t follow her idea of how she should be treated. Besides, after being with a couple of guys who become intimately violent, and paying attention to who I feel attracted to in films, I’ve realized that I tend to fall for psychos. Sure, David Tennant is my favorite Doctor on Doctor Who, he seems the most capable of really loving someone, but when The Master has him trapped and is dancing around singing, “I can’t decide whether you should live or die,” I wish I were dancing with him instead of trying to save DT. I love villains, the more self-loving the better, and that makes me very suspect of anyone I might feel attracted to in real life. The next time I enter into a relationship, I’m going to be more careful.

So. Who would I recommend this book to? Anyone who loves Jane Austen. Burney’s society here is set a little higher than Austen’s gentry, but it’s also about thirty-five years earlier, so the manners are pretty similar. It’s also a good recommendation for someone who likes Ann Radcliffe, though it’s more comic than Gothic. Someone who likes Fielding but not Richardson may find it too sedate, someone who likes Richardson but not Fielding may find the humor too physical, and someone who loves Smollett and no one else may find it a bit too feminine, but if (like me) you like most of the eighteenth-century authors whose works have survived this long, don’t miss this one. Evelina is the best introduction to Burney fiction because it’s a normal length for the time period, but it’s the shortest of her novels. Cecilia and Camilla went to five volumes instead of three, and I think The Wanderer was four. I’ve not been brave enough to read them yet; The Mysteries of Udolpho was the last four-volume novel I read, and I’m not in a hurry to do that again. It’s also good for students of the history of English, since several spelling and grammatical choices are different than what we now consider standard. Choose is spelled chuse, happy people are chearful, and educated people say ‘you was.’  Evelina is cute, funny, imperfect, an impressive debut novel, a pure delight.

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Comments
  1. No clever commented here, but I loved this. Didn’t think anyone else had ever read it!

    • theoccasionalman says:

      I seldom run into anyone who’s enjoyed anything written in the eighteenth century. We have an unaccountable prejudice against it in the United States. It’s good to find someone who knows what I’m talking about when I bring up Burney. 🙂

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