Frances Burney (1752 – 1840) or more popularly Fanny Burney was an English novelist and playwright. Her sharp wit and keen observation prowess were celebrated in her own time.
Evelina: Or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World was first published in 1778. At that time period it was unthinkable for a woman to become a published author. Fearing negative publicity and the wrath of her father Burney first published Evelina anonymously.
Evelina is an epistolary novel. It tells the story of Evelina, a naive young woman from an isolated village, as she takes her first steps outside her sheltered home to the great big world. Through a series of lengthy letters her trials and tribulations, often funny and sometimes unpleasant, are related to the readers. A satirical version of the norms and fashions of the 18th century English society serves as a background to Evelina’s adventures.
Burney’s writing reminded me very much of Jane Austen’s (1775 – 1817) works. Austen was said to have been an admirer of Frances Burney’s books. In fact, the title for Austen’s celebrated Pride and Prejudice apparently comes from the final pages of Burney’s novel Cecilia.
This is a lengthy book but it didn’t feel long. I fairly flew through it.
The book does contain some irritating qualities. There is a certain repetitiveness in the untoward situations Evelina keeps getting into. Even the dialogues and the way she gets rescued are the same. The only saving grace is she mostly saves herself by running away from her tormentors (even though it does seem a little unbelievable after a while). If she was the type of heroine who depends on a man to rescue her every time and faints at the drop of a hat, I would have hated this book.
Among the main characters the protagonist, Evelina, is good. Her character does have the requisite ‘good woman’ traits but she is not irritating like so many other classic heroines.
Most of the male characters are reckless or boorish or both. The only two exceptions are Reverend Villars and Lord Orville. But they are more like cardboard cut-outs than real characters. Sir Clement Willoughby should be labelled as the villain of this piece but his character does have some ambiguous traits. The character of Mr. Macartney feels superfluous.
Both the characters of Madame Duval and Captain Mirvan I didn’t much care for. They are both insufferable. The way Captain Mirvan treats Madame Duval is outrageous to say the least. The Branghtons are more caricatures than anything else and some of the situations involving them are funny but they are infuriating nevertheless.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading Evelina. This is my kind of book. A classic with a simple story, good characters and a happy ending. Recommended.