In this comic and sharply incisive satire of excess and affectation, beautiful young Evelina falls victim to the rakish advances of Sir Clement Willoughby on her entrance to the world of fashionable London. Colliding with the manners and customs of a society she doesn’t understand, she finds herself without hope that she should ever deserve the attention of the man she loves.
If I had to describe Evelina in a sentence, it would be: “Kind of like Jane Austen, but brutal and hilarious, with a random monkey attack.” I read this through two parties over the weekend, because I was right in a good bit and didn’t want to put the book down! Fanny Burney it turns out, was a phenomenal woman, and one that I’m very eager to learn more about- she wrote the first written account of having a mastectomy whilst awake, she was imprisoned by Napoleon and she was writing behind the back of her dreary father. Definitely a rad lady.
The nasty comments about various characters fly about the book like sparks from a welder, there is monkey hitting, fake robberies, men throwing themselves at women’s feet and then grabbing them bodily when they reject them, and a fair amount of French hating. It all amounts to a rather entertaining book, if you can stomach all of that- and I know others found it difficult.
Evelina herself is a rather frustrating character. As soon as the love interest walked into the scene, I knew he was the one she’d end up with, and I was correct. It only took her about 450 pages to work it out though, which was the annoying part. Other than that, she was a pretty well rounded character, and one who could hold her own in a bunch of madcap family members and friends. Some situations made you pity her immensely, making me want to leap into the book and save her from people!
The men who continuously fall in love/lust with her becomes quite hysterical, and very overdone, but her reaction to all of them made me keep laughing and reading. It did begin to drag as the book wound itself down, and then it ends rather abruptly, making me wonder why Burney chose to end it there, but also I kind of understood it, as her entry into society is complete.
The epistolary format didn’t take long at all to get used to, though I wished we could have more opinions on situations from other characters. We hear most of it from Evelina’s point of view as a kind of letter-journal format, which I felt was slightly underused.
I really didn’t like Mr Villars, Evelina’s guardian, as he kind of felt too engaged with her choice of man and future… and what was up with all his carry on about wanting to die in her arms?! Who does that?! I seem to be the only one to feel a bit cringey with his letters, he made my skin crawl at some points!
The treatment of women in the 18th century makes me think that Burney wasn’t exactly exaggerating the amount of physical violence Evelina was subjected to. I know it makes modern readers uncomfortable, as we (well, most of us…) don’t think hitting and grabbing a woman is okay, but there was no such feeling in those times. The treatment of animals in the novel is sometimes quite awful, and again, this is in keeping with the times. We mustn’t try to wipe all this out of the older novels, or dismiss them because of it, as it’s teaching us about where we’ve come from and what life was like not so very long ago. The race between two old ladies was a disgrace, and is set up to be so by Burney herself, to show what awful people the men were- depiction does not equal endorsement, people!
Random monkey attacks aside, the novel is a really interesting one, and one can see the beginnings of later English writers in Burney’s writing; Jane Austen being the foremost, but hundreds of other texts likely owe Burney some of their beginnings. It is important to understand the kinds of rules Evelina is breaking to understand why her faux pas are so dreadful, however, so if you’re unfamiliar with 18th century life, I’d suggest having a read about that first. I did so, even though I’ve read 4 of Jane Austen’s novels and had a fairly good idea of what was going on, but I definitely appreciated this book more for having read “Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England” by Roy and Leslie Adkins beforehand- in fact, I wish I had done so earlier in order to really appreciate some of Austen’s subtlety.
Some say that 18th century writers “don’t know…or abide by the rules of writing”, but let me throw some light here… there were no rules. The novel was a brand spanking new baby, it didn’t exist in the form we recognise today until the 17th century. Most rich people read poetry, history and philosophy, not stories, and certainly not in volume form from circulating libraries. The so called rules of literature were being born in these works, the tropes some people have disliked in this weren’t really “tropes” at all, since they were being created bit by bit! Especially, ESPECIALLY for a woman. Burney’s dad was furious when he found out his daughter was writing novels, as it was considered the height of impropriety. I think that’s why I enjoy books like this, because I can see how the writer was playing with a new medium, pushing the boundaries and creating the groundwork for what we have today.
So yes, if you like 18th century literature, if you like Jane Austen and want to see more of this period, or if you’re just really interested in social life in the Restoration period, go for it! Evelina was a really enjoyable read, and one that has definitely made me develop a bit of a lady crush on Fanny Burney!