Today I am here with a review of Evelina by Frances Burney as part of my list for The Classics Club. This book has been on my TBR for years. I read parts of it for a graduate course years ago and wanted to experience the full text.
Overall, I had mixed feelings about this novel. There were parts I really liked and parts that really annoyed me. It was a bit disappointing to not love it after the anticipation of reading it for several years. But I think it’s an important text as it represents 18th century British literature rather well (at least based on my limited prior knowledge of the time period).
- I have heard Frances Burney was an inspiration for Jane Austen. I can see how that would be the case but I also think Jane Austen is so timeless for a reason. I found the story and characters not as fascinating or compelling as Austen’s.
According to Goodreads, “Frances Burney’s first and most enduringly popular novel is a vivid, satirical, and seductive account of the pleasures and dangers of fashionable life in late eighteenth-century London.
As she describes her heroine’s entry into society, womanhood and, inevitably, love, Burney exposes the vulnerability of female innocence in an image-conscious and often cruel world where social snobbery and sexual aggression are played out in the public arenas of pleasure-gardens, theatre visits, and balls. But Evelina’s innocence also makes her a shrewd commentator on the excesses and absurdities of manners and social ambitions–as well as attracting the attention of the eminently eligible Lord Orville.
Evelina, comic and shrewd, is at once a guide to fashionable London, a satirical attack on the new consumerism, an investigation of women’s position in the late eighteenth century, and a love story.”
One of the elements I enjoyed the most in this novel was the epistolary form. I love books written in letters (Guernsey being the obvious example that comes to mind). I think this is a clever way to tell Evelina’s story. We mostly get letters from herself to her adopted father Rev. Arthur Villars. But we also get mixed in letters from Rev. Villars, Lady Howard, and a few others. It’s interesting to see how each character’s personality can be identified thru the tone of their letters. Evelina is innocent and good. Rev Villars is wise and kind. And Sir Clement is cunning and worldly. Also impressed by how many details especially Evelina includes in her letters from dialogue to descriptions of theaters and country walks. Perhaps because we don’t write letters like this anymore, I found the attention to detail so fascinating.
The characters were either supremely good or overwhelmingly bad which was not my favorite characterization. Some characters are quite lovely and well developed. My favorites are Lord Orville and Rev Villars. Those two men represent all that is good and honorable about this time period. And are a stark contrast to most of the other characters in the story. Basically everyone else was really annoying, vulgar, and almost inappropriate. Madame Duval is eccentric and seems to have no understanding of proper decorum or how to act in society. Also I was just annoyed by how she comes out of the woodwork and wants to adopt Evelina and take her to France. But hasn’t she known about her for her whole life and now seems to just want her for the money? Also she’s just not a classy person. Then we have the cousins that all overstep the proper actions of decorum for the time (women walking alone in the dark, drama at the theater). And they are just embarrassing! Captain Mirvan is the epitome of a classless individual. He is vulgar and plays some really mean (although also pretty clever and funny) pranks on people (pretended highwayman robbery and the monkey!!). Sir Clement drove me crazy because he is so forward and acts like everyone loves him but he’s constantly pushing the limits of appropriate behavior and lacks the social grace and poise of a true gentleman. He does not treat Evelina with respect and is constantly acting like he knows better than her. Then everyone in the house excepting Lord Orville in Bristol were ridiculous, pompous, and vulgar.
I wanted to like Evelina herself but sometimes her naivety hindered her likability as a protagonist. Evelina wants to be good and truly cares about the people that have helped her in her life especially Rev. Villars. Yet, the majority of the time, I was frustrated that Evelina often made bad decisions or at least questionable decisions without learning from her mistakes. She seemed to never really gain any wisdom during the novel. Also why was nearly everyone determined to push her into making poor decisions? From Sir Clement Willoughby taking her home alone in his carriage to the Braungton sisters insisting she ran away from them in the dark garden, everyone seems determined to be unclassy and inappropriate. Perhaps it’s my love of Jane Austen, but I just didn’t like how vulgar and ridiculous everyone was. Most characters lacked class, sophistication, and the fascination of Austen’s timeless protagonists.
The plot focuses on the classic “coming out into society” story of Evelina with interesting and annoying elements. I did like the plot about discovering Evelina’s father and the surprise twists to Evelina being accepted by him. But that plot was more of a subplot to the endless line of uncomfortable experiences for Evelina both in London, Howard’s End and Bristol. The middle of the book dragged for me and felt repetitive as the same ridiculous people were doing the same sorts of outlandish things. I just got bored of reading the same sorts of escapades happening over and over. Also, I would have liked more development in the love story of this novel. It seems to abruptly come together and more development would have made it more memorable.
I’m glad to have read this book for the Classics Club because it was published in the 18th century. Having taken a class on British literature of this time period, I know that this tone and vulgarity were rather common during this time period. I suppose it’s just not to my taste. Interesting but not my favorite and a bit disappointing overall.
What 18th century novels have you enjoyed?
Thoughts on satirical versus sincere texts?