Archive for the ‘Fanny Burney’ Category

I loved Evelina by Fanny Burney.  It’s a silly, funny romp of a novel and I could not have been more delighted by its epistolary format.  I love fictional correspondence just as much as real-life exchanges and no correspondent, real or fictional, could be so reliably entertaining as young Evelina, writing to her guardian to tell of her adventures in fashionable London and her astonishment as she encounters absurd society folk, embarrassing family members, and first love.

The plot is absurd and many of the characters equally so.  This is clearly no attempt at social realism but instead a delightful satire intent on extracting as much enjoyment as possible from the exaggerated absurdities of late-18th Century England.  And how it succeeds!  As Evelina jumps from ball to party to picnic, finding more outrageous and incomprehensible behaviour everywhere she looks, her letters to Mr Villars only become more entertaining.  She is an innocent but shrewd observer of the world around her.  She makes no attempt to appear sophisticated or worldly and her astonishment at what she finds to be the norm in the city is charming:

We came home from the ridotto so late, or rather, so early, that it was not possible for me to write.  Indeed, we did not go, you will be frightened to hear it, – till past eleven o’clock: but nobody does.  A terrible reverse of the order of nature!

Though Evelina begins her adventures in the safe, comfortable company of her friends the Mirvans, she eventually moves on to spend time with the upstart grandmother she has only just met, Madame Duval, and her vile cousins, the Braughtons.   Poor Evelina, what a disturbing change for a girl used to educated, refined companions!  The arrival of the loud, jesting Captain Mirvan had been upsetting enough for her but the switch to the company of her unknown family is even worse.  Evelina is deeply embarrassed by her relations but is helpless to distance herself from them.  They are loud and boorish, unrefined and inconsiderate, and view Evelina’s reserve and astonishment at their behaviour as snobbishness.   I found this second volume almost upsetting to read.  Rather than enjoy the hearty comedy this section has to offer (and it is the most blatantly comedic volume), I could only feel the poor heroine’s distress at her situation.  I am a very empathetic reader and if there is embarrassment to be felt, as there surely was here at the rude behaviour of Evelina’s relatives and the innocent blunders of Evelina herself, I will flush just as red as the heroine and tremble to turn the page lest things get worse.

As befits the heroine of a light, fantastical romance, Evelina is not just good and young but also extremely pretty.  So much so that every young (or simply unattached) man she comes across must fall in love with her.  Lord Orville, he who is without peer in terms of virtue, meets Evelina at her first London social event, which is just the sort of thing that happens in novels (hello Mr Tilney) and must have raised giddy expectations among legions of young, female readers.  But Lord Orville, though the first and most worthy of Evelina’s admirers, is by no means the last.  Those who follow are varying degrees of awful and unsuitable but are all significantly more amusing than Lord Orville (romantic heroes are sadly too dignified to ever be truly entertaining).  But as much as I love Evelina, I did feel rather bad for Maria Mirvan, the dearest friend Evelina has in the world and her companion on her first trip to London, who seems to gain the attentions of no gentlemen at all.  Poor Maria, to be witness to the endless adoration of Evelina without provoking any similar attentions for herself.

While Evelina is a heroine I could not help but adore, Lord Orville is a frustratingly perfect hero.  Evelina’s letters to Mr Villars are full of gushing descriptions of Orville’s perfect manners and gentlemanly conduct but there is very little wit or vitality to him, at least during their early encounters:

The conversation of Lord Orville is really delightful.  His manners are so elegant, so gentle, so unassuming, that they at once engage esteem, and diffuse complacence.  Far from being indolently satisfied with his own accomplishments, as I have already observed many men here are, tho’ without  any pretensions to his merit, he is most assiduously attentive to please and to serve all who are in his company; and, though his success is invariable, he never manifest the smallest degree of consciousness.

Everyone who comes across him seems to agree that, yes, he’s quite perfect:

‘Certainly,’ said Mrs Selwyn, when he was gone, ‘there must have been some mistake in the birth of that young man; he was, undoubtedly, designed for the last age; if, if you observed, he is really polite.’

It was only in the third volume, when Evelina and Orville find themselves brought together during a visit to Bristol, that some of his frustrations and insecurities are revealed in his now much more determined courtship of Evelina.  And the poor man really is cruelly tested, between Evelina’s secretive relationship with the young Mr Macartney, Sir Clement Willoughby’s continuing impositions, Lord Merton’s crude overtures on the eve of his wedding to Orville’s sister, and Evelina’s own abrupt coolness towards Orville (on the advice of Mr Villars).  But, despite these obstacles, he pursues our heroine and, quite easily, wins her (as it was clear he was going to do from the moment he was introduced).  I wish more of the lover-like dialogue between the two had been included rather than simply alluded to but, given that it was all related in letters to Mr Villars, her father-like guardian, I can at least rationalise its exclusion.

The truly absurd family drama relating to Evelina’s father I’ll let you discover on your own.  To say it is complicated would be to vastly over-simplify the situation and it is truly the silliest part of the novel – I can’t help but laugh when I think about it.  When father and daughter finally meet, they have simultaneous hysterical outbreaks.  That scene may in fact have been the comedic highlight for me and I couldn’t help but think of how Jane Austen parodied such behaviour in her juvenilia.

I grew surprisingly fond of Evelina.  She is very innocent and very good and, in her letters to her beloved guardian Mr Villars, very honest, no matter how foolish her adventures make her appear.  But she is not silly or even stupidly naive.  She has some powers of discernment and a strong moral compass.  Most importantly (and often amusingly), she is able to correctly judge the characters of those around her.  Evelina values substance over artifice and her introduction to the world, after having spent seventeen years in a quiet country village, gives her the chance to test and develop the good judgement Mr Villars has instilled in her.  Indeed, it is when she finally acts on her own judgement (rather than merely reflecting on her instincts while allowing her actions to be guided by others), rejecting the advice of Mr Villars and trusting her judgement in welcoming the advances of the virtuous Lord Orville, that the reader can rejoice.  True, she trades the protection and guidance of one perfect man for that of another but she chooses to make that trade, she sees the honesty of her lover’s affections even when Mr Villars is warning her there is none.  She has grown into an independent, rational adult – which is more than can be said for most of the characters she encountered along her way.  A very satisfying ending to a wonderful entertaining novel.

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