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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Evelina (1778) by Frances Burney

Evelina by Frances Burney, first published in 1778

Book Review
Evelina (1778)
by Frances Burney
Evelina (Wikipedia)
Evelina (Google Books)
Evelina (Amazon)

     Evelina was the first novel by 18th century British novelist, Frances Burney. Evelina was her first novel, initially published in 1778 when she was 26. I imagine Burney the author as an 18th century equivalent of a pop star. You can’t write about Evelina without commenting on what a success the book was. The mere fact of Evelina’s endurance, in print, for over 200 years speaks to that success. The more 18th century literature I read, the more I find myself drawn to the marketplace for that literature. I wonder whether, ultimately, there is anything particularly interesting about 18th century novels other then their relationship with the readers.

       Burney is most well known to contemporary readers as a direct, immediate influence on the work of Jane Austen. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call Jane Austen the most successful novelist of all time. Does anyone else come close?

      However, Burney was the one of the first woman to score a hit number one novel. And she did it at 26. Eliza Haywood preceded her, but Haywood hasn’t endured in the same way. That is a significant feminist achievement. It happened long before western attitudes towards gender equality softened. Prior to Burney, plenty of novels had been written ABOUT young women, but none had been written BY them. An easy example is Clarissa-era Samuel Richardson. Burney was influenced by Richardson, but she wrote with a distinctly feminine point of view, and I think it was this distinct authorial voice that let to her success in the literary marketplace of London in the late 18th century.

     Evelina tells the story of the young girl raised in the country who comes to London to be introduced to society (and find a husband, of course.) Evelina is the unacknowledged daughter of a wealthy lord, a fact which plays a small part in the plot until it takes center stage in the last act. Evelina experiences trial and tribulations in London society before settling down in a last chapter double wedding. Is there any more satisfying ending to an 18th century novel (or Elizabethan drama) then a double wedding? You can resolve any plot by staging a double wedding at the end of the story.

    Burney’s writing doesn’t go particularly deep, but her description of the social environments of 18th century London were very much front and center. Her narration of social space is something that I think carries through right on through to today. For example, I would hypothesize that the primary market for the initial edition were young, middle class/upper class women living both inside and outside London. Perhaps a small portion were familiar with the environments of the pleasure gardens and “assemblies” of the fashionable set in late 18th century London, but I would wager most were not. They were readers who wanted to know more about these places.

     Burney was the daughter of a man who was known as a “musicologist” although when you read about him he sounds like an early forerunner of a Hollywood producer type. Burney grew up in these environments observing from the perspective of a person who was paid to perform at and design these environments for consumption. The extent to which Burney is able to successfully describe the complex bustle of an 18th century London pleasure garden from the perspective of a young woman was a key to her success. While Evelina resembles a fore-runner of a Jane Austen marriage conflict book, Burney herself did not content herself to stop with a single plot. Her later works Cecilia and Camila more resemble the work of Charles Dickens, with Burney focusing closely on class relationship and the effect of the market economy on human relationships.

The market success of the young woman perspective has, in the past, been meditated by layers of male control. Burney, for example, followed up Evelina with a play that was to be her career achievement. However, her father, who worked in theater, flatly told her that such a thing would be impossible and the play was never staged. Burney wrote a novel so she could write a play, but she was forbidden from writing a play by her father because she was a woman. Think about that for a moment.

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