Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Evelina by Fanny Burney

Fanny Burney was a female novelist in the late 18th century, widely thought of as the precursor to Jane Austen. Austen, in fact, professed an admiration for Burney's work. I mention that little historical note, because I'm going to say now, if you like Jane Austen, you should DEFINITELY read Fanny Burney.

Evelina is the story of a young girl of indelicate birth (that is, her father has never claimed her as a legitimate daughter) and her debut into society. It follows the tale of her learning the ways of the world, her return to good fortune, and her romance. But for me, what really shines in this story (much like Austen, again) is all the secondary characters. The various low-lifes she meets in the London aristocracy are drawn to a despisable tee, the fellow she eventually ends up with is one of the original square-chinned English dreamboats (if that's a spoiler, you've never read a romance, ever), her grandmother is a masterful (if prejudiced) lampoon of the obnoxious foreign tourist, and her foster father is a charming mixture of didacticism and genuine warmth and love.

An additional plus was that this is an epistolary novel where it ACTUALLY feels like the letters are letters. You know, as opposed to a cheap plot device. The individual letter writers (most are written by Evelina, herself) have distinct, believable voices, and you feel the intimacy and candor of a letter without the 'hello my name is Mr. Exposition' feel of some other epistolary novels.

The language is vintage late 1700's - thick, as purple as a ripe eggplant and dripping with grand, powerfully elegant adjectives. I felt like I was eating literary Yorkshire pudding - sure you know it'll kill you eventually, but it just feels so honestly picturesque.

The book is not perfect - it lacks Austen's sharp wit, and sneering sense of the ridiculous, and could do with it at times (One of her other novels, Pamela, was parodied by Henry Fielding, and it's easy to see how an ungenerous soul could make mince of the story).  The language is sometimes so in love with its own billowing cloudiness that it descends into a dirty fog. But, it was a wonderful, charming read, completely naive and unironic, endearingly hopeful, and terrifically, anachronistically sweet.

One final thing - sadly, the book is VERY much in it's time, in terms of the way it deals with women. Ms Burney did not write rebels in this book. Watching Evelina being dominated, bullied, pushed around, and controlled by the men around her sadly makes up a significant portion of the book, and it's terrifically stifling, and amde me feel mentally claustrophobic while I read. And you can feel the author struggling blindly against this - the love interest is admired at one point, for instance, for having an 'almost feminine delicacy of feeling', and you can feel the author trying, very hard, to figure out how to ask why delicacy and gentleness are gendered attributes at all. And in the end, while Evelina isn't strong and defiant in the way that, say, Lizzie Bennett is, you feel a sort of sibling tension for her, hoping she manages to find her way happy through to be her own delicate lovely self without being taken advantage of.

PS - If nothing else, you have to respect a woman who couuld produce novels while wearing that hat... respect the hat!


Amanda said...

I can't respect that hat. It's far too hideous.

Ana S. said...

I felt like I was eating literary Yorkshire pudding - sure you know it'll kill you eventually, but it just feels so honestly picturesque.

This sentence completely cracked me up :D I think I'd like to read this sometime. The gender power dynamics are sadly to be expected, but when it comes to older books sometimes it satisfies me to merely look for the cracks.

Rebecca Reid said...

I'm not sure this is a book I can handle. I'm trying to imagine Austen with out the wit, and the fog kind of scares me away. But who knows. I think it came up in my children's literature textbook I've been reading. Will have to go back and reread that part of it.

thanks for the review

L said...

I think I'd totally like this as I'm a Regency England freak! I've never heard of her, but then I'd never heard of Georgette Heyer either and now I'm hopelessly in love with her.

You should give her a try sometime Jason.

Julie said...

The language is sometimes so in love with its own billowing cloudiness that it descends into a dirty fog.

Yet, it still sounds comforting like a 'tried & true' recipe for a book. Yeah, was this book like comfort food? Or not?

Mel u said...

I like this book a lot also-I would have liked to see more letters written by someone other than Evelina-thank you for sharing your thoughts-the book is a good slice of life of 18th century England

Anonymous said...

I love "Evelina" - and I thought it was really funny, though it's been many years since I read it.

"Pamela" was written by Samuel Richardson.

Unknown said...

Anonymous - Thanks! I noticed that later, and don't know how I got my facts mixed up :D