Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Evelina by 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!