I confess. I loved Evelina (1778). I could not put it down. It struck me about 3 o’clock this afternoon as I was guarding my Kindle from a rather drooly Mademoiselle Petitvore that I probably needed to put the book down and pay a little more attention to my child before she pulled every single book off our shelves or rip up the entire box of stray paper for recycling. I had been, ahem, somewhat engrossed and she was getting a little stir crazy.
We packed up for a long walk and I only read a few pages (okay 20) when we reached the top of the hill. Luckily, both she and the dog were busy contemplating each other and the view.
In my quest for something Austen-esque, I quite succeeded. The similarities were striking: an unlucky heroine of impeccable moral character thrown into a variety of adventures where she must prove herself, an array of fascinating character portraits from all levels of English society, lively dialogue and a critical eye on social customs and behavior.
Yet, at the same time, Evelina has a very different flavor than Austen. It was more daring, more slapstick (yes, I’m talking about that monkey scene). It went further, on many levels, than any of Austen’s books. Her grotesque characters (Madame Duval, Captain Mirval, Mrs. Selwyn) are quite outrageous. I was very partial to Mrs. Selwyn, whose dialogue actually got me to laugh out loud. Her serious characters (Evelina, Lord Orville, Mr. Villars) were a little more drab than Austen’s. I wanted Evelina to be just a bit smarter at moments, and Lord Orville was a teensy bit of a yawn.
And by daring, I also mean that it was just a touch more explicit. Austen readily treats the notion of a “libertine” but always keeps the threat a little bit off of the center stage. Burney introduces her reader to not just one, but to a parade of these scoundrels. It made for lively reading.
Also, the pace of the novel was fantastic. It just hummed along, energetic scene after energetic scene. Evelina’s constant kerfuffles did start to grow a little old toward the end, but they were admittedly varied enough to keep a reader happy.
I’ll be heading to Burney’s letters and diaries next, and then will try some more of her novels. Perfect summer reading.