Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

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.

20 Responses to “Frances Burney – Evelina”

  1. nicole

    The grotesque characters were probably my favorite thing about Evelina, which is pretty standard for me. But I wished Evelina herself had been a lot smarter. That’s one problem I don’t have with Austen, but I felt like Evelina was truly an idiot at times, though I thought Lord Orville was perfectly nice.

  2. Charlotte

    Aaaah, libertines (does she call them rakes too? That’s one of my favorite “new to me” English word of the past few years). Anyway. I admit I’m going on a tangent there, but did anyone actually write well of libertines (in England) at that period? We always seem to encounter them from other characters’ point of view (yes, I’m looking at you, Pamela)– and I bet they’d make a refreshing alternative to our wholesome heroines sometimes.

  3. verbivore

    Nicole – The argument scenes in Evelina were hilarious, I thought. Captain Mirval insulting the French, Mrs. Selwyn insulting everything ridiculous about everyone. I thoroughly enjoyed that aspect of Evelina. I agree with you on the heroine herself; she was supposed to be a country bumpkin, yes, but she went too far for me. And Lord Orville was nice, but a bit flat. He didn’t actually speak all that much.

    Charlotte – True, that would be interesting. How about a reformed libertine? I actually loved how in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Alec d’Urberville is supposed to have reformed but the minute he sees Tess he’s instantly off the wagon. Oh, the power of a pretty face.

  4. smithereens

    Damn, I knew it! I knew you’d love Evelina! What I didn’t know is that Miss Petitvore would imagine all kinds of ploys to try to win over your attention…

  5. Biblibio

    Ahh, but not all heroines are truly worthy of such intelligence. I got a little sick of Austen’s perfectly charming, intelligent, wonderful, awesome, etc. characters. Evelina is a little more realistic, stupid, dull. A little more… human.

    I still regard this book as one of the funniest I’ve read in my lifetime. Possibly because I just didn’t expect to laugh quite so much, but really… this book should be marketed as pure gold for wannabe pranksters. I got some excellent ideas…

  6. Stefanie

    Here’s another I’ve been meaning to read for ages. You are making me want toss out all my other books right now and dive into this one!

    • verbivore

      Let me know if you do, I suspect you’d love it. It was a great summer evening read.

  7. Colleen

    I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages – sounds like fun! Have you read Samuel Richardson’s Pamela?

    • verbivore

      I haven’t, and I’m a little afraid of the staggering word count. But I suspect I would like it.

  8. Lilian Nattel

    Now I want to read this, too. And I want a reader to read it on, but I’m waiting until the next generation. They’re in the works with some significant improvements. So I may just order this one from the library!

    • verbivore

      I just saw the news about the new Kindle coming out. You’ll be in a fine position very soon to take your pick of a good reader!

  9. ds

    Fanny Burney. Why not? You always find and introduce me to the most interesting stuff, and the 18th century was a hoot, literature-wise (I still chuckle over Tristram Shandy). Mlle Petitvore is getting quite an education!

    • verbivore

      I haven’t read Tristam Shandy yet, but it’s on my list. I’ve heard it’s really funny.

  10. Amateur Reader

    did anyone actually write well of libertines (in England) at that period?

    The real celebration of libertines doesn’t get going until Byron – see the first two cantos of Don Juan (1819), for example.

    But then, what about Fielding and Smollett? Tom Jones is not exactly a libertine, but he’s a lot, let’s say, freer in his sexual behavior than Richardson or Burney would approve of.

    And if it’s just a question of point of view, Richardson followed Pamela with one of the greatest libertine’s in literature, in his own words, for hundreds of pages, most of them pretty extraordinary.

    • Charlotte

      Clarissa is a little scary for that “hundreds of pages” reason exactly… But I guess I just downloaded it. Now we’ll see if I can find it in me to read it!

      • Amateur Reader

        I can hardly imagine reading Clarissa on an e-reader. But it’s not exactly convenient to read as a regular book, either!

  11. Dorothy W.

    I’m glad you liked Evelina so much! I’ve read Burney’s The Wanderer, which was quite good, but very long and I haven’t worked up the energy to read her other long ones yet. If you are interested in more from the time period, I’d recommend Edgeworth’s Belinda, and also Susan Ferrier’s novel Marriage and Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story. I admire them all quite a lot. Mary Wollstonecraft also wrote a couple short (unfinished) novels.

    • verbivore

      Thanks Dorothy, I will try The Wandered and I’ve got Edgeworth’s Belinda on my Kindle already. I’ve noted the other names as well. I hoped you might have some info for me, knowing your work with 19th century lit.

  12. Amateur Reader

    I just read Marriage (1818). The first hundred pages were brilliant – domesticated Fielding – but the rest was a period piece.

    You know, the major contemporary of Austen is, perhaps unfortunately, Walter Scott (first novel 1814). He admired Austen enormously, and perceptively, which is something.

    • verbivore

      I promised you (well, I really only promised myself) that I would read Walter Scott this year. And I started Waverly…and then got distracted. I liked what I read, but then got distracted. I’ll try again soon, since I’m still in a 19th century kinda mood.

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