Friday, April 13, 2018

Evelina by Francis Burney

Evelina by Francis Burney was first published in 1778. This novel tells the story of Miss Evelina Anville. The entire book is written in the form of letters. Most of the letters are written by Evelina herself. Some are written by her guardian, Reverend Arthur Villars, and Mrs. Mirvin, a family friend. A few are written by others. The bulk of the narrative involves Evelina’s visit to the Mirvins and a later trip to Bristol Springs. Though written as an epistolary novel, some of the letters are long, complex and end up being closer to first person narration. Among other things, they contain long stretches of dialogue. 


The narrative alternates between the Mirvins’ country home, London and Bristol Springs. Evelina encounters a whole host of colorful people, many of whom are of very questionable character. Mme. Duval, Evelina’s vulgar and nefarious grandmother, shows up during a visit to London, threatens to take custody of Evelina and steel her away to France. Captain Mirvan, who is Mrs. Mirvin’s husband, is a bully and a bit of a sadist. Many other characters are crass, obnoxious or just foolish. 

There are multiple men in this book who show romantic interest in Evelina. Many are obsessive, creepy and lecherous. This applies to both major characters and minor characters, as well as random men that Evelina encounters. At one point, Evelina finds herself separated from her party at an outdoor concert. Disreputable and seemingly dangerous men approach her from all sides, 

“my recollection was soon awakened by a stranger's addressing me with, "Come along with me, my dear, and I'll take care of you." …. I found myself in the midst of a crowd, yet without party, friend, or acquaintance. I walked in disordered haste from place to place, without knowing which way to turn, or whither I went. Every other moment I was spoken to by some bold and unfeeling man; to whom my distress, which I think must be very apparent, only furnished a pretense for impertinent witticisms, or free gallantry. At last a young officer, marching fiercely up to me, said, "You are a sweet pretty creature, and I enlist you in my service;" and then, with great violence, he seized my hand. I screamed aloud with fear; and forcibly snatching it away,” 

The above illustrates a world that Burney constructs, populated with pushy, immoral and sometimes dangerous people. Though these characters often do bad things, the tone is the book is fairly light. People rarely actually get seriously hurt. Though these characters display questionable ethics, they are often humorous. Often, characters act in over-the-top and cloddish ways that are funny. They often conflict and bump heads with one another to comic effect. This novel is at times hilarious. Character after character, in passage after passage, confronts Evelina with bad behavior. Sometimes these characters go at one another in that they verbally spar and even play mean and sadistic pranks upon one another. The obnoxious behavior of many of these characters seems realistic, but its frequency as it is presented in this book seems overly exaggerated. The plot is also full of implausible coincidences. All this gives the book a lighthearted and, at times, frivolous feel. However, as a whole, this novel works well as satire. 

Lord Orville is Evelina’s virtuous suitor. He is one of several people in the novel who shows integrity and decency. Throughout the story, the pair encounters various ups and downs in their budding relationship. There is also a major plot thread revolving around the fact that Evelina’s biological father abandoned her and her mother before Evelina was born. Some of the Evelina’s elders want her to assert her birthright. 

In terms of plot and some of the more ethical characters, this book is similar to Jane Austen’s novels. This novel was written years before Austen penned her works. It is kind of like one of Austen’s books filled with clownish and nefarious characters. With that, the characters are not as complex or nuanced as Austen’s brilliant creations. The humor is not as subtle or witty as Austen’s; it is instead overt, but very effective. 

I find it interesting that the obnoxious behavior and character flaws of many of these characters seem very contemporary. People in this book tend to behave badly in the same way as they do in the 21st century. Mme. Duval seems like a modern, crass and vulgar person. Sir Clement Willoughby, one several men pursing Evelina’s affections, seems like a clingy guy whose behavior borders on stalking. Captain Mirvan resembles the people of today who cynically mock and belittle everything and everybody. This book reminds me that some things never change. 

Despite some flaws, this is a fine book. The plot is interesting. It is very funny. Though the characters are not nuanced, they are entertaining and interesting to read about. I highly recommend this novel to fans of Jane Austen and similar writers who came after her. 

34 comments:

Tracy Terry said...

Hi Brian, Apologies that I haven't dropped in Babbling Books for a while. Alas probably not one for me as as you know books written in letter format really don't do it for me. Still, as always, good to hear your thoughts, I too would find the almost contemporary take on the obnoxious behaviour/character flaws of some of the characters interesting

JaneGS said...

I've not read this one--I had no idea that it was funny. That's good to know. At first, reading your review, it reminded me of Dangerous Liasons (a good girl being bombarded by nefarious characters), but I found it depressing rather than satirical or light-hearted.

Yes, some things never change!

Mudpuddle said...

i've had this on my TBR list for years... her diary (i read the Everyman edition) is quite illuminating, indicating what the contemporary social life was like, what Dr. Johnson did, what the evening musical entertainments were like(FB's father was a musician and historian)... later in her life she suffered a very serious cancer operation, but she was a tough lady and lived til she was 88... tx for piquing my interest; i definitely will put this one on top...

Laurie Welch said...

I feel like a stalker: you keep reading books I plan on reading!

This is a great review and makes me want to read it even more! Yes, isn't it so interesting that some things never change?!!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - No worries. Life gets busy.

Since the book is all letters it might not be for you. With that, the characters are really amusing.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - I have not read or seen the film Dangerous Liaisons. I should give it a try.

I couple of characters who act honorably save this one from being dark.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle- The diary sounds like it is worth reading. I cannot imagine what a cancer operation was like in those days!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Laurie.

Humanity seems to be plaguing with obnoxious people until the end of time. If you read this I would be curious what you thought about it.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, Evelina sounds like a book I would like and the added benefit is that I have read very little when it comes to literature prior to the 19th century. Not sure why. Maybe I worry pre 19th century books won't be as relatable to my life or that the prose will be harder to understand but the passage you quoted from Burney, very understandable and well written. Thanks for another really fine review.

Whispering Gums said...

I have yet to read some Fanny Burney, which is shameful given my love of Austen. I really should read some of her specific antecedents. (BY this I mean, I have read some 18th century novels, but not any, really, that would lead to her.)

I liked your comment "I find it interesting that the obnoxious behavior and character flaws of many of these characters seem very contemporary. People in this book tend to behave badly in the same way as they do in the 21st century." This is what defines a classic - that the people are recognisable even if their lives and environments are very different to ours. Austen is the same. We all know people like Austen's characters.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy - You know I have not read many pre 19th century books myself. Aside from classical literature and Shakespeare that is. The 19th century was such a fruitful time for literature that a lot of us do not read a lot that came before. This was very accessible. It is also so obvious how this influenced the later English novelists.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WP - There are so many precursors to Austen here. With that, the book is no where as nuanced as her works. It is so true that in Austin’s books, so much behavior that is contemporary, can be seen.

Lory said...

This is a wonderful description - I've been meaning to read this book but didn't know much except that it was epistolary and an inspiration for Jane Austen. You make some of its strengths and weaknesses very clear and I'm more motivated to actually read it now.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lory - If you read this, I would love to know what you thought about it.

James said...

The epistolary novel was popular at one time but I've never been a big fan. This sounds like a good story given the number of interesting characters. It seems that people wrote very long letters in the day. How our communications have changed in the age of twitter.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph,

I enjoy reading epistolary novels. This one sounds humorous and interesting. Wonderful, honest review! Have a relaxing weekend.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian!

Interesting review. I have not heard of this author of the book, but I enjoyed reading your review. It is interesting how human nature really hasn't changed. I guess that's why we can read those books and relate.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I think that the mark of great and even good literature is that it is relatable over time place.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I think that the letters in this book may have been un - letter like even for the time. Many were so long. Many also had long stretches of dialogue.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko - I also tend to like epistolary novels. However, though composed of letters, a lot of this book was very un - letter like and more like conventional prose.

Violet said...

Can't you just imagine the ladies of Burney's day secretly reading this novel and getting their vicarious thrills? Such goings on! :)

I'm glad writers moved on from the epistolary novel form. The "letters" aren't letters at all, and it can feel tedious sometimes, pretending that they are. But, I guess it was an easy way to structure a narrative, especially for time-poor female writers who had to scribble in between performing all their other duties.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - I wonder how scandalous this stuff was for the time.

I never thought how epistolary novels fit in when it came to being time crunched as a writer. I would guess such structure might be a little faster to write.

thecuecard said...

It does sound funny. I'm not sure if I knew about author Frances Burney -- but she seems to have been making satire before its time. I like epistolary novels too / this was an early one! One of your earliest ?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - This book seems ahead of its time. It is the earliest epistolary novel that I have read, but as per Wikipedia there were many that came before

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistolary_novel

baili said...

what i got from your wonderful review is that people who love austen's work should not expect the same level of story and character building though ,they can read this because it has quite touch of her later works .
what amazes me is that the whole book is narrated as letters which sounds differently interesting .

thank you for another informative and brilliant commentary Brain!

Caroline said...

I never thought of reading this but your great review let’s me think I might enjoy it. It’s so funny that you say the characters’ bad behavior could also be from the 21st century. I thought that when I read the quote.
I wanted to let you know that most of my comments on older posts got lost. I wonder why that happens. Maybe it depends on the device I use.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili - Though I liked this book, and it clearly influenced Austen, it is not up to her greatness. In the case of this book, the letter format got a little awkward. I think that there are better examples of this kind of writing.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - That quote really could have taken place in the 21st century.

I did not look at all my old posts, but I found your comments on many of them. I always reply and I also did not find any replies to you where your comment was missing. It may indeed be the device that you are on.

Sheree Strange said...

You had me at vulgar and nefarious grandmother! Hahaha, what a fantastic character!! I'm still trying to settle on how I feel about Jane Austen - I've tried and abandoned Pride and Prejudice so many times, but I kind-of enjoyed Emma (well, I enjoyed it more once I read more *about* it afterwards and got some more context and analytical insight)... maybe reading something like this, in a similar vein, would help me figure it out. Thanks for sharing!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sheree - If you like over the top characters I think that you would like this. As far as Jane Austen goes, though I now love her works, I think that for s good part of my life I would not have liked her novels.

Marian H said...

At the risk of sounding cliche...this does sound like a relevant book, particuarly in the light of "#MeToo". I feel like I should read Frances Burney at some point... I did not realize she was a contemporary of Jane Austen.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Marian - Indeed, some of the men in this book engage in harassment and bullying. The horrible behavior seems relevant for almost any age.

HKatz said...

"vulgar and nefarious grandmother" - I really like this description, and it made me laugh.

I plan to check this one out. I've never read anything by Burney, but the parallels you draw between her and Austen are interesting.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Hila - The influence on Austen is so interesting. If you read this I would love to know what you thought of it.