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EVELINA and a Sense of History

I was rereading Fanny Burney’s first novel, Evelina, recently. It had been a while; I’d retained a memory of a boring central romance surrounded by vivid characters, some comically broad, others standard for the period. The hero and heroine were of course models of virtue.

The basic plot is simple: Evelina, a gorgeous seventeen year old orphan, has been raised by a kindly recluse due to some wild family dynamics including lost heirs and lovers discovering they are brother and sister, popular tropes in the eighteenth century. She is noticed by all kinds of men—to see her is to instantly want her—but the only one who protects her when he coincidentally encounters her at various places around London and then the country is the perfect Lord Orville, who doesn’t drink, doesn’t gamble, doesn’t drive fast, and if I recall right, never laughs. (Though we do see genuine emotion in him after Fanny rejects him due to misunderstanding.)

Lord Orville is so bedazzled that he is willing to marry her no matter who she is. This was a radical notion in the eighteenth century, so radical that the last chapters are devoted to her being restored to birth and wealth after some long-lost letters get to the right hands. (He’s not the only one who wants to marry her, but the two other proposals are from bumptious middle-class guys, one of whom has pretensions to gentility that Evelina scorns.)

There are shadow-flashes of Jane Austen’s fiction all over this novel. Orville meets Evelina at a ball, like Elizabeth and Darcy; after seeing her behaving oddly (due to her complete innocence) he utters a negative judgment to some other gentlemen, which he later rescinds.  His rude, affected sister reminds me of Caroline Bingley, especially in the way she attempts to pay off the arrears of politeness after Orville and Evelina are engaged. Repeated lines and moments evoke Pride and Prejudice.

However, the differences between the two novels are significant. First there is the cultural divide; Burney’s novel partakes very much of the roughness of eighteenth century literature. It was hailed as exemplary for its decency and moral uplift at the time—a novel in which cats are beaten to make them squall for a joke, a monkey is flung carelessly about, Evelina gets taken up by a couple of prostitutes who foist themselves on her party, and a group of nobles gather around to make two eighty year old women race for sport, gambling on the outcome; when one falls down and can’t get up, and Evelina races to her aid, the gentleman backing her leaps to prevent her, calling “Foul play!” and yells at the woman to get up and get to the finish line as the entire company is consumed with mirth.

Captain Mirval, the sea-captain who plays a major role, is a far cry from the elegant Captain Wentworth of Persuasion—he is insensitive, and brutal, yet no one calls him on his abuse except his wife tries to talk him out of it, to be dismissed with a careless “Shut your clack, Goody!” and similar expressions. He is, in fact, invited everywhere, due to his good birth. Finally, to revert back to the Darcy-like judgment of Evelina at her first ball, this judgment by a social leader, plus the fact that Evelina seems to have no family, is taken as a signal by the listening gentlemen that she is fair game to be pursued by any means in order to gain her as a mistress.

The second differences is the high sentiment between the farcical elements; these were  popular at the time, and continued to be so until the more rational eyebrow-lift of Austen’s comedic view, for example outpourings when Evelina’s father at last meets her include such phrases as “a thousand daggers pierce my heart!” as both weep quarts of tears. Even in her juvenilia Austen resisted the temptation to splash about in high sentimentality. Though she apparently loved Burney’s first two novels, at least, she couldn’t resist poking fun at mawkishness, such as the exhortation made by the virtuous recluse to Evelina when she tries to reject Orville, that “nothing is so delicate as a woman’s reputation, the most beautiful and most brittle of all human things,” which shows up rephrased in the self-righteous cant of Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. To which Elizabeth and the perfect Jane sigh over the threadbare phrase.

After I’d enjoyed Burney’s fictive London of 1778 and its up-to-the-minute fashions, I looked at reviews on Goodreads, and was struck by one that went on and on about how the only “good” guy in the entire novel gets rejected by Evelina, and this is the more exasperating as he was the only one who bothered to write her a letter. And it was such a lovely letter, too, showing how much he cared for her.

This is what happens when we read something without understanding the context of its time. The first fact that the reader had totally missed was that handsome ne-er-do-well Willoughby (sound familiar?) never intended marriage. He wanted Evelina for his mistress. In writing a letter to a young lady, a guy in the 1770s risked besmirching her rep; young ladies were not permitted to write to men outside the family, or they were engaged and the parents sanctioned the correspondence. Equally important, the letter was offensively familiar—and Willoughby intended it to be read so. But you’ve got to know not only the customs of the time, you also need to know the idiom enough to catch the intended tone.

Fiction is, among other things, an intellectual game that purports to be history. That’s why we like that snap of verisimilitude, so we can believe in the story, accept it as history, at least for as long as the story lasts. If we really like it, it sinks into our memory alongside our own personal histories, which includes what we have known about the past. Or what we learn about the past; as often as we hear “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” we are admonished to never believe the view of history we find in fiction. But it’s almost irresistible to do it anyway, because fiction does slide so easily into memory alongside our other experiences.

Burney had an eye for detail. Her characters attend the opera, a playhouse (both plays they see were popular at the time and the actors real persons), they go to Ranelagh and Vauxhall—the latter which was, by 1778, regarded as rundown and raffish by the elite. Burney gives the reader a glimpse inside women’s minds, their private rooms, their worries when husbands do wild things, their ambivalent standing when they go toe-to-toe intellectually with men, as does the formidably sardonic Mrs. Selwyn*.

Burney also gives us an excellent view of the ambivalent attitudes toward the French of the ancien regime; no one seems to mind when vulgar Madame Duval gets tossed into a ditch during one of the many violent pranks of Captain Mirval, yet French phrases are sprinkled through the dialogues of the  . . . haute monde, whose ton (style) is led by those who must be ever à la mode.

Of course it’s an idealized, or exaggerated view, for Burney was writing fiction, not a memoir. I think reading such books is a bit like watching old shows; years ago, when I viewed some episodes of I Love Lucy with my kids, their questions made it clear that they were picking up details of a much different life (“Did everyone smoke all the time like that, even when pregnant?” “Twenty-three skidoo, what’s that mean?” “Did women really wear hats and gloves when they went out to dinner or clothes shopping?” “What’s a party line?”) whereas I see the glossing over of the realities of life in the fifties as I experienced them. With me there to translate words and actions no longer in use, that show gave my kids an impression of the time; just so, if the reader knows that a negligee was a sort of informal day dress, and that mauvaise honte is pretty much the equivalent of maidenly shame, and is familiar with the hidden rules of letter writing, calling, courting and so forth, she can get a fairly good sense for what life was like during 1778.

Finishing up, I want to emphasize that the Goodreads reviewer was not “wrong.” The conclusions we draw from our reading depends on so many things, and at least I (when a student) got so tired of being told my interpretation was “wrong,” especially in certain classes whose teachers seemed to feel that specific philosophic views were the only proper conclusions to be made about a work. The reader, in lacking knowledge of 1778 London, found Evelina’s acceptance of Orville and her rejection of Willoughby inexplicable. The point I want to make is, if we find inexplicable passages in an older work, or one representing an unfamiliar culture, sometimes it can repay the effort to do some further reading about that time and place. A revisit to the novel will light up those passages, increasing the reading pleasure.


*Was this a tip of the hat to the brilliantly witty George Selwyn, who never married?


1 thought on “EVELINA and a Sense of History”

  1. When Captain Wentworth, at the end of Persuasion, speaks of writing to Anne Eliot a year later, when he could offer progress, he knows that her writing back would be restarting the engagement. Then, he had already gotten her father’s permission, however cool.

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