Thursday, October 7, 2010

Review: Evelina

I've been hearing about Frances Burney in passing ever since I started reading Jane Austen criticism a year and a half ago. Though we think of Jane Austen as a 19th century writer, she spent her first 25 years in the 18th, and early versions of some of her novels were written before the turn of the century. Further, all the early formative reading she did was of 18th century authors like Frances Burney and Samuel Richardson. The association between Jane Austen and Frances Burney for me goes one step further--in George Knightley, Esquire, there is a cat named after a character from Evelina. So when I read someone's excellent review of Evelina, I rushed off to order it from the library.

It has, I believe, exceeded all my hopes. Evelina was written in the 1770s, and in the beginning I had to keep reminding myself of this, because all my Jane Austen associations were so overpowering. As I got further into the book, however, these associations receded--not because they ceased to be true, but because the book was so good I never thought of anything but the present story. 

The easy explanation of the plot is this: Evelina is the heroine, a naive but good and intelligent young girl, raised wholly in the country, who goes to London for the first time and embarrasses herself a lot. Because Evelina is so ignorant of town customs, she's the perfect person to point out their absurdities, and in this way the book is social commentary. There's also a question of her parentage, because her father is a cad who left her mother and claimed they weren't married, and the story surrounding this, when it is finally solved, sounds very much like something out of a play, full of misunderstandings. And of course, there is a love story.

I have never read anything written prior to Jane Austen, aside from poetry and Shakespeare, so I was not entirely sure what to expect from this. The novel is written in letters. I was surprised by how often the language sounded like Shakespeare, despite being written almost 200 years later. Certain phrases and modes of wit we associate with Shakespeare turned up here, none of which I've ever noticed in Jane Austen, 40 years later. Perhaps this is partly to do with Burney's writing style, or her choice of characters, or simply 40 years of language change. 

I found Evelina captivating, though I couldn't quite tell you why. It has a certain quality, in common with Elizabeth Gaskell novels despite myriad differences between the two writers, which makes it thoroughly satisfying. I loved it.

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