Reading Evelina, the epistolary first novel of Frances Burney that catapulted her into renown among the likes of Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson, I passed from boredom through annoyance and on to boredom again. It left me cold. I was disappointed, and yet questioned that disappointment. After all, I’d heard Burney was a precursor to Jane Austen, who’d also always left me cold. Maybe somehow I thought a real and true eighteenth century Austen would be more fun than the Regency version, but it was not to be. It may even have been less fun.
But I am not a Hatchet Woman, sadly, and by the time I’d read the essays in my Norton Critical Edition I was warming up. Well, that’s a lie; I wasn’t warming up at all. I just felt it would be even harder to be a Hatchet Woman.
I mean, I could do it for a book I really hated. But this was just…so empty for me. Evelina herself felt ridiculous. I couldn’t get worked up about what a sop she was, or the awfulness of the conduct book advice that would mold such young ladies, because she was just too vapid for me to care. “Unable as I am to act for myself, or to judge what conduct I ought to pursue, how grateful do I feel myself, that I have such a guide and director to counsel and instruct me as yourself!” Like, gag me with a spoon. I mean, I guess she’s not really vapid; the appreciationist in me sees how she fights off those awful men with the only tools she has, or whatever.
But that’s sort of what’s weird about this novel for me. Evelina is a bit nasty, and Burney prefigures Austen here too, in her criticism of manners and the different ranks of society. It’s sort of good, and sometimes it’s funny. But it’s not, I think, as funny as Austen, and it wasn’t enough to make it for me.
This is one of those books that makes me feel like I might like it better if I had read it as a contemporary, or if I had somehow contrived to read literature only in chronological order. I’d be able to appreciate it in an authentic, visceral way, rather than the totally theoretical way I do now.
There are a few sort of interesting things, I suppose. The boorish Captain Mirvan is, as several critics note, practically something out of Tobias Smollett. And really a bit out of place—to me this is sort of the bridge between that kind of eighteenth century humor and early nineteenth century primness. (In a way, Evelina is a lot like Pamela without the titillating naughty bits.)
One of the most disappointing things for me was the letters themselves. I’ll get to that tomorrow. The appreciationism is creeping a bit there, but I am still not convinced this really takes good advantage of the form.