I want to start out this post by saying, “There is no reason for Evelina to be an epistolary novel.” But I know that’s not true. There are reasons. I just don’t think it should have been one, or, if it is, it should have been done better.
So, what role do the letters play? The vast majority of them are from Evelina, and the vast majority of those are to her guardian, Mr. Villars. There are also several letters from Mr. Villars, and a few from Lady Howard, a false one from Lord Orville (really from Sir Clement), a real one from Sir Clement, and even one from Evelina’s long-dead mother. The letters from Evelina to Villars recount in great detail the time she spends away from him, in London and later in Clifton. And I consider these letters absurd.
In many ways the letters in Pamela are similarly absurd, and the amount of time Pamela must have spent writing them a bit much. But I feel it goes even farther in Evelina, not so much because of time but because of what the letters say. Letters in an epistolary novel must be believable as letters, and these are not. While you can get away with relaying brief conversations in a letter, the discussions Evelina writes about to Mr. Villars make her correspondence incredible. An enormous portion of her letters is given over to recounting conversations between many parties and in great detail. You can pretty much flip to any part of the novel and it will be Evelina going on for at least a page of direct quotations. I think this is a real flaw in the letters as letters. Couple that with the fact that, over and over, each letter is from “Evelina, in continuation” and the form seems ill chosen.
Gina Campbell argues in “How to Read Like a Gentleman” that
The publication of private writing…is as much a test of virtue as is the confiding of private thoughts to a moral authority. Throughout the novel the publishability of Evelina’s private communication with men proves her innocence and worth just as the publishability of the epistolary, and therefore ostensibly private, contents of Evelina proves Burney’s innocence of the scandal attached both to novels and to the female authors of novels.
But what is gained here by the publishability of Evelina’s letters that would not be gained, say, by the publishability of her diary? She would not be, all the while, confiding to her moral authority (Mr. Villars), but it’s not completely clear to me that would make a difference in her conduct—except for when she stops speaking to Lord Orville, but talk about contrived! And in fact, Campbell gives other reasons the epistolary form causes trouble:
Given the inherent selfconsciousness of letter-writing, a character’s repeated reference to her own virtue does not in itself convince us of that virtue. Indeed it may have the opposite effect, as Fielding’s response to Pamela makes clear.
Bald self-advertisement will not do, then, but neither will the kind of good deeds within Evelina’s powers. …Paradoxically, Evelina proves her virtue by her nonconformity: her ignorance of the forms of etiquette testifies to her pastoral origin, and her tearful explanations of the motives behind her trespasses attest to her superior internalization of the morality on which the rules of etiquette are based. Her faux pas give her the opportunity to explain herself, while her embarrassment proves her to have been acting unselfconsciously.
Of course, this can lead instead to finding Evelina vapid, as I do. Or, from William Hazlitt (in “On the English Novelists”), a better hatchet man than I:
[Burney's] ladies ‘stand so upon the order of their going,’ that they do not go at all. They will not abate an ace of the punctilio in any circumstances, or on any emergency. They would consider it as quite indecorous to run down stairs though the house were in flames, or to move an inch off the pavement though a scaffolding was falling. She has formed to herself an abstract idea of perfection in common behaviour, which is quite as romantic and impracticable as any other idea of the sort: and the consequence has naturally been, that she makes her heroines commit the greatest improprieties and absurdities in order to avoid the smallest. In opposition to a maxim in philosophy, they constantly act from the weakest motive, or rather from pure contradiction.
Is he missing the point? I don’t know. Since I don’t think her technique was all that successful, perhaps he isn’t.
As I said, there is some point to the letters. We get to hear from Villars a few times, for example. And Evelina has her confidante. But precious few of them are of material consequence in the story, and with Evelina relating nearly all the action (and able to relate all the action) they don’t seem that important. A first-person narrative by Evelina, mentioning a few letters here and there, would not have lost much effect, and would have gained in verisimilitude by the elimination of her ridiculous correspondence. And even though we do get a few intimate glimpses of a couple more members of the cast, it doesn’t add up to much. There’s no second-guessing, no putting together a detail here and a detail there for a fuller picture, no comparison of one writer to another to triangulate the “right” position. No questioning of Evelina, the main narrator, at all—and it is Evelina that really gives us the portrait of all the other characters anyway. It all gave me the feeling that Burney was just writing in this form because it was a hip thing to do, and that’s not a great reason.