Monday, March 7, 2022

Loving Fanny Burney's "Evelina" & Trying to Find a Good New Book



If you are a fan of Jane Austen, you will love Fanny Burney's epistolary novel, Evelina, a best-seller in 1778.  This comic novel is a precursor of Austen's work, and I experienced the delight I felt when I discovered Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.   


The subtitle, The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into Society, encapsulates the plot of this gentle comedy.  Evelina, a well-educated young woman, has led a sheltered life in the country with Rev. Mr. Villars, her overly-protective guardian.  Her mother, Caroline, died in childbirth after fleeing from her licentious husband in France; and Evelina's father denies the marriage and does not acknowledge his daughter.  When Mr. Villars receives a letter from Lady Howard and learns of Madame Duval's  plans  to travel from France to meet her granddaughter, Evelina, he is upset and afraid.  Lady Howard suggests that Evelina visit her at Howard Grove, where she herself can supervise the girl's meeting with the coarse, impulsive old woman.  And Mr. Villars agrees.


The novel takes the form of a correspondence between Mr. Villars and Evelina. She sends him pages of her journal; he praises her judgment and gives advice.  When she travels with with Lady Howard to London, she records every detail of their entertainment: the opera, the balls, and walks at Ranaleigh, a pleasure garden.

Perhaps most memorable is her first ball, where she meets Lord Orville, a quasi-Darcy, only unsnobbish; and his witty rival, the unscrupulous Sir Clement Willoughby.  Lord Orville is constantly saving her from rude strangers in fashionable society; the mischievous Sir Clement harasses her and likes practical jokes. After offering Evelina a ride home from the opera, Sir Clement drives miles out of the way, until she realizes she is in a strange neighborhood, and yells at the driver to stop.  She learns to assert herself.

On her second visit to London, she travels with Madame Duval, who attracts adverse attention by too much rouge and her strange, broadly comic dialect.  The rich people who formerly admired Evelina ignore her with Madame Duval and her cousins, a shop owner and his daughters.  Class determines social interactions. Evelina understands their superficiality but is impelled into unacceptable, if comic, situations.  Madame Duval and her cousins are indelicate and ignorant - especially at the opera.

Vivien Jones, in the introduction to the 2002 Oxford edition,  praises Evelina's "capacity for independent judgment and spontaneous enjoyment."  I admit, my take-away from this comic novel is not so much her good judgment (Evelina is naive) as the sense of humor that helps her decode and defuse the mines of London society. Burney, a playwright, entertains us with witty dialogue, broad humor, stock characters, and interweaves them into a very funny novel. Not only that:  she can also craft long, exquisite sentences, with rhetorical flourishes.

This novel will charm Jane Austen fans.

ON READING NEW BOOKS:  Tenderness by Alison Macleod

Every New Year's Eve,  I resolve to read a new book a month. Then I jettison it.  This year began well with Marian Thurm's comic roman à clef, A Blackmailer's Guide to Love,  and Penelope Lively's new book, Metamorphosis: Selected Stories.  Since then, nada.  I have rejected a few new literary novels after reading the first 100 pages.  They are not terrible, but will probably be short-lived.  My doom is depending on good reviews.  Better by far to browse and then choose.

And so I found a copy of Alison Macleod's Tenderness, a long, lyrical novel that has potential. It centers on the impact of D. H. Lawrence's banned book, Lady Chatterley's Lover.  In the beautifully-written, innovative first section, Lawrence, who has finished his book, is dying of tuberculosis while his wife Frieda openly cheats with her lover.  And the Lawrence-ian prose is interspersed with quotes from Lady Chatterley. 

Macleod makes a graceful transition from Lawrence's death to the  year 1959, when the elegant Jackie Kennedy, a fan of Lawrence's work, dons a cheap raincoat as a disguise before she attends the obscenity trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover in New York.  An FBI agent with a secret camera in his briefcase recognizes her and snaps her picture for the files of J. Edgar Hoover.  I've reached the 100-page benchmark, and though I'm slightly bored by the FBI, I plan to continue.  This ambitious book is 600 pages long, and I don't know if Macleod will pull it off - but I'm looking forward to meeting Lionel Trilling. 


  1. Actually it does not charm me, though I agree it is absorbing reading. Her journals are better than her novels is my view. Burney apparently did charm
    Austen. Alas nothing nothing in all Burney's writings about her reading
    Austen. Ellen

  2. I don't think Frieda can be described as "cheating". The Lawrences had an open marriage, even if Frieda did all the opening. All the same., I think a little dishonesty - as in concealing the fact that she had another lover from they dying Lawrence - would have been kinder here.
    "Honesty" is often a reason for people to behav badly or cruellyu.

    1. Yes, they did have an open marriage. The fictional Lawrence acknowledges it, and doesn't seem to resent it, but a little tact on her part might have been better here!

  3. Thank you for your review. It drew this book to my attention and I finished it over the weekend. I was sometimes a bit lost in time when the narratives shifted but overall a pleasant read. I have gone back to Lawrence's first version of Lady C. It is very much like a Mary Webb atmospheric novel (only ~100 pages in so far) and not strident a bit.

    1. Lawrence has attracted a lot of attention lately: every time I turn around there's a new novel or biography about him. Since I like him, I'm thrilled. I do like Lady C. I want that Mary Webb atmosphere so will look for the first edition.

  4. Its so good to see him coming out of the wilderness. I love Rainbow and Women in Love too. The volume I have with the first and second Lady Chatterleys is from the Cambridge edition of Lawrence. It is available in paper and hardback. I got mine off ebay but amazon has it too. After reading Tenderness it was just a small step to go to Lady C. And of course I love the Jackie bits. A nice little subplot! Of course it is hard to read her so sympathetically portrayed, knowing what her life holds in a couple of years.

  5. Really he is one of the most brilliant writers of the 20th century - though he did also write some really bad books. It was clever to include Jackie as a character. In Macleod's afterword, she says that Jackie and JFK did discuss Lady C with Lionel Trilling at the White House.