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.
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.
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.