Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Evelina by Fanny Burney

"If you like Jane Austen, you'll like Evelina," my 18th-century Brit lit professor promised us before we began reading this book. I'd never heard of it, but I do like Austen, so I was interested to see if my professor was right. 

So, was he? Am I going to send all you Janeites running out to the bookstore to buy Evelina?

In a way, it was a lot like Jane Austen. Like I said, it's a story about a young woman coming out into society. Plus, it has other Austen-esque features, such as: romance, class issues (and sometimes, class issues IN romance--that's a bonus), marriage, annoying people who won't shut up, gender issues, propriety problems, and probably lots more.

But believe it or not, with all those similarities, this book really didn't feel much like Austen to me. It was somewhat darker. Unlike with Austen novels, the characters didn't spend all their time in the drawing-rooms of the gentry. The "improper" people weren't just snooty Catherine de Bourghs inviting young ladies to play their pianofortes; they were often genuinely cruel, rude, creepy, or just downright gross (or all of the above). Just a few of the events that would never show up in an Austen novel:

  • A man pretends to be a robber in order to assault an elderly woman and tie her up to a tree (because he thinks she's annoying)
  • Evelina gets lost in London and inadvertently makes friends with a group of prostitutes
  • Several men force two elderly women to race against each other (for entertainment) and then yell at them when they fall down
These sorts of things happen throughout the novel. It actually gets a little disturbing at times. Evelina's hands are pretty much tied; despite these constant atrocious pranks and accidents, she can't seem to do anything to protect herself or anyone else. Half the time, she's not even allowed to make her own choices. 

Burney doesn't have the same kind of lighthearted irony that Austen does. Evelina has a pretty big dark side. But then again, so did 18th-century England--and I think Burney makes some points that needed to be made. Women really didn't have much freedom--if they were thrust into a group of people who refused to protect them properly, then they were pretty much done for. Thankfully, Evelina had a couple good friends and a stroke of luck that saved her in the end (so yes, it has a happy ending), but I had the feeling that she was barely making it out unscathed. 

Have you ever read (or heard of) Evelina? What do you think of it? 


  1. Huh. I wouldn't promise any Jane Austen fan that they would love Evelina. Interesting. I know that Austen admired Burney very much, but I think she did very different things.

    I have read Evelina twice (and Cecelia once, though that was long ago and I've forgotten it). I agree that Burney is pointing out the helplessness of women in her society, but it also seems like Evelina's virtue lies mainly in her passivity--she fears and she faints and she endures. I think the only time she ever *does* anything is when she assures her true love that she didn't do something.

    I should read Cecelia again, but it's about 900 pages long and kind of daunting.

  2. I agree. We talked about Evelina's passivity in my class as well. I didn't really touch on it because it's still something I'm thinking about and I'm not sure what Burney was trying to do with that. I agree that it seemed like Evelina's passivity was her virtue, but I wasn't sure that it was a good thing, or that Burney thought it was a good thing. A lot of the time, Evelina wanted to do something, but she didn't really have a lot of options. Anyway...I'm not sure where I'm going with this...but I like what you have to say. :) Haha. I may have to read Cecilia.

  3. Interesting! This talk of her passivity makes me think of Fanny Price, who is my least-favorite Austen heroine. Would I also be annoyed by Evelina, then? or should I give this a whirl?

    BTW, a blogging-friend of mine is running an Austen-themed giveaway right now that you might be interested in. Her blog is newer and only has a few readers, so I'm kind of spreading the word to people who I know like Jane Austen :-) Her blog is called Reading in the Dark, and you can enter the giveaway here.

    1. I've never actually finished Mansfield Park...but from what I remember about the first part of it, Fanny Price was quite annoyingly passive. I didn't think Evelina was like that. For one thing, it's an epistolary novel so you read about almost all the events in her own voice, and she has pretty strong opinions (even if she doesn't voice them at the time), so her passivity isn't as mysterious. Also, I didn't feel like she was passive because she was shy; she was just trying to do or say the right thing, most of the time. That's what I got out of it, anyway; I felt like I could relate to Evelina, so I wasn't annoyed as much by her passivity.

      Thanks for letting me know about the giveaway! I entered. :)

    2. I don't blame you for not finishing it! I've read it twice, and decided after the second reading that no, I really just don't like it much, and doubt I'll read it again. Okay, maybe when I'm seventy or something.

      My library doesn't have Evelina, so it's probably going to be a while before I read it. But it's going on my tbr list :-)

    3. Mostly I just didn't finish it because I didn't have time, and it was just a slow read for me. Not as fun as other Austens. But I do plan on finishing it someday.

      As for Evelina, I'll be interested to see what you think of it!

  4. I read Evelina about six years ago (so details may be a little fuzzy), but I really enjoyed it. I do remember getting annoyed with Evelina at times that she didn't do anything, but it seemed out of her control, so you can't really blame her. Although I would agree that Burney's writing is hardly "like Austen's," every Austen fan I know that has read Evelina enjoyed it. Pretty funny...granted, that's only about four people. Also, thank you for entering my giveaway--you won the movie, Lost in Austen! (And Hamlette, thank you for promoting it!) I couldn't find your e-mail address, but if you could e-mail me your physical address, I'll send the movie ASAP: hew1988 {at} gmail {dot} com

    1. Woohoo! Thank you! I will send that right away.