READ: MARCH 10 - 25, 2012
RATING: 9 OUT OF 10
REASON: REQUIRED READING FOR ENGLISH LIT. CLASS
'Lord Orville did me the honour to hand me to the coach, talking all the way of the honour I had done him! O these fashionable people!'
Frances Burney's first and most enduringly popular novel is a vivid, satirical, and seductive account of the pleasures and dangers of fashionable life in late eighteenth-century London. As she describes her heroine's entry into society, womanhood and, inevitably, love, Burney exposes the vulnerability of female innocence in an image-conscious and often cruel world where social snobbery and sexual aggression are played out in the public arenas of pleasure-gardens, theatre visits, and balls. But Evelina's innocence also makes her a shrewd commentator on the excesses and absurdities of manners and social ambitions - as well as attracting the attention of the eminently eligible Lord Orville. Evelina, comic and shrewd, is at once a guide to fashionable London, a satirical attack on the new consumerism, an investigation of women's position in the late eighteenth century, and a love story.
Although this took me a while to read due to other reading commitments, I enjoyed this book vastly. I may be in the minority, but I definitely prefer Burney's humour and romance to Austen's! Although the epistolary style can sometimes interrupt the flow of the story, there were times when I didn't want to put this book down because I needed to find out what would happen to Evelina next. My English tutor claims that there aren't any authors prior to Austen who can create realistic characters with psychological emotions, but I honestly found Evelina to be far more of a believable and flawed heroine than Elizabeth Bennett, who I truthfully believe to be the first unflawed Mary Sue! I laughed at Evelina's etiquette errors, particularly when it came to ballroom rules, and wanted to shake Clement Willoughby by the neck whenever he preyed on Evelina and interfered with her growing relationship with Orville. I got annoyed with Orville's jealousy over Macartney, and wished that Evelina had the ability to tell Orville the truth about her situation. I found Evelina to be far, far more of an engaging and relatable character than any of Austen's heroines, and I felt sufficiently satisfied with her happy ending, no matter how long it took to reach it, and how many times it seemed so far out of her grasp.
My only real complaints with this book would have to be that sometimes the humorous scenes between secondary characters began to drag, especially those near the end of the novel between Mrs Selwyn and the gentlemen who were visiting Mrs Beaumont. These scenes often started out being quite amusing, but they went on for pages and pages with no purpose other than to provide entertainment, and didn't succeed in moving the plot along. Captain Mirvan's scenes were similar, and while the one with the monkey was funny to begin with, the way it developed (and I don't think the issues between Lovel and Mirvan were ever really concluded?) just made it even more bizarre. Especially since this scene occurred so close to the conclusion of the story. Perhaps I was missing out on some of the humour of the period (although the notes at the end of the Oxford edition of the book are extremely useful, and I'd recommended readers to make use of these as much as possible) but I found some of the humour a bit tiring.
Despite my displeasure with some of the humour in this novel, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it has to be my favourite text so far in my class on the Development of the Novel. Although I'm up to my ears in necessary reading for university, for reviews and from recommendations from friends, I would love to read more of Burney's work in the future. Since this is her first novel, I would love to see how her writing develops. While I was initially cautious at reading a novel from 1778, since I had grown quite tiresome of Samuel Richardson's Pamela, which is not much earlier than this novel, I found Burney's writing incredibly compelling, her characters most engaging and capable of developing their own voices and personalities, and her plot seemed far more structured than that of other novels from the period. If you're at all intrigued by this novel, do take the time to read it, for I think you will find it worth the time it takes to read. I think this would be of particular interest to fans of Austen, and I would be intrigued to hear what die-hard Austen fans think of this book. Personally, I've never been a great lover of Austen, although I do enjoy her novels, and I find it interesting that Burney is so much lesser known although she writes of similar subjects, in what I think is a much more engaging manner.