Friday, 12 September 2014

'Evelina' by Frances Burney (1778)

Synopsis: Evelina Anville is a 16 year old girl who has spent her entire life in the secluded countryside.  She's been raised by her godfather, the Reverend Arthur Villars, ever since her mother died during childbirth and her father refused to acknowledge her. "Anville" isn't Evelina's real surname. Evelina's profligate father Sir John Belmont only married her mother for her money; when Evelina's grandmother disinherited her mother he then tore up their marriage certificate and denied that they were ever married. Villars has raised Evelina as his own daughter and has seen to her education. Lady Howard, the matriarch of the Mirvan family and a good friend of Villars, then invites Evelina to accompany her and her family on a trip to London. Villars fears that Evelina will fall into corruption in the city but reluctantly agrees to let her go as he knows that Evelina greatly wishes it. In London, Evelina discovers a new world. Her beauty makes her prey to a variety of buffoons, rakes and unscrupulous men who wish to seduce her. Evelina meets a man called Lord Orville that she is genuinely interested in but, when she overhears a private conversation, she gathers that he doesn't have a very high opinion of her. Evelina fears that Orville thinks her a very foolish little girl. On the other hand an acquaintance of Orville's called Sir Clement Willoughby is obviously interested in Evelina, to the point where he puts her in embarrassing and compromising situations. Things become even more stressful for Evelina when she finally meets her vulgar grandmother Madame Duval, who wishes to take Evelina back to France with her. Evelina keeps her godfather informed by sending him constant letters.

Frances Burney might not be a very famous author now but she was hugely popular in her own time and her books were apparently a major influence on Jane Austen. I'm having a hard time believing that because reading Evelina has only increased my respect for Jane Austen's novels! Did Austen really enjoy a book as boring and preachy as this?!

Burney's characters aren't even close to being as likeable and interesting as Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer's. They're all boring and annoying and none more so than Evelina. If it wasn't for her being a stunning beauty I wouldn't have had the faintest idea why all of the men in the story keep falling for her. She's insipid, whiny, dim, passive and has no backbone or a sense of humour. She lets her grandmother, her cousins and Willoughby (ha!) walk all over her. I could appreciate that she was shy and didn't want to offend them but, when she kept getting into embarrassing and even dangerous situations because of these people and still didn't do anything about it, I could feel my sympathy slipping. Orville has no personality at all and I couldn't care about his romance with Evelina. Captain Mirvan and Madame Duval are so OTT that they're basically caricatures. Oh, and Arthur Villars has to be one of the most incompetent father figures that I've ever come across! He's supposed to be this loving and protective guardian but Evelina writes to him on many occasions saying things like "Willoughby grabbed me and prevented me from running away! and he doesn't do anything! Okay so he writes back saying things like "Ooh, I don't like the sound of that man one bit!" but he never does anything useful! Why couldn't he have given Evelina some solid practical advice or written an angry letter to Willoughby about his conduct?

Evelina is also an epistolary novel and although there are some epistolary novels that I absolutely love (The Woman in White, The Screwtape Letters) this is one of the weakest that I've come across. Evelina's letters are far too detailed and are full of things that you would never write to your father-figure. I'm very close to both of my parents but I would never tell them about what my innermost feelings were when I spoke to my crush!

There was another thing that really wound me up about this book. All the way through I got the very strong sense that Burney had a huge dislike of cities and city-dwellers and it really bothered me. Not that there's anything wrong with disliking cities but the story of the book is basically that some pure, innocent, virtuous young woman from the country gets thrown into cities with VICE and MORAL CORRUPTION! *dun dun da!* Apart from Orville, everyone that Evelina meets in London and Bristol is deeply unpleasant and means her harm in some way. Sometimes it's just clingy men asking her to dance but then at other times it's a lot more serious. At one point Evelina gets lost in a park and is then grabbed by a drunken sailor who tries to rape her! But not to worry, Evelina gets rescued by two women! But wait! These two women are sinister prostitutes! *sighs*

It honestly pains me to criticise anything that Austen might well have liked but personally I couldn't stand this book. I know some readers out there find this book funny but personally I couldn't find anything amusing about it.

Rating: 1/5


Anonymous said...

Well cities ARE dens of vice and corruption! Come live in the country where we are all sweet and innocent 0:)

Hannah said...

Yes and all people are from the countryside are Daily Fail reading racists and homophobes ;)

Anonymous said...

Sweet and innocent racists and homophobes though! ;)

M said...

This book sounds okay I guess but I probably would've rated it 1/10 too. Classical sort of books don't appeal to me. Great review though.

The Life of Little Me

Hannah said...

M - Thank you! I'll have a good look at your blog when I get the chance.