All you need to know about the books you meant to read: EVELINA (1778) by Fanny Burney
Saturday 13 April 1996
by Fanny Burney
Plot: Evelina is 17 and beautiful with "a certain air of inexperience and innocence". Abandoned by her father, she is brought up in the country by her wise and sententious guardian, the Rev Mr Villars. Now of marriageable age, she is invited by a friend of Villars to stay in London. Here she learns to mind her p's and q's, and falls in love with the courtly Lord Orville. But her relatives seep with coarseness and snobbery and indulge in slapstick, and Evelina is stalked by the rakish nincompoop Clement Willoughby, who would be the villain of the piece were he not such a mess of affectation. Finally, Sir John Belmont acknowledges his deserted daughter and proves to be golden-hearted. Evelina becomes a wealthy heiress, which assists her marriage to Lord Orville. "I knew not till now,'' she writes "how requissite are birth and fortune to the attainment of respect and civility."
Theme: The exchanges between Evelina and her guardian are the moral core of the novel. Evelina is inexperienced, but her judgements are rooted in empirical observation. Burney demonstrates that although Evelina is free in her judgement, she must conform to the female stereotype of passivity.
Chief strengths: The book is a patchwork of previous writers. The claustrophobic domesticity of Richardson is given fresh air; Fielding's didacticism is presented more "objectively''; even Smollet's penchant for crude farce is included.
Chief weakness: The men - a dreadful bunch of club bores. The most difficult passages to digest are Evelina's outbursts about her guardian: "With a pleasure that bordered on agony, I embraced his knees."
What they thought of it then: Samuel Johnson thought it was better than Fielding. Gibbon read it in a day, Reynolds and Burke in a night.
What we think of it now: Burney's enthusiastic espousal of quietism poses problems; Richardson is more radical in his view of women's rights.
Responsible for: Inspiring Jane Austen, of course.
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