Lucinda Elliot

Review of Fanny Burney’s ‘Evelina’


I’m re-posting this old review. My goodness, I can’t believe it’s been eight years since I wrote it. This was around the time I published ‘Ravensdale’. I’ve been writing this blog forever…

I’ve finally finished this three volume marathon and I wish I could write a more positive review.

I am particularly sorry to write a negative one about a woman who wrote one of the first novels which highlight women’s issues, in however limited a fashion, and who so bravely underwent an amputation of the breast in the days before anaesthetics.

However, I do think that these points I make, which I haven’t found elsewhere, need saying.

I started off with high hopes, and if at first the heroine seemed priggish and smug and the characterization generally seemed flat, then after all, eighteenth century novels often take a long time to get going.

I could see that the author was making a genuine attempt to depict the treatment of women in a society where they had no vote and were openly regarded as second class citizens ( as distinct from  having the vote and being seen by many covertly as second class citizens).

Yes, well. I seem to be in a sour mood today, but I’ve been reading this book for the last few weeks, and whatever my mood, I had strong criticisms of it that unfortunately outweighed my appreciation of the author’s attempt to address problems previously ignored by largely male writers. Probably they shouldn’t have; but they did.

Interestingly, although I’ve only taken a cursory look through the literary criticism of this on the web, I haven’t found the points I thought  particularly weak or objectionable mentioned.

I was surprised at the sheer dullness and flat characterization in  this classic, which supposedly is written with such brilliant psychological insight, and I had heard, has a likable, human heroine. I found the characters one dimensional and often their actions were frankly unbelievable.

It is certainly true that it does attempt to tackle the problems faced by a sheltered, aristocratic young woman when exposed to the false values and male dominance in wider society, but because Evelina and her mentor and guardian Mr Villars also endorse those same patriarchal values which the rakes and fops hold in debased form, this criticism is toothless and ineffectual.

I have often wondered from where Mary Bennet in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ got her sententious quote about women’s so-called honour being ‘as brittle as it is beautiful’; now I know: it’s straight from the pen of goody-goody Mr Villars.

This is meant to be largely a comic novel with serious purpose and I’m all for that. Yet somehow, I didn’t find it worked for me (it obviously did for Johnson, and may well for many others), because the characters are all like caricatures, which removes any possibility of drawing any serious lesson from them.  Again, I usually love knock about humour, but as all this (save the monkey incident) is directed at aging women (in the case of the race, between two women of over eighty)  it is painful rather than funny.

I don’t see how Captain Mirvan’s pretending to be a highway robber, dragging Madame Duval from her carriage, shaking her, tearing off her wig, dumping her in a muddy ditch and leaving her tied up is anything but purely ugly. For sure, the heroine protests that it is very bad, but it is clearly intended by the author to be an amusing episode too. Later, Evelina greets the man she knows did this to her grandmother with smiles.

A problem often cited with another epistolary novel, ‘Pamela’ is that because she has to repeat scenes highly flattering to her, she comes across as vain, reveling in Mr B’s obsessive pursuit of her.  I often wondered just how I could feel so unsympathetic towards a young girl at the mercy of her immoral rape-contemplating master. I found the same problem arose here.

It’s made worse,because unlike in real life, the other women who are rivals for male attention don’t even deny Evelina’s vaunted attractions and appeal for men. They just sulk soundlessly while Evelina solemnly reports every compliment she receives from the immoral rakes to her guardian. We never hear of any spiteful, jealous put downs from her rivals. If women are going to be shown as sexually competitive, the writer should at least be realistic about it, and show the levels of spite to which low minded women can unfortunately descend in such situations.

In recounting scenes meant to show wearisome sexual harassment and even a semi abduction, Evelina comes across as smug and obsessed with her physical assets.  Presumably, besides the ‘red and white’ complexion so admired then,  which is much commented on in the novel, these would include the long nose and double chin also fashionable.

I know modern writers like myself go in dread of being accused of creating a Mary Sue, and this is a term often used unthinkingly by reviewers over a character they resent, but I think one has to read this to realize just what a real Mary Sue is (or a Marty Stu, in the case of the faultless, handsome and brave Lord Orville).

Everyone either desires, admires, envies or frankly worships Evelina. The qualities of her mind are constantly stressed, though they seemed very unremarkable to my twenty-first century understanding, except in her ability to repress anger against the father who for so long rejects her. Everyone thinks Lord Orville is wonderful, too, except himself and possibly, the villain of the piece Sir Clement Willoughby.

Though supposedly a good Christian, Evelina sits in harsh judgement on all the morally faulty characters – eagerly repeating their misbehaviour in tones of outrage –  save for her father Sir John Belmont. This self- satisfied priggishness doesn’t seem to be seen by the author as one of the difficulties in coping with society which Evelina must overcome if she is to be wise and prudent.

As for the hero, he never comes to life at all; the heroine might as well fall in love with a handsome talking statue which utters highly appropriate phrases at times; the villain of the piece, Sir Clement Willoughby, is far more lively and interesting.

There are also a series of highly improbable, even ludicrous, co-incidences in this involving Evelina’s unknown half brother, Mr Macartney (as, incredibly, she never gets round to referring to him by his first name, I don’t know what it is).

On going to Paris, he just happens to meet and fall in love with the woman whom he later finds out is believed to be his half sister, and then on going to London, he just happens to stay in the house belonging to his true half sister Evelina’s relatives. For goodness sake! If this was written as grotesque comedy, it might work, but this part is written as pure tragedy.

I ploughed through it. Of course, one has to take into account that the psychology of the times was rudimentary, and Evelina subjected to modern scrutiny comes across as very different to how she appeared to her creator and the readers of the time. Still, I certainly can’t recommend it except as a way of gathering background information on society life and the highly repressed sexual nature of respectable women in the second part of the late eighteenth century. Johnson, who so loved Evelina, obviously only approved of females totally cut off from their sexuality. If they weren’t, well: ‘The woman’s a whore and there’s an end of the matter.’

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