Friday, August 22, 2014

Why Burney's Evelina Is a Guilty Pleasure-- Seven Reasons

Fanny Burney, Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World, 1778 (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1909).

I couldn't care less about some major plot points-- Lord Belmont and Mr. MacCartney, for example; and I routinely skip the cruel pranks played upon Madame Duval.  So why do I return to Evelina, again and again?

1. It's filled with situation comedy.  On that horrific day at the park when you unwittingly linked arms with two prostitutes, did your aristocratic crush come strolling by?  What about the day when your middle-class cousins borrowed his carriage without asking?  And that night at the opera, when... Okay, okay, I get it!  Stopping.

2.  It offers the vicarious thrill of entering (18th-century) London society for the first time.  A first ball, trips to Vauxhall and Ranelagh, dining out, shopping and having hair done up elaborately, meeting various men (mostly outrageous narcissists), and falling in love with one good one-- exhilarating!

3.  It satirizes class-based behavior.  What must you do when you meet in the drawing room that rakish baron who insulted you in the alley?  (Rugsweep, of course.  This is a no-win situation.)  And if wealthy people have money to throw away, why shouldn't they bet it on a footrace between two lower-class old women?  Gentry are behaving badly with every turn of the page!  I'm so glad to be armed with heaps of natural delicacy...

4.  It justifies nitpicking the manners of annoying people.  Your snobbish companions discuss their foodie interests over dinner?  How vulgar!  This just proves that I was completely right about them!

5.  All men adore Evelina.  It's a problem.  And a fantasy.  Since dozens of lovestruck fools played no part in my youth, I rather enjoy watching the ingĂ©nue beat them off (or try to)...  Would it be terrible to need a chaperone at every moment?  YES!  Still, I'd like to borrow that innocent-yet-dangerous allure for a day.

6.  Basic communication would solve so many of Evelina's difficulties.  If only my life were that simple!  At times I want to shake her while shouting "JUST TALK TO HIM!"  But seriously, this frustration is fun:  It's kind of wonderful to feel that happiness is right there, waiting to be grasped.

7.  Gossiping acquaintances, haughty aristocrats, and vulgar, scheming relations are duly embarrassed at the end.  Although Evelina is undoubtedly more forgiving than I could manage to be!

[The "Quick Takes" linkup is hosted at Conversion Diary.]


  1. I think I need to give this one a try! I've read that Burney is recommended for Austen fans, and I love Jane Austen so I'd certainly be up for anything reminiscent of that. Sounds like a bit of a 18th-century 'screwball comedy' – does it have that sort of tone?

  2. Thanks for commenting, Danya! Since you enjoy Jane Austen, I do think you'll like _Evelina_ as well-- although I'm not sure that I'd call it a "screwball comedy," myself. While it has plenty of comic characters, plus what my husband likes to term "embarrassment humor," the author seems to present Evelina and her love interest, Lord Orville, as the ideal young woman and young man... There's a sense in which _Evelina_ appears intended as a serious guide to a young lady's manners and judgment. Even in this, however, there are many laugh-out-loud moments for the 21st-century reader! ...If you do read it, please let me know what you think! Thanks again.