Jane Austen’s Favourite Novelist – Frances Burney, and Her Debut, Evelina

Today’s reading journal entry is the 18th-century novel, Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World. Why did I read Evelina? Some people say it’s brilliant in its own right, but I read it because the author was Jane Austen’s favourite novelist.

Another novelist among the friends of the family was Jane’s favourite, Frances Burney, who had written Evelina and Cecilia, and who now was publishing her novel Camilla by subscription. A bit like crowd-funding today, subscribers got the privilege of having their names listed in the front of the finished book. The list for Camilla reads rather like a sisterhood of Georgian female novelists, because so many of them supported their fellow author. It includes a Mrs Radcliffe, and Miss Edgeworth (author of Belinda) and indeed a nineteen-year-old ‘Miss J. Austen of Stevenson’, whose guinea must have been paid for her by her father. – Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley

Evelina was published in 1778 and it was Frances Burney’s first novel. Broadly speaking, it comes under the same category as Jane Austen’s stories: an 18th-century social satire with a love story in the genteel society. It’s an epistolary novel, which means the whole story is told through a series of letters.

So what is Evelina about?

Evelina was 17 at the beginning of the story. She grew up as an orphan; her mother died a long time ago and her father was not around. She was raised by a clergyman called Arthur Villars. She had a good education but has seen very little of the world.

Then a chance came up for her to see the world. She went to visit and stayed with Lady Howard, a friend of Arthur Villars, and ended up in London with Lady Howard’s family, the Mirvans. Evelina has never been to London and was super excited to go to the theatres, the operas and the balls. But because she didn’t know the correct etiquette, she made some humiliating mistakes at this ball. But she also met a few men there, one of them was Lord Orville.

When she was in London, she met her grandmother, Madame Duval, mother’s mother, by chance. She just came to London from France. She has never heard of Evelina until recently and wished to take Evelina back to France since she was her closest relation.

So Evelina was forced to stay with Madam Duval and her cousins the Branghtons in London. When she lived with them, she rescued a Mr. Macartney from committing suicide and then from financial difficulties. Apart from Macartney, everyone was very unpleasant to live with. Evelina was ashamed of these new family relations and would hate for the relation to be known, especially by Lord Orville. However, on one fatally evening, she was not only seen by Lord Orville with her vulgar family but also in company with some even more shockingly inappropriate characters.

After meeting all these people and having all the unpleasant experiences in London, she moved on to Bristol, where she finally got to spend some time with Lord Orville and managed to get their relationship going properly.

The last part of the novel deals with her parentage and how she found her father, which turned her from nobody to a real lady. It has a happy ending.

In what ways does it remind me of Jane Austen’s novels?

One of my previous blog posts talks about C. S. Lewis’ view on Jane Austen’s novels. He categorises the six novels in two groups and one group was characterised by ‘the solitary heroine’. If you know Austen’s novels well, you’d know that he’s talking about Anne Elliot and Fanny Price.

Evelina is a solitary heroine because, as Anne and Fanny, she’s almost always alone. Not physically, she’s among people all the time. But in the sense that she has no friends. She watches people and events happening around her and makes judgements silently and puts them down in her letters. But she’s less of an outsider and observer than Fanny Price. Evelina is more involved, even though unwillingly a lot of the time, purely because she’s too beautiful to be left alone.

Evelina is beautiful to the extreme. Every single man who meets her falls in love with her. It gets a bit repetitive after a while. Unfortunately all of the men but one are trash. One distinctive recurring feature is that all the men try to grab her and take possession of her. It’s quite alarming.

Compared to Anne Elliot, she’s (A LOT) less mature and intelligent. She gets pressured to go to places she shouldn’t go, do things she promises not to do and ends up in situations against her will, to the point of telling lies because she couldn’t disobey the unreasonable demands made on her. She’s vulnerable and helpless.

There’s one big similarity between Evelina and Lizzy Bennet: she’s raised in a genteel society but she has some very embarrassing relations. Evelina’s constantly mortified and thinks Lord Orville would never love her or marry her because he would not associate with them.

One difference is that Frances Burney doesn’t talk about money and yearly income as much as Jane Austen does. So is Evelina poor like most of Austen’s heroines? I don’t think so. Her adopted father promises all his inheritance to her. So even without knowing what Madam Duval and her birth father will do, she’s never desperate financially. There’s only one point in the story where the fact that she’s nobody is emphasised. But generally, marriage is not the sole solution for her future and independence and her happiness is not as at stake as Austen’s heroines’.

Another difference is that the bad men in Evelina are a lot more brutal and scandalous than in Austen’s novels. Norton Anthology comments that “Although her writing crackles with humour, it can be relentless – and sometimes cruel – in exposing bad manners or a selfish heart.”

Here’s an example. Captain Mervin dislikes Madame Duval. To revenge on some petty grudges, he stages a highway robbery. He stops her carriage, drags her out and ties her onto a tree in a ditch. Madam Duval is covered head to toe in mud and water. That’s a great triumph for Captain Mervin. In one of the last chapters, where I expected the climax to be, there’s a very absurd scene of Captain Mervin playing another trick on a different victim. I find Burney’s practical jokes a bit hard to take.

I guess that’s partly why Evelina is called ‘a 1778 chick-lit’ by Times on the audiobook cover. These scandalous circumstances would not have happened very often in real life. That’s partly why it’s sensational and thrilling.

Was Jane Austen inspired by this girl?

Evelina gives a historical context of what kind of novels were popular around Jane Austen’s lifetime. Evelina was popular about 20 years before Pride and Prejudice was published. It was still very much contemporary. An equivalent for today would be a popular novel from 2000, for example, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. If I was to write a novel about a witch and a wizard going to a magic school and fighting a dark lord, there’s no way I wouldn’t be influenced by Harry Potter books, especially knowing how much I love it.

We know that Jane Austen published six novels and there are at least three unfinished and unpublished novels: Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon. The only truly horrible person is Lady Susan.

Lady Susan may have been written as early as 1794, when Austen was 18 or 19, soon after the last of the teenage writings and not long before a first draft of ‘Elinor and Marianne’, the novel that became Sense and Sensibility and, in 1811, her first publication. – The Introduction of the Oxford World Classics edition of Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon

Lady Susan is also an epistolary novel. She is the same kind of explicit, undisguised horrible person as some characters in Evelina.

Some of the other examples are: there’s a guy called Willoughby in Evelina who reads very similar to Marianne’s Willoughby; Lady Louisa Larpent, Lord Orville’s sister in Evelina reads very similar to Caroline Bingley. There’s a scene in Northanger Abby where Catherine Morland goes out with some men against her will and misses another man she’d much rather be with. There’s a similar scene in Evelina too. I think Austen borrowed some of the ideas but made them better.

Jane Austen’s novels are generally more subtle and elegant. Evelina is an innocent but boring person to be with (unless you count watching her struggle every step as fun). Lizzy Bennett, Anne Elliot and the Dashwood sisters have a lot more depth to their character and their stories.

Frances Burney’s Half Sister

Apparently Evelina was inspired by the author’s half-sister:

Since a copy of Evelina was lately sold for the enormous sum of four thousand pounds; since the Clarendon Press has lately bestowed the magnificent compliment of a new edition upon Evelina; since Maria Allen was the half-sister of the authoress of Evelina; since the story of Evelina owed much to the story of Maria Allen, it may not be impertinent to consider what is still to be collected of the history of that misguided and unfortunate girl. – Genius & Ink by Virginia Woolf

The essay gives a brief account of Maria Allen’s life and her elopement and marriage. Although I can’t see any resemblance between Evelina and Maria Allen!

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