Revisiting a Classic: Evelina by Frances Burney

Novel: Evelina by Fanny BurneyIf you like Jane Austen, then you’ll love this book too. I certainly visualised the protagonist, Evelina, as a kind of Jane Austen character. The novel was first published in 1778 – yes, I am over 200 years late with my review! That’s around 33 years before Austen’s first novel came out, and we know that Austen was influenced by Frances Burney’s work. Evelina is a strong character – blunt, honest, and full of common sense, rather like Elizabeth Bennett. But the plot is more elaborate and entertaining than anything Jane Austen has given us, full of disastrous scrapes and misunderstandings.   

I listened to an audiobook version, narrated by Dame Judy Dench, Finty Williams and Geoffrey Palmer. I really enjoyed it, though I’ve only recently begun to listen to audio books. The story is told entirely through a series of letters, beginning with an exchange that reveals the unfortunate situation of Evelina’s birth. She was born in disgrace, disowned by her father, who would not acknowledge that he had married her mother, and rescued by the kindly old Reverend Villars after her mother’s death. She grows up in the countryside, with no legitimate family or fortune, quite content, until at the age of seventeen she is invited to stay with friends, who take her to London.

The mishaps and adventures that follow are inevitable, as sensible Evelina encounters the whims and quirks of society. She is amazed and appalled, confused by her own ignorance when it comes to social etiquette, and baffled by the attentions of various men. She is distracted by Lord Orville, who is polite and respectable, but determined not to let herself be carried away, occupied as she is in rebuffing a constant stream of unwanted admirers.

Here she describes her first ball:

The gentlemen, as they passed and repassed, looked as if they thought we were quite at their disposal, and only waiting for the honour of their commands; and they sauntered about, in a careless indolent manner, as if with a view to keep us in suspense… I thought it so provoking, that I determined, in my own mind, that, far from humouring such airs, I would rather not dance at all, than with anyone who should seem to think me ready to accept the first partner who would condescend to take me.

Some of these scenes are strange, or even offensive, to modern ears, including a general hatred expressed by some of the characters towards ‘the French’, and a mockery of the only two French characters. But the book was written at a time when Britain and France were at war, and Evelina has to negotiate this conflict too. Her own grandmother is stereotypically French (as seen by 18th century Britons) and is mocked outrageously by some of the men.

Evelina’s poverty, her ignorance, her illegitimacy, and her lack of power in this patriarchal society mean that she is confronted by challenges on a daily basis. But she still has time to look out for and assist others less fortunate than herself, which brings even more problems and misunderstandings into the mix. Beyond all this is the ongoing mystery of why her father still refuses to acknowledge her as his heir, and it is not until the final few chapters when all is revealed.

This novel is full of satire and irony, openly mocking the conventions of eighteenth-century society in a way that is amusing and entertaining even now, over two hundred years later. Though the plot is a little too full of strange coincidences, it is satisfying to discover that everything ties up neatly at the end.

Buy a copy of Evelina by Frances Burney

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