Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Book Review: Evelina, Pt. 1
I’m not really taking a break from Jane Austen, because Evelina was, I believe, a favorite of hers, or at least one she knew well enough to allude to in a letter to Cassandra:
“What a Contretems! -- in the Language of France; What an unluckiness! In that of Mde Duval -- The Black Gentleman has certainly employed one of his menial imps to bring about this complete tho’ trifling mischief.” (Letter 50, February 1807)
Madame Duval is a memorable, comical character in Evelina, someone I’m sure Jane Austen would have held long in her mind. She is the grandmother of the title character.
Evelina is an epistolary novel written by Fanny Burney (1752-1840) that appeared on the London scene in 1778. She published it anonymously, but it shot into immediate popularity and set her writing career into motion. She wrote three more thick novels (each published in several volumes) -- Cecilia (1782); Camilla (1796); and The Wanderer (1814) -- as well as numerous plays, some produced, some un-produced.
The initial attribute that comes to my mind with Evelina is sweetness. It’s the first offering of a timid, talented young lady author -- who burned her true first novel because she wasn’t sure writing was a decent and ladylike pursuit. 16-year-old Evelina is likewise unsure of herself as she leaves the countryside where she grew up and discovers London with two sets of people -- first, with her dear friends, the upper-class Mirvans, and then with her lower-class grandmother, Madame Duval, and cousins, the Branghtons.
Evelina is good-hearted and sensible, full of country virtues. Her guardian is the old, kind, and wise Reverend Arthur Villars, who also took care of her now-deceased mother. Most of the book is letters written to him by Evelina, where she tells him all about her adventures. Their relationship is the best father-daughter relationship I’ve ever encountered in fiction. Rev. Villars is Evelina’s best friend, and she is the only one he wishes to live for; their relationship is built on love, openness, understanding, godly duty, and all those other good things that everyone truly craves for their relationships. (If only we’d admit it and make the effort!)
Evelina’s main mistakes are born of naivety, social faux pas that she would not wittingly commit. Rev. Villars suffers a lot of anxiety while she’s away from him, and his letters with the right advice are sometimes too late to help. But this is a coming-of-age story, and, through agonizing challenges to her character, Evelina proves herself to be strong in what is right and true to herself and her guardian. She has grown up knowing only the good, and so what else can she do but choose the good and eschew the evil, as represented by vulgar relatives and arrogant and immoral high-society?
Madame Duval is her maternal French grandmother who until recently didn’t know she existed. She would have nothing to do with her daughter Caroline Evelyn (who just so happened to be the protagonist of Burney’s first novel, the one that she unfortunately burned) when the young woman married without her permission. Sir John Belmont is Evelina’s father, but he will not acknowledge her, so Evelina is left a virtual orphan under Rev. Villars’s care. As is obvious from what I said before, that is the best possible case; but when Madame Duval finds Evelina in London, she gets it in her head to force Sir John Belmont to acknowledge his daughter and leave her a fortune. Madame Duval is volatile, ignorant, and speaks with entertainingly bad English-as-a-second-language grammar. She clashes countless times with the French-hating sailor Captain Mirvan, the father of Evelina’s best girlfriend Maria. (I got a little tired of their squabbles -- as did the people who had to hear them! -- but they were funny for the most part.)
Evelina is angelically beautiful. She attracts a lot of attention in London, so of course there are otherr men that I must include in my review of characters: principally Lord Orville and Sir Clement Willoughby. But … it’s late and this review is getting long enough, so I’ll leave them and my wrap-up for Friday!