How precious are Your thoughts to me, O LORD ... how vast is the sum of them!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Book Review: Evelina, Pt. 2

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Continued from my last post:

The principal plot of Evelina is whether her family situation can be straightened out; but of more immediate importance is her love story. Every British heroine must end up with a hero, so whom shall it be in Evelina’s book?

Evelina meets Lord Orville at an Assembly ball in London. It soon becomes obvious that he is the hero. Evelina is instantly impressed with him, but it takes her forever to realize she’s in love. What can I say? She’s young and naïve. But she feels he is too far above her, and there are several other misunderstandings that contrive to keep them apart.

Then there is Sir Clement Willoughby, who calls her “an angel.” She meets him in London, too, and finds him disgustingly forward. But he wheedles his way into her society by making himself agreeable to everyone who has charge of her at one time or another: Captain Mirvan, Mrs. Selwyn, even Madame Duval.

These two men contrast greatly. Lord Orville is a pure gentleman, honorable, steady, and considerate. He may seem a little flat, however, to us readers -- maybe because he is too perfect and predictable? Fanny Burney was creating an idealized man and perhaps went too far. But, all the same, I didn’t feel he was unbelievable, just a little uninteresting to read about. He would be the man we security-craving girls would love to end up with. Evelina tells her guardian Rev. Villars that Lord Orville is much like him. That’s a hint of what Orville will become to her, for what girl, if she has a good father figure, will not desire a younger version for her husband?

Sir Clement Willoughby is flashy and unstable, albeit debonair; he constantly treads on Evelina’s sensibilities, caring nothing for her true feelings. But -- he is fascinating. Especially when his heart gets broken. I finally felt sorry for him at that point. All other times I just want to slap his mischief-causing self ….

Now I should comment about the tone of the book as a whole. The language was very formal; the more moral the characters, the more formal their dialogue. Check out this exchange between Evelina and Lord Orville:

“‘My Lord,’ cried I, ‘you must not judge hardly of me. I spoke inadvertently; but if you knew the painful suspense I suffer at this moment, you would not be surprised at what I have said.’

‘And would a meeting with Mr. Macartney relieve you from that suspense?’

‘Yes, my Lord, two words might be sufficient.’

‘Would to heaven,’ cried he, after a short pause, ‘that I were worthy to know their import!’

‘Worthy, my Lord! -- O, if that were all, your Lordship could ask nothing I should not be ready to answer! If I were but at liberty to speak, I should be proud of your Lordship’s enquiries; but indeed I am not, I have no right to communicate the affairs of Mr. Macartney, -- your Lordship cannot suppose I have.’”

The other characters each had their own form of dialogue (Fanny Burney specializes in that), including speech full of contractions and less-than-stellar grammar.

The characters were largely portraits, each greatly distinct from the others and exaggerated in one way or another. At times the tone of the narrative was almost melodramatic, especially when Evelina was writing. She fainted, or wished she could faint, at least one time that I can remember. She was a very sensitive girl. But what teenager doesn’t tend to feel that her experiences are the be-all, end-all of the world? Also, good appearances were absolutely vital in that day and age, especially for young women, so she was right to be so concerned about the misadventures her various companions caused.

Fanny Burney was dedicated to portraying reality. But reality differs somewhat with whomever is doing the portraying. Jane Austen is shown to be the superior artist, but I highly respect Fanny Burney, for she was superb in her own right, and had some talents that even went beyond Jane Austen’s.

I enjoyed this voyage into 18th century England and Jane Austen’s literary background very much; at some point I’ll have to do a post on Cecilia, Miss Burney’s second novel which I read first, because I haven’t nearly exhausted all the charms of her fiction.


  1. I hadn't noticed that the language of the characters was more or less formal depending on whether they were more or less moral. Thanks for pointing it out here. What an interesting way of drawing comparisons and confirming characteristics.

    1. Thank you for commenting here, too! It's so nice to know someone else who has enjoyed this great novel.
      Language is an interesting way of characterizing people. The higher-class characters who should have impeccable expression often resort to slang (i.e., a certain Mr. Coverley and Lady Louisa, Lord Orville's sister); and then the Branghtons, Evelina's cousins, are not well-spoken, nor are they very moral. The only one, I think, that I can't quite fit into the mold is Sir Clement ....
      Be blessed!