Monday, June 28, 2021

Evelina and the comedy of manners - “It was impossible now to distinguish whose screams were loudest”

Business: the blog’s old “subscribe by email” function is being throttled on July 1.  I have moved every email subscriber over to a new service.  My hope is that the only change will be the format of the email, and that you, dear reader, will not have to do a thing, and that this will all be a nuisance to me and to no one else.  We’ll see.  Please let me know about problems.  Apologies in advance.

Pleasure: I read Frances Burney’s Evelina, or, The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (1778) alongside a Twitter group (#Evelina1778).  Evelina is a curious thing, a hinge in the history of the English novel.  It is nominally an epistolary novel, but moves much closer in form to a standard first-person novel (standard, I mean, for us, now) and in substance to Jane Austen.  Burney’s novel is simultaneously a vehicle to move the innovations of the English comic stage of the 1770s – Goldsmith, Sheridan – into the English novel.

Evelina is a seventeen year-old country mouse, timid and virtuous and beautiful, making her first visit to London.  She has a complicated, mysterious parentage that will move the plot along.  Maybe she is poor and illegitimate, and maybe not.  Guess, in the end, which.  In the meantime, she makes a tour of London entertainment with a variety of appalling friends and relatives, and fights off the unwanted attention, ranging from rudeness to sexual assault, of a variety of men.

To the first point, Evelina is a literal comedy of manners.  The governing conceit is that Evelina is unsophisticated but polite, while almost every other character, whatever their class status, is rude beyond belief.  The middle third of the book is spent with Evelina’s shopkeeper-class cousins (remember that Evelina is describing the scene in a “letter”):

The dinner was ill-served, ill-cooked, and ill-managed. The maid who waited had so often to go down stairs for something that was forgotten, that the Branghtons were perpetually obliged to rise from table themselves, to get plates, knives, and forks, bread or beer. Had they been without pretensions, all this would have seemed of no consequence; but they aimed at appearing to advantage, and even fancied they succeeded. However, the most disagreeable part of our fare was that the whole family continually disputed whose turn it was to rise, and whose to be allowed to sit still.  (Letter XLII)

The forks and bread are unusually material for Evelina, but the key, even new, observations are in the last sentence, about the rules of conduct and their violation.  Minutiae, but also the meaningful substance of much of the next two hundred years of the novel.  There is not much description in Evelina, not much stuff (aside from all of the different carriages, and their ownership, and who rides with whom, as important here as in Austen’s novels), but manners are described thoroughly.

To the other point above, the rules are meaningful and minute because however imperfectly obeyed they make civilization function.  Without them, men, especially, become animals.  Women are under constant threat of assault.  The freedom of women is tightly constrained, but the world outside the home, and sometimes inside, is awful.  This is a dark undercurrent for a comic novel.  The heroines of all three Samuel Richardson novels are kidnapped and threatened, or worse, and I wonder to what extent Burney, who is unlike her heroine a savvy city mouse, is deliberately invoking Richardson, her epistolary ancestor.  But I take the actual London to be a threatening place to an unaccompanied young woman.

The general ethos of Evelina is cruel, aside from the sexual menace.  The “prank” theme reinforces the cruelty.  One of the pranks of course involves the abduction of a woman.  One at the very end of the novel is based on a monkey dressed as a fop.  It goes on for many pages, just when I am ready to wrap up the book.  “It was impossible now to distinguish whose screams were loudest…” (Letter LXXXII).  It is not clear to me to what extent Burney means the pranks as pure comedy, however cruel.  Evelina is not so far from Don Quixote.

Tomorrow I’ll go into the literary history, what I meant by “hinge.”


  1. I thought of Burney as new wine in an old wineskin when I read Cecilia, which might be what you mean by hinge. Psychological realism with swooning and high-flown language.

    I think the few eighteenth-century novels by women I've read all have the same alarming message that for a woman it's vital to keep the rules to the letter, and stick to the people who keep them, because there will be consequences if the chalk circle of protection gets smeared. Evelina says this particularly directly, despite or because of being a comedy.

  2. I guess I think the wineskin is newer than it first appears. But I haven't read Cecelia. It sounds like a lot of fun. Dumps those dang letters completely, doesn't it?

    "says this particularly directly" - yes, that is what is so interesting. A woman takes one step away from her protection and the predators swarm.

  3. Your reading journal, by the way, which I have just wandered through, is full of surprises.