Tuesday, June 29, 2021

"the minuteness of the journal that I must write" - Evelina does some new things

For its first few pages, Evelina looks like an epistolary novel, like a Samuel Richardson novel.  “I am, dear Sir, with great regard” (Letter I) etc.  Young Evelina’s guardians are planning her London debut.  Days, or months, pass between letters. 

Evelina herself finally takes over in Letter VIII (only twelve pages into my Norton edition – now there’s a difference from Richardson – shorter letters) and the rhetorical mode changes, quickly, until the letters do not sound much like letters at all.  They are full of scenes, dialogue, characters, jokes, the usual novelistic stuff.  Maybe like a journal, but not really.  More like, you know, a novel.  Picked almost at random:

Presently after, a very gay-looking man, stepping hastily up to him cried, “Why, my Lord, what have you done with your lovely partner?”

“Nothing” answered Lord Orville with a smile and a shrug.

“By Jove,” cried the man, “she is the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life!”

Lord Orville, as he well might, laughed; but answered, “Yes, a pretty modest-looking girl.”  (Letter XII)

On like this for a couple of pages.  And this is not Evelina eavesdropping on the men she met at her first ball, but her friend eavesdropping and reporting back, all of which is then written up by Evelina for the clergyman who is essentially her adoptive father.  So, really, it is Evelina imagining the scene based on whatever her friend told her.  Imagining, polishing, maybe exaggerating.  If there is a hint of unreliability, I missed it, but the possibility is there.

I am harping on all this because Richardson great motive for his invention of the English epistolary novel was realism.  Why does this text exist?  Well, letters, even ordinary people wrote those, often enormously long ones in enormous quantities.  One of Burney’s innovations is to merely gesture toward the conventions of the epistolary novel, keeping the interiority and moral reflection but dumping most of the rest of the epistolarity, unless she wants it for plotty reasons.  Evelina, and Burney, does become self-conscious just once near the end of the novel, when she mentions “the minuteness of the journal that I must write to my beloved [guardian].”

Burney keeps the key feature of the letter-writing device, which is that unlike the memoirists Esther Summerson, Jane Rochester, and “Ishmael,” her first-person narrator does not know how the story ends, or even what other characters are doing when not present.  I came across an amusing precept of Jorge Luis Borges in his Selected Poems, where he says one of his devices is to “narrate events as if I did not entirely understand them” (265), and the letters give Burney a way to do that with a narrator who is by far the sharpest character in the book.  Evelina in fact has the sensibility, eye for detail, and discernment of character of a good novelist.  She knows how to look around her, and to construct a scene.

Burney is also, in what I am pretty sure is another innovation, directly pulling the stage comedy of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith and likely other playwrights I haven’t read into the novel.  English stage comedy in the 1770s was doing a lot of new things, and I don’t remember earlier scenes in novels that look so much like scenes from plays.  One Sheridanish character, Mrs. Selwyn, is “satirical,” meaning she is a nonstop sarcastic joke machine.  Evelina’s grandmother, the ridiculously Frenchified English Mme Duval is another suspiciously Sheridan-like invention.

The British Library has a useful site about the novel (I borrowed yesterday’s image of the title page from it) that is largely about the 18th century context.  An entire gallery is about satirical images of women’s hair.  Evelina goes on a tour of London entertainment – the theater, the opera, parks, Vauxhall, the short-lived Cox’s Museum of automatons – all of which is fascinating to those interested but hardly the reason to read the novel if you are not writing your dissertation in 18th century London social venues.  Just one of many reasons to read it, only some of which have to do with the “how we get to Jane Austen” question.

Many thanks to the Twitter readalongists for the pleasure of revisiting Evelina.


  1. I read part of this a few months ago (or was it last year?), then got trouble with my e-book (from Gutenberg) & just stopped reading after messing with the file for a while.
    Is it worth trying again soon?

  2. It is easily a book worth reading, but I would not presume to say more than that. I enjoyed it a lot, but I am reasonably well-trained in 18th century literature, some parts of which definitely require training.