I can't tell you with what satisfaction I write this post, having finished Fanny Burney's Evelina, the first 'real' foray into the books that describe the struggles of a young woman as she navigates the minefield that was society and its codes. Though their circumstances were slightly different, Evelina does a better job than Marianne. She is more demure and caring, and genuinely trying to be respectful of others and do the right thing. While Marianne cares more about her feelings first, those of others second, the expectations of society - not at all.
I can imagine Marianne's struggle to finish the book without throwing it across the room (I can also see her taking a deep breath, picking it up again, and examining it in detail for the 'how tos' it contains). But, really, Evelina didn't engage me. She is pretty and good and tries hard to do the right thing but doesn't seem to have any interests. I suppose she reads but can't recall any discussion of books. She is at the mercy of her relations (some very vulgar), and has to endure the attentions of several truly ridiculous men, who are presumptuous, arrogant, and fawning. Fortunately, we know Burney was exaggerating for comic effect. Still, you regularly think, "For God's sake, just slap the idiot and let's move on!"
It's satire of social pretensions, though, so one must endure with that in mind. Perhaps I just don't have the patience for 18th Century satire. I do love it in general. I've written it myself. It just seems more mean than funny in this century. The women are positively tormented. At the core of satire is always truth, so it's another reminder how at the mercy of a male-dominated society women were.
Let me take a moment to say that I'm trying to separate myself from the knowledge of how hard it was for women of that time and the reading of these novels. I'm aware of the struggles, the lack of money, power, and identity, the oppression, the perpetual pregnancies (and their risks), etc. I just can't really read and enjoy any of the novels if I allow myself to viscerally tune in to all the pain and suffering of the women of that period. It know it existed. It was horrible and unfair. But I can't hold that in my head and heart and read the novels at the same time. I wouldn't be able to enjoy them at all. And, as said, I'm not a scholar. I want to enjoy the books and feel connected to them; I'm not compiling a history or arguing anything. I want to find something in them that speaks to me. Some strength of mind and heart I can borrow from.
It's clear that I privilege feelings over ideas, which I didn't know about myself until now.
I will give Evelina that - she has strength (despite the usual female weaknesses in these novels - they just tire so easily, the poor dears).
Back to the story:
The only interesting thing she does is prevent a Keatsian-like poet from committing suicide by rushing into his room and pulling the pistol out of his hands. You wonder where on earth she found the courage to do such a thing as she showed no real sign of either before. He turns out to be her brother (her estranged father was very busy - there are several long-lost children, it appears, until things are straightened out and one is exposed as a fake - a daughter, substituted by the real Evelina's wet nurse and brought to the father to take advantage of his wealth and position. The fake turns out to be the wet nurse's own daughter. That's also the most interesting plot point - but comes late in the book and is wrapped up in about 30 pages.
There is also a fraud perpetuated against the hero, Lord Orville, Evelina's future husband, by one of the fops, Sir Clement Willoughby (ah, no good can come of dating a man named Willoughby girls), but you guess it's him right away.
Of course she gets her man - Lord Orville - who is strong and sweet and always good and a gentleman. There's not much development of him either - the characters, what you know of them, seem to be solely shaped by how well they navigate the social codes. Unless they give an impassioned and overly flowery speech (hold onto your lunch, there are plenty of those), which still provides little or no insight into who they really are.
In the end, the lesson here is that she honored herself, her family and her virtue no matter what. In today's world, these are also good things, but you'll have to decide what to substitute for 'virtue' yourself. The goal is to only associate with people who treat you with care and respect and to believe in yourself and be true to yourself are very good lessons in any age.
No suprise, though, that Austen is leagues above Burney. She writes with more sense, intelligence, cleverness and class. She just plain writes well. With maturity.
So I think Evelina could be called a little bit of a 'romp' though I didn't much enjoy it as such. It's been called the 'chick lit' of its time. Samuel Richardson's Pamela promises to be more so as it caused quite an uproar and is told from the point of view of a "virtuous young servant who resists and denounces her oppressive master until, apparently reformed, he makes her his obedient wife." Jane Eyre, meet an early ancestor. And James' governess in The Turn of the Screw which, much as I love Jane Eyre, I enjoyed more for its brutal portrayal of a young woman who'd read too many of such novels and the tragedy that befell her as a result.
Pamela was deemed rather pornographic (now we're getting juicy), though that may have been a contrivance to sell books by a bookseller, and mock-novels (early fan fiction?) were out within a year, including Fielding's Shamela. Alexander Pope endorsed it, though. Does that count?
Sounds fun to me. I'm growing used to the epistolary form and, criticism aside, Richardson did write one of Austen's all time favorite books, Sir Charles Grandison. He also wrote a book of letter templates for young women (semi-literate young women), to "instruct them how they should think & act in common Cases, as well as indite." The letters would act as "short fictional cases of conscience" that would also influence (for the better) the young minds of these vulnerable women.*
Of Pamela Richardson wrote that it would "catch young and airy Minds, and when Passions run high in them, to shew how they may be directed to laudable Meanings and Purposes, in order to decry such Novels and Romances, as have a Tendency to inflame and corrupt."
I love how 'Meanings and Purposes' are captialized, but not 'inflame and corrupt.' I do agree that Passions should always be.
Reading these books is a wholly different feeling from rereading the Austen novels, as the latter are, to me, 'once removed' being written by a third party with an omniscient voice. Had S&S been written from Marianne's perspective, the feeling might have been more intimate between us, but as that's not the case, reading the books the character might have, that Austen definitely did, feels somehow like time traveling. Which is exactly what I wanted.
Good grief do I feel uneducated. These books should have been taught in college. I would gladly have added an extra year in order to squeeze them in.
Fun and Not So Fun Facts About Burney:
- She had a mastectomy without anesthetic, just one glass of wine.
- One scholar posits that her brother, James, had an incestuous relationship with their half-sister, Sarah but there is no evidence of this.
- She supported herself and her family through her later writing - Cecilia and The Wanderer.
- Austen's title for Pride and Prejudice is taken from Cecilia.
- She burned her first novel, The History of Caroline Evelyn. She used it as the foundation for Evelina, who is the daughter of this fictional woman.
- Some scholars suggest that she suffered from dyslexia. She still didn't know her alphabet by the age of 8.
Updates on this Project:
I've arranged an English Country Dance class starting in September at the same Hostel in Baltimore where we had the one class in January. This will be a month-long class taught by the same instructor. I just can't get to the Monday night dances at St. Mark's on a regular enough basis to really become even remotely proficient (or just not complete chaos in a skirt, wreaking havoc on the set as I move up or down), so it's just not as fun for me, those dances. Everyone is so nice and patient, but I become too self-conscious about not having enough practice to retain anything, so this class will help tremendously.
I was also at two events where I was seated at a table with people I mostly didn't know, so pretended I was at a large dinner party in Austen's time and introduced myself to those on either side and did a credible job of keeping up my end of the conversation, especially with the two older gentlemen I was seated next to at each event). I usually find those situations 'provoking,' and awkward. But playing this game helped a great deal. One was a dinner given at the opening of an exhibit of my uncle's Cloisonne at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, the other was a tea and poetry afternoon in an old mansion in olumbia (20 mins outside of Bmore) at which our Poet Laureate, Stan Plumly, read and answered questions. I'm the Poet Laureate liaison, one of my many duties, so I staff him whenever I can.
This is certainly much longer than intended and it's a beautiful day outside - here's my current view, from where I sit at the kitchen table typing this:
And Keegan, guarding the door:
I went to a Conservatory this weekend, which is of the Victorian age, I know, but, who cares? Will post pics.