Evelina by Fanny Burney

O my dear Sir, in what raptures am I returned! Well may Mr. Garrick be so celebrated, so universally admired — I had not any idea of so great a performer.

Such ease! such vivacity in his manner! such grace in his motions! such fire and meaning in his eyes! — I could hardly believe he had studied a written part, for every word seemed spoke from the impulse of the moment.

His action — at once so graceful and so free! — his voice — so clear, so melodious, yet so wonderfully various in its tones — such animation! — every look speaks! (27-28)

I’ve been romping in the 18th century with Fanny Burney (who was a fan of David Garrick obviously). Evelina is her first novel, about a young girl off to London to hopefully find her real father and along the way running into a satire of the society of the times and a whole lotta unwelcome loving. Evelina is so gentle and kind and submissive and also excessively beautiful that any men, high, low and fop, who see her are suddenly obsessed with her and begin to call her ‘most charming of thy sex’ or just Angel. She has to fight them off repeatedly! And to keep reassuring the grave and gentlemanly Lord Orville that really, things aren’t everything they appear to be… She makes several beginner mistakes at dances, accepting a dance with Lord Perfect Orville there after already turning down a tiptoing negligently imperitnent young fop! Jane Austen has already taught me that just isn’t done, so I was wincing for our shy little country manners heroine in advance. She later claims to be already engaged to dance with Lord Orville in order to avoid another grabby young man, named Sir Clement Willoughby, who keeps showing up again and again to protest his love for Evelina and never stop grabbing her wrists.

But somehow I couldn’t stop reading this, even while rolling my eyes and protesting aloud. It has a cosy classic feel to it, that reminds me of other female authors I enjoy, like Jane Austen of course, who was influenced by Burney (although Austen allows her women to make up their own minds about marriage, instead of requiring elderly fussy old men to guide them) and also Elizabeth Gaskell. It’s not perfect, but I’m glad I read it and it gives a vivid picture of English society in 1778, from the high life in London to the shenanigans at a country home (a sea captain playfully abducts a Frenchwoman) and the placidity of the resort town of Bristol (which was only slightly less poplar than Bath at the time and also had hot springs and mineral waters I think).

We have been to the opera, and I am still more pleased than I was on Tuesday. I could have thought myself in paradise, but for the continual talking of the company around me. We sat in the pit, where every body was dressed in so high a style, that, if I had been less delighted with the performance, my eyes would have found me sufficient entertainment from looking at the ladies.

…When the opera was over, we went into a place called the coffee-room, where ladies as gentlemen assemble. There are all sorts of refreshments, and the company walk about, and chat, with the same ease and freedom as in a private room. (40)

I’ve since been skipping around Mansfield Park, happy to be reading Jane Austen again and the one novel of her’s which I’ve actually avoided for five years now. It is somber, but the writing style is more mature than her earlier books. I can relate to Fanny, being rather shy and sensitive myself (and very religious too, in my earlier years) and my heart sinks for her, even as I shake my head over her extreme earnestness. There’s no other word for it. The problem is, I now have a stack of library books from the big city and simply want to start devouring them! I’m at Henry Crawford’s proposal to Fanny and wishing that he was just a bit better of a person, since he does admire her for her, not just for her principles, as Edmund never fully seems to… Dilemmas!

(Also, yes I have blogged at a few of my favourite books, now I am going to try blogging here, because it feels more casual. I’m going to keep it more open here, blogging about books, but anything else that catches my fancy, so likely more of an inconsistent jumble of all my latest enthusiasms. Also the picture in this post is on the cover of my edition of Evelina, it’s an engraving of Vauxhall Gardens.)

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