fredag den 5. februar 2021

Evelina - Fanny Burney (1778)



Before Jane Austen there was Frances (or Fanny) Burney. Yet, where Austen is today a household name with a Hollywood installment every few years, Burney is an entirely new name to me, and that is a damn shame. Fanny Burney is awesome.

“Evelina” was Burney’s breakthrough novel, published when Burney was just 26 years old. It was an instant hit, and I can see why.

Evelina Anville (Belmont) is a 17 year old girl venturing out in the world for the first time. She has lived in seclusion in the country with her guardian and teacher her entire life, her mother, kicked aside by Evelina’s rake of a father, died giving birth to Evelina. So, Evelina is like an alien encountering all the modes and manners of society for the first time and since her parents were highborn, the world she encounters, is that of the upper tier.

In book one Evelina travels to London with her friends, the Mirvans, and see London for the first time. She is very insecure and uncertain how to act, but also acutely sharp in discerning the hypocrisy and mannerism of the upper class. During this visit, Evelina is approached her maternal grandmother, Mme Duval, who has come from France to take possession of her. Mme Duval is lowborn, but married into nobility and combines the lowborn crudeness with highborn mannerisms. Her relatives in London are the Branghtons, of a lower mercantile stratum. Having to navigate both gives Evelina opportunity to compare and she feels equally uncomfortable in either environment.

Where Evelina stayed with the upper echelon and from here encountered the lower class in the first book, in the second book it is the other way round. Forced to spend a month with Mme Duval in London she gets to be a lot with the Branghtons and in their company meet the upper-class characters from the first book.

In the third book, Evelina spends some weeks at the Hotwells near Bristol together with a group of members of the upper class. Again, Evelina is a fish out of water as she bemused try to stay afloat among the entitled and arrogant nobility.

Evelina herself is almost a non-character. We never learn that much about her. Focus is instead on all those characters she encounters, and what a galley of originals! The tone with which she describes these people is supposed to make us think that she does not approve of their behavior, whether it is foppish, crude, cheap or mannered, but it is very clear that Burney revels in her characters. The crude pranks of the sea-captain Mirvan on the pretentious Mme Duval or the foppish Mr. Lovel are described as atrocious, but Burney wants us to laugh. Burney is also full of satirical whit in describing the penny-pinching crudeness of the Branghtons, the indolent wastefulness of Lord Merton and the rakish falseness of Sir Willoughby, but the satire is not Evelina’s, she just communicates it, which is a very elegant move.

There are also some love stories and some mixed identity themes, as was common in this era, but those are far less interesting than the portrait of the very colorful society Evelina must navigate.

Among the many brilliant elements of this novel is Burney’s masterful language. Reading the book, I found the text surprisingly modern compared the contemporary books I have been reading lately. A large part of that is that much of the English written language as we know it to day was introduced by Fanny Burney in this book, when she was just 26 years old. Expressions, new words, syntax, you name it. Her contributions to the English written language is massive.

Add to that the spectacle she paints. Never before, to me at least, has the eighteenth century been this vivid. I could find her locations on maps from that time. The characters may be invented, but they feel very real despite the satire. You get the feeling Fanny Burney have actually visited these places and met people like this and thereby written a most realistic image of her world.

Even the love story and the mixed identity themes, full of unlikely coincidences, is a witty satire of the romantic ideal of the traditional novels. Tongue in cheek, it takes these elements just so far as they can carry.

Needless to say, I loved “Evelina” and can only recommend it. Fortunately, this is not the only Fanny Burney book on the list.


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