One more thing on Evelina

There’s one more thing I’ve been wanting to say about Evelina. I finished the book quite a while ago, so now I want to say my one last thing and put it back on the shelf.

Evelina the character is boring. She’s passive, she’s perfect, she’s dutiful, she’s self-effacing. She doesn’t seem to have a mind of her own. Her story at the end of the novel is entirely predictable. She tells everything there is to tell to her guardian, Villars, which is the way the story gets told, but one wishes for a sense that’s she’s hiding something or has some original thought now and then. But I didn’t find the novel itself boring. The novel’s interest, for me at least, comes from the “bad” characters, the ones Burney satirizes. These people are interesting and funny. They play bad jokes on each other, like dressing up as robbers and pretending to attack other characters, they tell bad jokes, they show ignorance and other characters laugh at them, they are harsh and mean and thoroughly vulgar, as Evelina would say.

But so much of the novel is taken up with descriptions of these characters, that even though the novel’s tone tells me I shouldn’t like them, I’m obviously supposed to enjoy them in some way, or the novel wouldn’t be worth reading and the author wouldn’t have dwelt on them quite so much. Burney satirizes them, and I truly believe we are supposed to laugh at them and determine not to be like them ourselves, but she seems to like them in some way and definitely depends on them for the very existence of the novel.

One character, Mrs. Selwyn, exists somewhere between these poles of good and bad – she is in most ways perfectly respectable, except for her satirical tongue. She loves nothing better than to get into battles of wit, particularly with men who might be tempted to belittle a woman’s sparring ability. Evelina says of her in a letter to her guardian:

You well know, my dear sir, the delight this lady takes in giving way to her satirical humour.

If we are to take Evelina as our guide in figuring out how to judge character, we are to regret Mrs. Selwyn’s sharp tongue as her one “unladylike” characteristic. And yet, if I were to take the quoted sentence above out of context, it would sound exactly like a description of the Frances Burney who wrote the novel. I don’t mean to say that Burney was known in her social circles for being satirical – I don’t know what her reputation was – but if we imagine an author based on the work she produced, we would certainly consider this author to have a sharp satirical wit. Yet the novel seems to be teaching us that women shouldn’t be satirical. Evelina is presented as the model of femininity to aspire to – her only problem is her inexperience in the world and the rest of her trials come from forces outside herself – but the bulk of the novel undermines the value of Evelina’s bland passivity.

At least it does to this twenty-first century reader. What I’m up against is trying to figure out how much of my response comes from my status as a contemporary reader and how much of it comes from Burney’s own attitudes. And this distinction is always very difficult if not impossible to make. It is easy at times to begin to read eighteenth-century novels subversively – to argue, say, that Burney appears to be praising Evelina for embodying eighteenth-century ideals of docile femininity, while she is really pointing out the pleasure to be had from a satirical mind and tongue. It is Burney’s satirical abilities, after all, that helped her gain success as a novelist.

This makes me wish it were easier to know how readers responded to the books they read, and that I knew more about the evidence that does exist for these responses. Otherwise I’m left guessing how an eighteenth-century reader might have reacted to the novel, and that really is just a guess. On one level the author’s intention doesn’t matter – I am free to take from the novel whatever ideas I want to take – but on another level, it’s interesting to consider what effect Burney might have been after, and what effect she had on her first readers.

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