Saturday, April 7, 2012

The History of a Young Lady's Various Fits of Tears

Fanny Burney's Evelina is the novel that shot the author to fame, fortune, inclusion to all the best salons and membership to perhaps the most entertainingly named group of the late eighteenth century, 'the Witlings'. I therefore entered into the novel with only the minor qualm that I am not fond of epistolary novels.

When I finished the book and my kindle kindly asked me to rate the book, all I could think was, 'Meh.'

That is not to say the book was entirely without merit. There are sparkling parts of the text-- Burney is not as deft a hand at satire as Jane Austen, but she still does it remarkably well and she forms very entertaining and likeable characters, as long as they are not her hero and heroine. I had the same problem with the loving couple at the center of Evelina as with the lachremouse lovers Mrs. Radcliffe so unkindly inflicted on her readers in The Mysteries of Udolpho: the lady spent at least a third of the book crying, being silent or otherwise not speaking, displaying her personality or proving her worth as a human being, and the gentleman never actually seemed like a believable human being. I dislike the romances about equally: in Evelina, there heroine is so shy, quiet, awkward and embarrassed with most of her interactions with the hero that I simply couldn't believe that the hero could possibly form even a friendship with her, as he did, let alone a favorable impression of her and later a lasting devotion. Why should he? All she does is be embarrassed and uncomfortable around him. If it was an Austen novel, instead of a Burney one, I would be inclined to say that Evelina and her exemplary Lord Orville will soon get very bored with each other and have a very unhappy marriage. However, it is Burney, so Evelina will live on in silent, agitated, often tearful happiness to write long letters with perfect recall of hours-long conversations.

However, unlike The Mysteries of Udolpho, I hated the hero because he was Lord Honorable McBlandyPants and had no interesting flaws, foibles or indeed any part of his character that was not boringly perfect. The heroine was a little better than the weeping Emily; Evelina likewise resembles an ambulatory fountain that random gentlemen kept wanting to molest, but she makes a number of mistakes out of ignorance and then endeavors to correct them. She, at least, has a functioning brain.

The Amateur Historian did not feel the same antipathy she did towards The Mysteries of Udolpho, but, though I liked the satire quite a lot, and enjoyed the taste of late eighteenth century dialects, the heroine-narrator has the unfortunate tendency to sentimentalize and moralize over everyone she meets (except the hero who is always, and ever, a paragon of tedium and virtue). I, as a reader, prefer to draw my own conclusions and not have the author present to me what I ought to think. However, this is Burney's first novel, so I will not write her off entirely. Perhaps (after a judicious dose of Voltaire or Austen), I shall try Fanny Burney again.

Next time, one hopes to find a less soggy heroine.


  1. I love Burney and her satire and plotting....but yea, there's no escaping the weepy moralizing heroines in her novels. The plus side is they're nowhere near as annoying as Ann Radcliffe's creations (or some of Burney's other contemporaries). At least Burney's heroines eventually rouse themselves to action and purpose. Not just lying around in a boneless puddle of tears passively allowing crap to happen to them.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree with you de Pizan! Her satire is marvelous, but her main characters don't keep up or really... seem part of the millieu in which they are supposed to mix. I suppose she didn't wish to have a mockable or falliable heroine, but it makes for very dull reading. The best I can say is that she is better than Radcliffe and Stephanie Meyer. Evalina may be too good to be interesting, but at least she actually acts and does things.