Evelina, Fanny Burney, 1778
Notable for being:
- influential on later authors including Austen and Thackeray.
- written by a woman during a time when women were really not supposed to write novels.
Evelina was very popular in its day, which goes to show that in the 1700s people didn’t know what literature was good for. In this time period a woman’s value lied almost entirely in her innocence and purity. To protect that purity, women were not allowed to go out into the world and learn from experience. So, they were expected to glean their morals and world views from books and sermons. Many 18th century novelists intended their work to provide instruction and moral guidance for young women. Evelina is one of those.
The title character is presented as a model of feminine virtue. She’s exactly like the other shining paragons in the rest of 18th century literature, so I’ll go over her character traits. She’s not a fascinating lady, but you may learn something about society’s expectations of women during this time.
1) Dutiful. Evelina respects her elders and her relatives to a fault. If Evelina’s grandmother told her to jump off a bridge, she would do it. Duty to her parents takes priority over all other considerations. If she is asked to do something she finds morally repugnant or that will cause suffering, she will do it. Gross, huh?
2) Rigid morals. Her concepts of right and wrong are absolute and she hates fun. Evelina is kind of a puritan and wants everyone to be serious all the time. She’s obnoxiously judgey and thinks it’s her job to correct the behaviors of others. Imagine a snooty seventeen year-old with very little life experience telling you what to do.
3) Sheltered. Evelina knows nothing of the world. She is perpetually confused by the actions of others. Evelina does dumb stuff and gets herself into trouble whenever she makes a decision without consulting a superior relative first. She judges others, but lacks judgment herself.
That’s really it. She is admired by all, even though her only accomplishments in life are beauty, virginity and a holier-than-thou attitude.
Evelina is another epistolary novel. The plot consists of our young protagonist making a series of errors due to her lack of understanding of the world and being rescued by the handsome Lord Orville who invariably appears just in time to save Evelina from the clutches of some man who would take advantage of her naiveté. Seriously, she is perpetually getting separated from her companions while in a public place. At which point a man or men swoop in and try to drag her off to presumably rape her, but Lord Orville appears and saves her every time. The idea that a young woman left by herself will be instantly raped is taken as a given in this novel. Was that true of London in the 1700s? I sure hope not.
Obviously, Evelina and Lord Orville get married in the end. You can see that coming from the scene in which he is introduced. As you can probably surmise, I did not like anything about this novel. It brought out the raging feminist in me. Blerf. Ugh. Yuck. The complete dependence of Evelina on the protection and guidance of kind hearted males turns my stomach.
Here’s a freakin’ quote:
“I dreaded his penetration.”
(Sorry, sorry. Believe me, that’s most entertaining quote from the book.)
You might like this book if:
- you are looking for fodder for your feminist outrage.
You might not like this book if:
- the flames of your feminist outrage are well fed already.
Final thoughts: Next time you take time to be grateful for modern medicine or technology, be appreciative that you exist in a time when goddamn Evelina is not the best female role model literature has to offer.