Evelina by Francis Burney was first published in 1778. This novel tells the story of Miss Evelina Anville. The entire book is written in the form of letters. Most of the letters are written by Evelina herself. Some are written by her guardian, Reverend Arthur Villars, and Mrs. Mirvin, a family friend. A few are written by others. The bulk of the narrative involves Evelina’s visit to the Mirvins and a later trip to Bristol Springs. Though written as an epistolary novel, some of the letters are long, complex and end up being closer to first person narration. Among other things, they contain long stretches of dialogue.
The narrative alternates between the Mirvins’ country home, London and Bristol Springs. Evelina encounters a whole host of colorful people, many of whom are of very questionable character. Mme. Duval, Evelina’s vulgar and nefarious grandmother, shows up during a visit to London, threatens to take custody of Evelina and steel her away to France. Captain Mirvan, who is Mrs. Mirvin’s husband, is a bully and a bit of a sadist. Many other characters are crass, obnoxious or just foolish.
There are multiple men in this book who show romantic interest in Evelina. Many are obsessive, creepy and lecherous. This applies to both major characters and minor characters, as well as random men that Evelina encounters. At one point, Evelina finds herself separated from her party at an outdoor concert. Disreputable and seemingly dangerous men approach her from all sides,
“my recollection was soon awakened by a stranger's addressing me with, "Come along with me, my dear, and I'll take care of you." …. I found myself in the midst of a crowd, yet without party, friend, or acquaintance. I walked in disordered haste from place to place, without knowing which way to turn, or whither I went. Every other moment I was spoken to by some bold and unfeeling man; to whom my distress, which I think must be very apparent, only furnished a pretense for impertinent witticisms, or free gallantry. At last a young officer, marching fiercely up to me, said, "You are a sweet pretty creature, and I enlist you in my service;" and then, with great violence, he seized my hand. I screamed aloud with fear; and forcibly snatching it away,”
The above illustrates a world that Burney constructs, populated with pushy, immoral and sometimes dangerous people. Though these characters often do bad things, the tone is the book is fairly light. People rarely actually get seriously hurt. Though these characters display questionable ethics, they are often humorous. Often, characters act in over-the-top and cloddish ways that are funny. They often conflict and bump heads with one another to comic effect. This novel is at times hilarious. Character after character, in passage after passage, confronts Evelina with bad behavior. Sometimes these characters go at one another in that they verbally spar and even play mean and sadistic pranks upon one another. The obnoxious behavior of many of these characters seems realistic, but its frequency as it is presented in this book seems overly exaggerated. The plot is also full of implausible coincidences. All this gives the book a lighthearted and, at times, frivolous feel. However, as a whole, this novel works well as satire.
Lord Orville is Evelina’s virtuous suitor. He is one of several people in the novel who shows integrity and decency. Throughout the story, the pair encounters various ups and downs in their budding relationship. There is also a major plot thread revolving around the fact that Evelina’s biological father abandoned her and her mother before Evelina was born. Some of the Evelina’s elders want her to assert her birthright.
In terms of plot and some of the more ethical characters, this book is similar to Jane Austen’s novels. This novel was written years before Austen penned her works. It is kind of like one of Austen’s books filled with clownish and nefarious characters. With that, the characters are not as complex or nuanced as Austen’s brilliant creations. The humor is not as subtle or witty as Austen’s; it is instead overt, but very effective.
I find it interesting that the obnoxious behavior and character flaws of many of these characters seem very contemporary. People in this book tend to behave badly in the same way as they do in the 21st century. Mme. Duval seems like a modern, crass and vulgar person. Sir Clement Willoughby, one several men pursing Evelina’s affections, seems like a clingy guy whose behavior borders on stalking. Captain Mirvan resembles the people of today who cynically mock and belittle everything and everybody. This book reminds me that some things never change.
Despite some flaws, this is a fine book. The plot is interesting. It is very funny. Though the characters are not nuanced, they are entertaining and interesting to read about. I highly recommend this novel to fans of Jane Austen and similar writers who came after her.