I was shocked when I read that Frances Burney had burnt all of her writing at the age of 15 for two reasons: That she had written a novel at that age and that, the reason she burnt the writing was, as a woman, she had been taught that writing fiction was immoral. The lost prequel to Evelina is a true loss to literature.
In the introduction to the edition that I read, Margaret Anne Doody says that; “the story of Evelina is (for Burney makes it so) an allegory of women’s writing, and a story about female persistence.” She talks about how Burney’s earlier work had to be written in secret and that this book was published, initially, anonymously. However, she did achieve recognition in her lifetime and even became the breadwinner of her family for a time (with her writing).
To say I adored this book would be an understatement. I devoured the final part of it in one afternoon and then sulked when I had to give it back to the library.
The novel, written in letters that form a journal, is about a young woman of sheltered upbringing, and her harried debut into London’s society. She flounders with the social etiquettes required and is preyed upon by many characters, both male and female.
It was darker in plot than Jane Austen’s work and indeed, I found this because Austen had read Burney.
Evelina (or Burney) astounds me with her perceptive eye with insights such as; “in all ranks and all stations of life, how strangely do characters and manners differ.” (p126)
Evelina reminds me of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Molly (Wives & Daughters) and the passionate reverence of Lord Orville reminds me of Austen’s Mr Darcy. Such characters as Evelina (and Molly) fascinate me with their complete reliance upon others for making decisions and protecting them, when their ability to stand up for themselves (if they must) and their understanding to make their own decisions is obvious. It is a conditioned response that appals me.
This book whole-heartedly deserves a 5/5 and I can’t wait to read more of Burney’s work and to re-read this one.