Frances “Fanny” Burney (1752-1840) can be regarded as Jane Austen’s immediate predecessor as a novelist, and she in turn cites as a major influence Eliza Haywood (1693-1756) and in particular her The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751):
… a sophisticated, multi-plot novel that has been deemed the first novel of female development in English. Betsy leaves her emotionally and financially abusive husband … and experiences independence for a time before she decides to marry again (Wiki).
Dale Spender has established that Austen was in fact preceded by 100 women novelists commencing with Lady Mary Wroth in the C16th (though all the credit is given to five men) so I have plenty more reading to do, not least Spender’s Mothers of the Novel.
Evelina (1778) was the first of Burney’s four novels, the others being Cecilia (1782), Camilla (1796) and The Wanderer (1814). She also wrote a number of plays but for a long time was best known for her letters and journals under her married name Madame D’Arblay. By comparison, Jane Austen began writing around 1790 when she was 15 and all her six novels were published in the years 1811-1815. Austen admired Burney and was a ‘subscriber’ to Camilla.
Burney was English, from Kings Lynne in Norfolk, but her mother who died when Fanny was 10, was French. This feeds into Evelina – and I admit I had to look this up to get it right: Evelina’s guardian, Mr Villars, a country clergyman, had been tutor/guardian to Evelina’s mother Caroline and, before her, to Caroline’s father, Mr Evelyn who married a French barmaid, Madame Duval. On his death two years later Mme Duval took charge of Evelyn’s fortune but relinquished Caroline to Villars. Caroline at 18 married Sir John Belmont, who on learning that she had no access to her father’s fortune abandoned her and burnt their marriage certificate. Caroline died in childbirth and Evelina was raised by Villars. So both the author and her heroine are motherless and with a French background.
The novel begins with Evelina aged 17. Mme Duval has written that she is coming over from Paris to take charge of her and to force Belmont to acknowledge that Evelina is his child, and therefore his heir. A Lady Howard and her daughter Mrs Mirvan are involved somehow and Villars reluctantly allows Evelina to stay with Lady Howard and then to accompany the Mirvans, including their daughter Maria who is Evelina’s age, to London.
As were Austen’s unpublished (till much later) earlier works, this is a story told in letters, initially between Mr Villars and Lady Howard, but subsequently mostly from Evelina to Villars and Maria describing her experiences. The tension in the novel – and I should be clear that I found it immensely enjoyable – arises firstly from Evelina’s beauty and demure deportment which men find irresistible, and secondly from the vulgar Mme Duval’s arrival in England and her ability to assert her authority as Evelina’s proper guardian over Evelina’s preference to remain in the country with Mr Villars.
Burney uses Evelina not just to tell a coming of age story, and to describe in some detail the entertainments available in London at the end of the C18th, but also to discuss in a more frank way than Austen (due to her greater personal experience?) the various levels of middle class society: “To draw characters from nature, though not from life, and to mark the manners of the times”.
We attend concerts, operas, plays, fireworks displays, displays of mechanical curiosities and walk in various gardens. Mme Duval’s nearest relations are wealthy silversmiths, but still vulgar, when they meet a Lord they tout for business. The men Evelina meets are quite often literally rapacious and must be restrained from dragging her off into the undergrowth. Whether this is intended as a cautionary tale for unprotected females or is an accurate description of London life after dark (and not always after dark) I cannot tell. Of course she also meets one very courteous young Lord, and inevitably falls in love. By the 75% mark they are getting along handsomely at a country retreat near Bristol. I’ll read on but say no more.
I find I am becoming decided in my preference for reading over reviewing, for which as a reviewer I apologise, but the taking of notes interferes with my enjoyment of the work. Nevertheless, I paused at this point long enough to record this exchange between Evelina’s current companion Mrs Selwyn and a young nobleman:
“But, did you study politics at school, and at the university?”
“At the university!” repeated he, with an embarrassed look; “why as to that, Ma’am, no, I can’t say I did; but then with riding, -and -and so forth, really, one has not much time, even at the university, for mere reading.”
“But, to be sure, Sir, you have read the classics?”
“O dear, yes, Ma’am!, but not very -not very lately.” (Loc. 4339)
Sounds like my sort of university!
Evelina, although her fortune is uncertain has been brought up as a gentlewoman: educated, moral and thoughtful – a very recognisable type for at least another century, in the novels of Austen, Mrs Gaskell, or in Australia, Catherine Martin and Ada Cambridge for instance.
What is striking though is the environment in which the author places her, amongst distant relatives a number of social levels below her, and in situations where a single woman without fortune or family is openly treated as prey. One “well bred” young knight spends nearly the whole course of the novel, wooing her, dragging her into corners, blocking her way, talking over her protests and generally pawing her in a vain attempt to make her his mistress. And at night in the streets and in entertainment precincts she is followed and in one case surrounded by young men who believe they can rape her with impunity.
By the time we came near the end [of the poorly lit walk], a large party of gentlemen, apparently very riotous, and who were hallooing, leaning on one another, and laughing immoderately, seemed to rush suddenly from behind some trees, and meeting us face to face, put their arms at their sides, and formed a kind of circle, which first stopped our proceeding, and then our retreating, for we were presently entirely enclosed. The Miss Brangtons screamed aloud, and I was frightened exceedingly; our screams were answered with bursts of laughter, and for some minutes we were kept prisoners, till at last one of them, rudely seizing hold of me, said I was a pretty little creature. (loc. 2951)
Her grandmother treats her protests with scorn and her friend, Maria’s father, a sea captain, speaks and behaves coarsely and commits assaults on Mme Duval and later, on a young nobleman, in the pretence that they are practical jokes. Of course this may just be a clumsy attempt at slapstick or the author poking fun at French women and sea captains. From this distance it is impossible to tell.
Burney’s writing is not as precise as Austen’s but it is nevertheless very good, and the story immensely entertaining without ever resorting to any of the “robbers, smugglers, bailiffs, caverns, dungeons, and mad-houses” said by Walter Scott to characterise the earliest novels. It both improved my understanding of Austen and was worth reading in its own right.