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Second Glance: Wave and Say Hello to Frances

By (June 1, 2009) One Comment


By Fanny Burney

Rocking the bestseller list of 1778 London was Frances Burney’s debut novel Evelina, or A Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, a book that was greeted with rapturous applause by Regency literati and the public alike. Not that its 25-year-old author was at liberty to acknowledge her triumph publicly: fearful of her parents’ disapproval and her “reputation,” she had the book published anonymously.

Miss Burney composed her story in secret as well, writing in cold rooms by candlelight late into the night, in the far corners of the family house at St. Martin’s Street near Leicester Square. She was anxious that her father—the musician Dr. Charles Burney—and her truculent step-mother would not discover her illicit “scribbling,” as she called it. Novel reading—not to mention novel writing—was frowned upon as an improper pursuit for well-bred young ladies in the eighteenth century, except in cases where a book might have an “improving” effect upon the mind.

Never heard of Evelina? Well, that’s probably down to the Victorians, who decided that Burney’s extensive diaries and letters—fascinating and absorbing in their own right—made up a more important contribution to literature than her four novels, numerous plays, and essays. But it’s high time the first brainchild of Frances (aka Fanny) Burney—who directly influenced Jane Austen and was called “the mother of English fiction” by Virginia Woolf—be re-introduced to a larger modern audience

All About Evelina

Laced with lively dialogue and witty observations on human nature, social realities, and consumerism, Evelina follows the adventures of a beautiful and innocent young girl, brought up in the country by her elderly guardian, Mr. Villars, after her mother dies. Her father, the callous Lord Belmont, had torched the marriage certificate, leaving Evelina in dubious social standing and denying her any inheritance.

When she turns 17, Evelina is sought by her uncouth French grandmamma, Madame Duval, and to deter the comic crone from dragging her away, her aristocratic friends whisk her from Villar’s country retreat under a false name and introduce her to Society in London, Bath, and Bristol. The book is written as a series of letters between Mr. Villars (kindly but cautious to the nth degree) and the innocent, playful Evelina, who reports in detail her perceptions, adventures, and mishaps. The fun is had in the juxtaposition of mature morality against the high spirits of untutored teenhood.

As she weaves a bemused course through assemblies, balls, and pleasure gardens that make up the day’s swish haunts, Evelina encounters lords, ladies, and commoners, learning the hard way to navigate the complex waters of adult etiquette. On the journey, she is accosted by an assortment of fops, rakes, captains, and ladies of the night, but also has the support of sincere well-wishers, among them the handsome and honorable Lord Orville, who takes quite a shine to Evelina and acts as mentor as well as suitor.

In an era when politesse was everything, it is the heroine’s directness that makes the book so amusing, with the dialogue leaping off the page, ever fresh. Every woman will relate to Evelina’s being caught up in a little white lie when she “manufactures” a dance partner at a ball in an attempt to ditch an impetuous beau bent on wooing her. The beau—who turns out to be Sir Clement Willoughby, of dubious reputation—exclaims:

“A lady wait for a gentleman! O fie!—careless fellow! What can detain him? Will you give me leave to seek him?”

“If you please, Sir,” answered I.

“With all my heart,” cried he. “Pray, what coat has he on?”

“Indeed I never looked at it.”

“Out upon him! What! Did he address you in a coat not worth looking at? What a shabby dog!”

How ridiculous! I really could not help laughing, which, I fear, encouraged him for he went on.

“Charming creature!—and can you really bear ill-usage with so much sweetness?…For my part, my indignation is so great, that I long to kick the fellow around the room!—Unless indeed—(hesitating and looking earnestly at me), it is a partner of your own creating?”

Later, when Evelina thinks she’s gotten rid of the persistent swain, he returns to plague her:

“I wish you would say no more to me, Sir,” cried I peevishly. “You have already destroyed all my happiness for this evening.”

“Good Heaven! What is it I have done? How have I merited this scorn?”

“You have tormented me to death; you have forced me from my friends, and intruded yourself upon me, against my will, for a partner.”

“Surely, my dear madam, we ought to be better friends, since there seems to be something of sympathy in the frankness of our dispositions—And yet, were you not an angel—how do you think I could brook such contempt?”

“If I have offended you,” cried I, “you have but to leave me—and O how I wish you would!”

“My dear creature,” cried he, half laughing, “Why, where could you be educated?”

Here, Evelina encounters the new consumer culture in London. Soup it up with a bit of modern lingo and it could be Carrie Bradshaw describing a shoe-shopping expedition in NYC:

“At the milliners, the ladies were so much dressed, that I should rather have imagined they were making visits than purchases. But what most diverted me was, that we were more frequently served by men than women; and such men! So finical, so affected! They seemed to understand every part of a woman’s dress better than we do ourselves; and they recommended caps and ribbands with an air of so much importance, that I wished to ask them how long they had left off wearing them!”

But there is a serious turn to the work as well when Madame Duval finally finds Evelina and forces her to live with lower-class cousins in a shabby part of London. Now Evelina must also tackle issues of class consciousness, prejudice, and pride; she is forced to consider the real consequences of her father’s disownment and the fact that she has no “name” in the eyes of the world. The hunt for the unfeeling father, Lord Belmont, begins…

Through all of her trials, as you might guess, good breeding carries her: even though Evelina doesn’t understand the rules of the game, she acquits herself well, for she has been raised to value herself and think before she acts—if not before she speaks.

Reluctant Celeb

a portrait of Fanny by her cousin, Edward Francesco Burney

The young Frances Burney started composing little stories and letters as soon as she learned the alphabet; her precocious and philosophic bent earned her the nickname “The Old Lady” among the Burney inner circle of family and artistic friends. However, in the privacy of the playroom and on visits to the country, she was often to be found in high spirits, writing and acting in plays, tickling the harpsichord, and laughing and carousing with her sisters and brothers.The Burneys were not rich—Dr. Burney had to work for a living—but what the family lacked in material wealth, it more than made up for in wealth of friendship. Dr. B.’s cohorts included the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds; the renowned actor, David Garrick, who kept the household entertained with his mimicry and supplied box seats to his theatre performances; and the reclusive writer Samuel Crisp. “Daddy” Crisp was like a second father to Frances, guiding her early diary writing and letters, later praising her novel delightedly. And with the arrival of Evelina, that celebrated circle was to expand rapidly.

At first, the only people who knew about Evelina were Burney’s sisters, brother, and two trusted aunts. The sisters were in fits of giggles as they disguised brother Charles in a great coat, hat, and glasses so he could deliver the first manuscript to the office of Thomas Lowndes, publisher, who snapped it up immediately after reading it.

Burney’s terror at being exposed meant her little secret was kept just as closely under wraps. Published anonymously in January 1778, by June Evelina was everywhere talked about and compared with the works of Fielding and Richardson. The mystery of its authorship no doubt helped with publicity, and Miss Burney had the satisfaction of hearing it read and enjoyed its praises, while biting her lip to keep from bursting out laughing whenever possible author’s names were bandied about. With explicit language and colorful characters drawn from all walks of life, surely Evelina had to written by some old, well-traveled gent, wise in the ways of the world? Dr. Burney himself was suspected at one stage.

After six months, Dr. Burney finally guessed and news spread. The reluctant celebrity clearly relished the approbation received from Mrs. Thrale—the famed literary hostess—and the great writer and critic Samuel Johnson, who protested “there were passages in it which might do honour to Richardson.”

Frances wrote this ecstatic entry in her diary after reading a letter from Mrs. Thrale to her father, in which Mrs. T. sang Evelina’s praises:

How, sweet, how amiable in this charming woman is her desire of making my dear father satisfied with his scribbler’s attempt! I do, indeed, feel the most grateful love for her. But Dr. Johnson’s approbation! —It almost crazed me with agreeable surprise—it gave me such a flight of spirits that I danced a jig….

But Frances also had to tackle that feeling of naked exposure that any artist, writer, or musician feels when their brainchild is unleashed upon the world. She wrote:

My little book, I am told, is now at all the circulating libraries. I have an exceeding odd sensation when I consider that it is now in the power of any and every body to read what I so carefully hoarded even from my best friends, till this last month or two; and that a work which was so lately lodged, in all privacy, in my bureau, may now be seen by every butcher and baker, cobbler and tinker, throughout the three kingdoms, for the small tribute of threepence.

It’s amusing to wonder how shy Miss Burney would have coped with the media circus that greets the launch of a book today—would she have survived the book signings, the literature festivals, web blogs, Facebook, TV book clubs, and talk show appearances? The trials she encountered later suggest that these would have been a piece of cake.

Wild Life

Post-Evelina, Frances Burney published three more novels, wrote plays, pamphlets and essays, as well as keeping up the diaries begun in early childhood. But she also went on to live a fascinating life beyond literature: made an “offer she couldn’t refuse,” she served as Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte at the court of the mad King George III, an office that nearly stifled her delicate sensibilities. She married her true love, the French general Alexandre D’Arblay, at 41 years old (well beyond marriageable age in that era) and bore him a son. For some years she was exiled in France, and had to escape in disguise with her son to Belgium, where they were caught up in the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo. She made medical history when she underwent a mastectomy without anesthesia at 59 years old, which she also describes in excruciating detail in her journals, yet outlived both her cherished husband and son.

At the age of 87, Madame D’Arblay nee Burney died and was buried in Bath, near these two favorite men. If you ever visit that fair Georgian city, look for the traffic island as you come into town, then wave and say hello to Frances. For there is her grave in the very public churchyard of St. Swithins. Surrounded by excitement in life, she is surrounded by excitement in the Great Beyond: traffic, tourists, shoppers, workers, and clubbers whirl past her tomb day and night, probably completely unaware that she was once the belle of eighteenth-century letters, who invented the “comedy of manners” genre later so successfully taken up by Jane Austen. And by all accounts, she was an infinitely charming human being into the bargain.

What would FB make of our twenty-first century conceits? Human nature doesn’t change much, so it’s likely she’d be having a good-humored laugh at our foibles, crying at our woes, and perhaps scribbling down a few choice conversations for posterity…

Tracey Kelly was born in Chicago and now lives in England, where she writes for books and magazines, sings in two bands, and composes music. She recently launched her debut novel The Hal X Syndrome.

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