Monday, September 7, 2009

Cads and Virgins

I have always been wary of epistolary novels. I have no idea why; I love receiving letters, and reading through my grandparents' love letters in early August occupied me for hours. Perhaps because I've always felt that the device was too heavy-handed, and weighs the story down. It's for this reason that I've delayed on reading Laclos' Les Liasons Dangereuses, that scandalous French novel found even in Marie Antoinette's library in an unmarked binding, filmed in the 90's (Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer), and reincarnated for teenagers as Cruel Intentions (Ryan Philippe, Reese Witherspoon).

But I have broken the soil! Evelina was a delightful read despite being epistolary. Burney uses the device without artifice, revealing letters from a variety of characters to round out the narrative.

("The Music Party" by Rolland Trinquesse, 1774)

Evelina Anville is a beautiful, innocent and virtuous country girl, out to see London and the Big Wide World for the first time. Though the clergyman she calls Father is beloved and respected, her natural father, Sir John Belmont, refuses to acknowledge his marriage to Evelina's (dead) mother or approve Evelina's legitimacy. Though Evelina's friends stoutly pursue her case for a cleared name and respectability, Evelina remains less than hopeful, and devout to the Reverend Villars.

Evelina's idea of a pleasant education in societal experience is somewhat altered by the inclusion of her scrupulous French grandmother; the rough and mischievious Captain Mirvan; badly behaved relatives; and forward gentlemen who will not leave her alone.

Annoyingly (for the reader), no male in the United Kingdom can resist Evelina. Lords swoon, bands of men whistle, soldiers proposition - although naive,Evelina's beauty, sensitivity, taste and education elevate her. (Her only deficiences are, I feel, a chronic sense of duty and gratitude; if she could combine her beauty and intelligence with a tad more forthrightness, I would be happy.) The question is : can she win the well-mannered, handsome, kind and extremely gracious Lord Orville's heart despite her questionable birth and the unrelenting farcical characters and circumstances that accompany her?

Lovers of Jane Austen will enjoy Evelina; but where Jane is ironic, Frances is vivid and her comedy is bolder. According to the introduction in the Oxford University Press edition, Burney had aspirations towards being a dramatist, aspirations which were not compatible with expectations for the eighteenth century respectable female. So she wrote novels instead.

If you are feeling a longing for a world where manners were currency, and marriage was crucial - a time of phaetons, assembly dances, proper introductions, scandalous pasts, and passionate overtures - read Evelina. I have picked up Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park on DVD from the library, and am on the way to both estates as you read these words...

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