Skip to main content

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...

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Private Life of the Diary

I’ve kept a diary since I was twelve. While I composed nearly illegible autobiographical scratchings in my first years of primary school at my teachers’ request, it wasn’t until I was on the brink of becoming a teenager that I felt I needed a more permanent arrangement. I suspect it had to do with reading The Diary of Anne Frank. My diary’s function has changed over the years – it once had a name (having discovered that Zoe was the Greek word for life, I thought my choice extremely clever), and I used to like my diaries in a variety of shapes and sizes, spangled with glitter, ruled with wide lines, shackled with locks and keys. For at least eight years my diary was the space in which to vent my feelings, and offered some form of therapeutic comfort. This meant it was largely about boys and is, as a result, very tedious to reread. But while the function of my journal has changed, each volume has been a solution to the manic desire to scribble. As I discovered reading Anne Frank, each e…

The Short Story Season I

The New Yorker Fiction podcast, which I’ve now gobbled up in its entirety, has recently been a lifeline while I’ve been travelling from house to house, city to city. It’s been responsible for kick-starting my renewed interest in the short story – more to come – and for introducing me to writers I’ve long known by name but never read: like Elizabeth Taylor.

Paul Theroux read Taylor’s ‘The Letter Writers’ this past January for the podcast and the story remains one of her best, alongside (and forgive the list) stories such as ‘Taking Mother Out’, ‘Swan-Moving’, ‘A Sad Garden’, ‘The Ambush’, ‘The True Primitive’, ‘The Little Girl’, ‘Hare Park’, ‘The Prerogative of Love’, and ‘The Thames Spread Out’. Travelling with the hefty paperback on planes, trains, and automobiles, I feel I’ve dragged round my little plot of England to keep me company.

(A quick note on editions: an NYRB edition of her stories has just been published but it is a selection, rather than Virago’s Complete Stories. Forgo t…

Blast-beruffled plumes

I’ve returned to Minnesota to find it transformed into a Brueghel painting.



Our hunters are gone north or even south, wherever there are more deer. This has been a bad year for deer, threatened by the cold of last year’s polar vortex and the high population of coyotes, which now carry a bounty on their heads.

So, while it’s still autumn in England (I’ve been assured), winter has come. The nights are long, the wreaths are out. I’ve been reading restlessly – Robert Walser and GB Shaw. But some nights, Thomas Hardy feels just right for November melancholia. Here’s ‘A Darkling Thrush’:

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
Th…