Frances Burney was an English novelist and playwright and is well known for inspiring Jane Austen. Evelina was first published in 1778 and while her novels were very popular during her lifetime, her diaries which detailed eighteenth-century life were more favored by critics and are still used by scholars. William Makepeace Thackeray is reported to have drawn on her diaries, while writing the Waterloo sections of Vanity Fair.Evelina is a young girl who has been brought up in the country away from society, at 17 she is suddenly introduced into London and the novel follows her naïve misunderstandings and adventures. I can certainly see similarities with Austen’s work and indeed I would say that anyone who enjoys one would enjoy the other, but if I were to compare I would say that Austen is much tamer.
Large parts of Evelina read almost like a tourist guide to eighteenth-century London or Bath. How society works, who you should reject or accept a dance from, the places to go and what to do once you get there are all detailed as Evelina describes her first experiences of this world. This works wonderfully for a modern reader as we are not left to assume anything or need any knowledge of that time period or society.However while Austen’s high society may act (with mostly) perfect decorum and manners, Burney’s world portrays one where some men will act like complete predators with only one thing on their mind fully taking advantage of woman and their positions. While Burney is very careful to control her characters and to not let things go too far, it says a lot for the women in the novel who has to hang onto their self-respect and reputations in the face of shocking sexism, unwanted sexual advances and in one case blatant cruelty.
There are some very funny moments and the romantic arc all comes right in the end as expected but it’s the comments on the treatment of women and the insight into that society that will ensure I read more of Francis Burney.
Posted by Jess