Classic Book Review: Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World of Society (1778) by Frances Burney
Evelina by Frances Burney is, as its subtitle states, the history of a young lady’s entrance into the world of Georgian society. This epistolary novel was popular in its day and was surely inspirational to the writings of the much more heralded and feted Jane Austen, who published her first novel over two decades after Evelina’s publication.
The novel follows – through a series of very thorough letters, written mostly by Evelina herself to her guardian – the gaffes and travails and eventual triumphs of a young, beautiful woman in Georgian England. There are gentle and not-so-gentle societal critiques aplenty. And romance, naturally.
Evelina is a bit more out of the drawing-room than an Austen novel. There are ladies of ill repute and forays down darkened alleyways. There are highwaymen and depressive states. And at the heart of it, there is a sort of mystery involving our eponymous heroine. She ends up pushed into claiming her rightful place in the world.
Evelina is a seventeen-year-old orphan, raised by a kindly village vicar, Mr. Villars. He was a dear friend of her maternal grandfather, as well as her dearly departed mother.
Evelina is a spitting image of her mother, Caroline, who died shortly after giving birth. Hers was an unhappy state. A naïve, young beauty, she was wooed by a libertine, Sir John Belmont, and married him in all haste. A marriage the rake then denied, leaving her compromised, pregnant, disgraced.
Caroline’s mother, Evelina’s grandmother, a manipulative, controlling, difficult woman, had cut off her daughter and has had nothing to do with her granddaughter. Until now.
Yes, as Evelina is now of age and ready to make her debut into society, leaving the security of the village vicarage, there surfaces more and more people, making claims upon her.
Her grandmother, who’s been living in Paris for decades, comes to England to see her, to claim her. She wants to shape her, take over her guardianship. She also wants to start a public petition to Evelina’s father, to force him to acknowledge and claim his rightful daughter.
Evelina is petrified; her father rejected her mother and her years ago, so why dredge it all up now. But as a young woman attempting to enter genteel society, the matter of her parents, her birthright, is – naturally – of consequence to any would-be suitors.
And suitors, there are many of those. An inexperienced beauty, fresh from the country, is sure to attract her fair share of latchers-on, some more amenable than others. Evelina makes more than a few gaffes as she tries to navigate the social rules of the London haut ton, offends some, mystifies and entrances others.
Lord Orville is the gentlemanly earl who is politeness personified. Sir Clement Willoughby is a designing silver-tongued chameleon, impertinent, aggressive, not easily persuaded. And there is more – a crude cousin, a dandy Frenchman, a lecherous lord, and on it goes. Evelina must learn to navigate family, society, and all the people who would claim her.
A Heroine Worth Knowing
Evelina is a heroine of the likes of Anne Elliot, Catherine Morland, Margaret Hale, Jane Bennet. Her demure, dutiful, acquiescing exterior shelters a compassionate, insightful, steel-willed, virtuous woman.
As much as she tries to keep the peace, smile, and nod and be oh-so-polite and nice, she will not compromise herself, will not be intimidated into doing something she views as wrong. That’s not saying that she doesn’t compromise – she does much of that. But when others start to try and overtake her life and make questionable decisions for her, she puts a foot down, as politely as possible.
Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World of Society is an engaging and entertaining tale, well worth a read for all Austen and Brönte and Gaskell lovers out there. Evelina is truly a heroine worth knowing.
Why has this not been adapted to the screen yet?! This should have been done years ago. Especially since it seems to be always in vogue to make Austen adaptations. Evelina is a pre-Austen tale, full of what we often call Austen-types, and would make a great miniseries. C’mon BBC or ITV! Let’s see it happen!
Content Note: Nothing to come after.
Have you read Evelina by Frances Burney? What are your thoughts on this classic romance? Let us know in the comments.