Thursday, June 15, 2006
I am a little more than half way through Evelina at the moment. I have read this book before, for a graduate class; this time it’s purely for fun. And I am enjoying it – it’s a good story, entertainingly told, and it is interesting for what it says about eighteenth-century culture, something I’m always happy to read about.
The book isn’t pure enjoyment though. There are painful parts, particularly when it comes to all the descriptions of how Evelina gets pushed and pulled around by everybody, sometimes made to do things she doesn’t want to do or be with people she doesn’t want to see, and sometimes physically pushed and pulled. Those parts can get hard to take because I want to yell at Evelina and say don’t let them do this to you! Stand up for yourself and just say no!
But the point is that she has very little control over her body and over her future. These two quotations pretty much sum up the situation in the novel, both of them taken from letters to Evelina:
The supposed obscurity of your birth and situation, makes you liable to a thousand disagreeable adventures.
Remember, my dear Evelina, nothing is so delicate as the reputation of a woman: it is, at once, the most beautiful and the most brittle of all human things.
So, put these two things together, and that’s the plot. Evelina’s “obscurity” comes from the fact that her father refuses to recognize his marriage to her mother, who is dead. Evelina was raised by the Reverend Villars, tutor to Evelina’s grandfather and author of the above quotations. Without recognition from her father, she is illegitimate and hence has no name. Without a place in a family – in the patriarchal order – she is without protection from that order and subject to abuse. She is forever objecting to the designs other people have on her, but she cannot stop them. She cannot control her body or even her name, the made-up last name of Anville:
“So I says to the porter, says I, tell his Lordship, says I, one wants to speak to him as comes from one Miss Anville, says I.”
“Good God, cried I, “and by what authority did you take such a liberty?”
People can take “liberties” with her without any authority whatsoever; with a father or husband to protect her, she is at everyone’s mercy.
The story gets started when 17-year-old Evelina leaves her home at Berry Hill to visit a friend, and from there they move on to London. Away from home she is without even the protection of Villars, and in London, she is exposed to public spaces where predatory men await. What we get is a fairly traditional kind of plot, one where the young innocent heads off into the dangerous city, and we get to see the city through the eyes of someone experiencing it for the first time. This offers Burney many possibilities for social satire, of which she takes full advantage. Much of the middle of the novel is consists of visits to the theater, the opera, dances, and other kinds of entertainments, where Burney describes interactions among people of what we would call varying social classes, although “class” wasn’t a term used at the time. We get a description of shopping, which seems to be a new activity, at least to Evelina:
We have been a shopping, as Mrs. Mirvan calls it, all this morning, to buy silks, caps, gauzes, and so forth.
The shops are really very entertaining, especially the mercers; there seem to be six or seven men belonging to each shop, and every one took care, by bowing and smirking, to be noticed; we were conducted from one to another, and carried from room to room with so much ceremony, that at first I was almost afraid to follow.
Evelina is forced to spend time with people she finds “vulgar” and “ill-bred”; they are of a lower social standing, although without her own black mark of illegitimacy. She is continually shocked at their lapses in good taste. Burney writes about the situation of women sympathetically, but this clearly does not include women of the lower social orders.
Burney seems to take special pleasure in portraying cultural conflict; some of the “ill-bred” characters fight over and over again about the relative merits of the French and the English, drawing on the traditional national stereotypes. This, as you can imagine, tries Evelina’s delicate sensibilities to no end. Burney also has some fun with physical comedy; in one scene two of the men stage a fake hold-up of a carriage carrying Evelina’s grandmother, Madame Duval, a woman who has annoyed the men by engaging in some of the book’s harshest verbal sparring. She gets dumped in a ditch, her fake curls stolen, her feet tied together, and her dress covered in mud. The men think this is hysterically funny.
The novel is epistolary in form. Most of the letters are written by Evelina to Villars, with a few written back to her. As in Richardson, this technique is rather difficult to believe: Evelina seems able to remember vast amounts of dialogue and seems to have no end of time in which to write everything down. But what I like about the technique is the way we get the story coming from one perspective and shaped specifically for the eyes of another. Motivations then become interesting: why is Evelina telling the story in this particular way?
The strongest impression I get from the book, though, is of Evelina’s vulnerability. While I wish she would assert herself as I would expect a contemporary woman to do, circumstances and social expectations dictate that she cannot. It’s painful to see her tossed about, and her frustration and anger are palpable. The book is a powerful testament to what it means to be enmeshed in a patriarchal culture – and what it’s like to live on its edges.