I recently had the pleasure of reading the epistolary novel Evelina, written by Frances Burney and published in 1778. Set in 18th century England, Evelina follows the adventures of the title character as she navigates high society after being raised in relative seclusion by her guardian Reverend Villars. As someone who enjoys classic literature, I found this novel to be an utterly delightful read from start to finish.
|Publication Date||October 24, 2018|
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Overview of the Plot
The story begins with Evelina entering society at the age of 17 under the guardianship of the Mirvans, a boisterous family known for their lack of manners. Naive and inexperienced, Evelina attempts to follow the rules of etiquette in this new environment but often finds herself in awkward situations. Much of the humor and intrigue comes from Evelina’s observations on the contrasts between polite and impolite society.
Evelina catches the attention of Sir Clement Willoughby, a baronet who pursues her relentlessly as a potential match despite Evelina showing no interest in return. Meanwhile, she is also courted by the Reverend Mr. Villars’ preferred suitor for Evelina, Lord Orville, a nobleman who exemplifies taste and virtue.
As the novel progresses, a subplot unfolds surrounding Evelina’s unknown parentage, as she is revealed to be the illegitimate daughter of a deceased aristocrat. Evelina encounters her coarse and unrefined grandmother Madame Duval and extended family members who both help and hinder her in society.
After a series of humiliating misadventures including unwanted advances from Sir Clement, Evelina ultimately finds herself properly united with Lord Orville. Their marriage secures her respectable position and happy future.
My Thoughts on the Novel and Characters
I found Evelina to be a highly enjoyable read thanks to Burney’s lively writing style and gift for comedic situations. The novel has a lightness of tone that adds to the humor and fun despite dealing with the manners and restrictions of 18th century high society that could be quite rigid.
The characters are vividly drawn, from the kind and wise Reverend Villars to the uncivil Madame Duval. I liked that Evelina herself is portrayed as intelligent and virtuous but still naive about society’s complexities. Her innocence leads to funny cases of mistaken identity and social blunders, allowing Burney to satirize many absurd behaviors and hypocrisies of the time period.
The dashing Lord Orville stands out as an admirable romantic hero, being patient and respectable in his courtship even when Evelina makes mistakes out of ignorance. Meanwhile, the vulgar Sir Clement provides an effective foil with his aggressive pursuit of Evelina based only on her beauty and social connections.
In my opinion, the contrast between Lord Orville and Sir Clement encapsulates Burney’s critique of society’s superficial values, as does Evelina’s contrast between her public humiliations and private reflections. Burney emphasizes that true virtue and wisdom trump rank and status.
Final Verdict: A Must-Read Classic
Evelina has firmly earned its place among the canon of great 18th century British literature. Frances Burney’s masterful creation of characters, her comic timing, and her shrewd social commentary make this novel a must-read. I found it to be utterly enjoyable as well as insightful about the role of women in its time period.
The epistolary format made me feel invested in Evelina’s journey and revelations about her parentage. This is a classic novel I would recommend to all lovers of witty, satirical writing in an immersive historical setting. Evelina is a shining example of a comedy of manners and eighteenth century literature. For any reader who enjoys a charming heroine, hilarious misunderstandings, and astute social satire, Evelina is sure to satisfy.