Sunday, February 03, 2008


I tend to stick to slightly more recent novels, but every once and a while, I'll venture into the classics. I usually like them, but I also prefer reading them in class because it helps to have teachers explain the historical context. For example, I didn't like Richardson's Pamela for a variety of reasons but if I had read it on my own, I probably would have just given up. Since I read it for class, our professor helped to point out certain things about the text, and actually made the experience better (it's definitely one of those novels I love to bitch about).

Anyway, we also read Aphra Behn and Eliza Haywood in that same class as well as Jane Austen (it was 18th century literature) but though I'd heard the name, we didn't read anything by Frances Burney. I recently finished Evelina, and I enjoyed it a lot. She didn't have the same obsession with sexual purity as Richardson, though certain scenes in the novel show that it still had a very important role in determining women's behavior. When I was looking at Burney on Amazon, I noticed many of the reviewers made comments like "if you like Jane Austen, . . ." while others felt that Austen was clearly superior. I think it's interesting that given that there were several other authors at the time, the immediate focus is to compare the two female novelists who weren't even quite contemporaries (of course, I wrote a paper arguing for a distinct genre of women's literature for that 18th century lit class so I shouldn't comment) - Burney was only twenty years or so before Austen, but that can still be a difference in literary movements - after all, would anyone really compare the Beats and Hemingway? Obviously, Hemingway was still a productive writer then, but he does tend to get grouped in with the expatriates. In fact, Burney is cited as an influence on Austen yet Austen is the much more famous and well-known of the two. Of course, it probably helps that Austen has some shorter novels - Evelina was about the same length as your average Austen, but the other ones I was looking at on Amazon last night were about twice the length.

I have to admit, Burney does fit in well between Behn, Haywood and Austen, though. Behn and Haywood both were more involved with the theater, and while Burney had an interest in theater, and even wrote a few plays, she stuck to the slightly more respectable genre of the novel. Her writing style reflects this because it seems like it would be rather easy to transition many of her scenes to the stage, while Austen has more pages with little action. Similar to Austen, she uses her literature to critique certain traditions, people and attitudes. She combines the theatrics of Behn and Haywood with the developed characters and social criticism of Austen, so it makes sense that she would be in the middle of these authors, especially looking at it purely from a history of woman novelists (not to say that Behn and Haywood didn't critique their society). To be honest, I find the few novels I've read by men of that time rather boring - Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Joseph Andrews so I guess I fall into the same trap as other Amazon users mentioned above.

As far as the actual novel, I made sure to buy the Oxford World Classic's edition, since I like their footnotes, and I think they usually pick informative, accessible introductary essays. Evelina is the story of a young woman from the country who is the illegimate daughter of a rich baronet. At the outset of the novel, she has never met her father or been acknowledged by him, but some rich friends of her patron decide to take her to London for the first time. Burney uses Evelina to introduce different settings and social circles in London as well as discuss different types of high and low culture. In some cases, Evelina seems rather snobbish, especially towards her cousins who are middle class, and don't share the same types of social sensiblities and sensitivites as Evelina. However, their behavior is rather overbearing as is her grandmother's so it is mostly understandable. As the heroine, Evelina is of course beautiful and intelligent, but there were about five different guys after her throughout the novel so that was a bit over the top. Of course, her suitors presented several social and economic classes so it allowed Burney to critique and poke fun at a variety of mindsets. As in most 18th and even 19th century literature, when seen through a 21st century lense, some of the things that were so important then seem rather repressive and minor, but Burney appears have had a similar opinion. I liked Burney's style, and her satirical and critical view of the events, as well as the fact that she didn't get too sentimental or spend the whole time worrying about her characters purity and the sexual dangers she faced (Pamela!). In fact, I enjoyed the novel enough to give Burney another go, and ordered another of her novels last night (in addition to about nine other books, so we'll see when I actually get around to her).

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