Book Review: Evelina by Fanny Burney

By Francis Burney (Madame d’Arblay)
Oxford University Press, 2002
(First published 1778)

It will surely come as no surprise to learn that I’m a huge Jane Austen fan. Some of you may already know that I collect Jane Austen fan fiction and films. But I also delight in reading some of the books Austen read herself.

Portrait of Frances Burney (Madame d'Arblay, 1752-1840) by her relative Edward Francis Burney

Which brings us to Frances Burney and Evelina. Although after her death her biographers focused on the twenty volumes of diaries and letters Burney left behind, I’m fairly certain Burney’s novels were what caught Austen’s eye. (Austen is rumored to have pulled the title of Pride and Prejudice from the last pages of Burney’s Cecilia.)

First, a few words about Burney for those of you who may not have met her yet. Born in Lyme Regis on June 13, 1752, Francis Burney (known as Madame d’Arblay after her marriage to an exiled French general) wrote four novels, eight plays, one biography and twenty volumes of journals and letters before her death on January 6, 1840. The unique narrative style and comic tone of her first novel, Evelina, almost immediately established Burney as one of the foremost novelists of her time. Her three other novels, Cecilia (1782), Camilia (1796), and The Wanderer (1814) were equally popular during her lifetime.

Her plays… not so much. In a bit of irony for a writer whose works focused on the politics of female identity in a male-oriented society, her father and close family friend Samuel Crisp both argued strongly against Burney releasing any of her dramatic comedies on the grounds that it was unseemly for a woman to work in that genre. The one play that her father allowed her to share with the general public closed after only a single night.

As for Evelina, I must say that while this book has its strong points, its main effect was to increase my respect for how Austen reshaped the novel form. Burney’s book is amusing, but the characters seem to be defined almost entirely by a single characteristic. They are either all good or all bad, entirely proper or thoroughly vulgar, fully conscious or fainted dead away. There is little character development through the book, and no fundamental changes in anyone’s behavior. Just two marriages to conclude the farce, with no one the wiser. Austen, in contrast, treats us to real people, with all the nuance of character and emotional development that implies.

That said, I really enjoyed Mrs. Selwyn. Whenever she spoke I could almost imagine that I had stumbled into an Oscar Wilde play.

What about you? Have you read any of Burney’s novels? What did you think?


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