Frances Burney, Evelina (1778)

Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, is an epistemological novel retelling the young Evelina’s adventures in Georgian London. Evelina was raised in the countryside by a minister, in relative solitude. Her mother had married a certain Sir John Belmont who abandoned his wife shortly after she was pregnant with their daughter; she died whilst giving birth to Evelina. The young girl is thus an orphan at the beginning of the novel because, although she knows who her father is, she has never met him and he has never acknowledged her existence. One Spring, Evelina goes to London with her friend, Maria Mirvan, to welcome home the latter’s father, referred to as ‘The Captain’. In London, Evelina discovers the life of theatre and opera-going, of balls, and polite society; but because she grew up away from all this, she is not too aware of the manners she should adopt. Yet, because she is extremely beautiful, her entrance into society doesn’t go unnoticed and many men admire her, even if some have suspicious intentions towards her. Evelina is a sort of Bildungsroman in which a young woman has to come to terms with the ways of the world, and is rewarded for her exemplary conduct in the end with a marriage to the man she loves.

Evelina

What interested me the most whilst reading this novel was to see how French people were seen and treated by the other characters. Evelina finds her grandmother, Madame Duval, in London, who also happens to be French. She is always escorted by Monsieur Dubois – another French man. From the moment Evelina and her party meet them, the Captain’s favourite occupation is to tyrannise them. There is a certain disgust for the French that transpires through Burney’s words. The way they are described contrasts with the opinion English artists might have of their French counterparts later in the nineteenth century – a view that is more familiar to a twenty-first century reader, in my opinion. Here, France is not the country of refinement and astounding poets, but of singularly repulsive individuals. Although Madame Duval is supposed to be a rather well-off French lady, she is portrayed in the same unflattering light as her impoverished English relatives. Evelina is ashamed of her, and is embarrassed when people within the higher ranks of society see her with such company. Actually, Madame Duval reminded me of the French governess in Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas (1864) who is one of the most ridiculous characters I have ever read.

Of course, Franco-English rivalry is not a new thing and I think it will always be there. I remember when I was little and my grandfather – who was probably the French-est man that has ever been – would mock the English with their Queen and their silly cuisine. I wonder what he would think now that I live in London! I especially like this mutual ‘hatred’ in the late Georgian and Victorian period because with the French revolution, the Napoleonic wars, and the fact that these two countries ended up being the most powerful European countries by the end of the century, there’s just so many sources for rivalry and mockery – which almost always hide a certain degree of fear or admiration. (I’d like to note that I talk about England, and not Britain, because there’s nothing of that kind with Welsh, Scottish or Irish people) It’s just something I particularly enjoy, because it’s not a toxic rivalry, and it’s not really harmful to any one; like two siblings who keep on teasing each other but are bored on their own. Here is an extract of a conversation between Madame Duval and the Captain that I think illustrates well what I’m trying to say:

Pardi, Monsieur,’ returned she, ‘and so I shall; for, I promise you, I think the English a parcel of brutes; and I’ll go back to France as fast as I can, for I would not live among none of you.’

‘Who wants you?’ cried the Captain; ‘do you suppose, Madam French, we have not enough of other nations to pick our pockets already? I’ll warrant you, there’s no need for you for to put in your oar.’

‘Pick your pockets, Sir! I wish nobody wanted to pick your pockets no more than I do; and I’ll promise you, you’d be safe enough. But there’s no nation under the sun can beat the English for ill-politeness; for my part, I hate the very sight of them, and so I shall only just visit a person of quality or two, of my particular acquaintance, and then I shall go back again to France.’

‘Ay, do,’ cried he, ‘and then go to the devil together, for that’s the fittest voyage for the French and the quality.’

‘We’ll take care, however,’ cried the stranger, with great vehemence, ‘not to admit none of your vulgar, unmannered English among us.’

‘O never fear,’ returned he coolly, ‘we sha’n’t dispute the point with you; you and the quality may have the devil all to yourselves.’

Evelina, p. 58.

To go back to Evelina itself, it’s a very amusing satirical novel about the roles of women in society, and it looks at fatherly duties with a very sharp eye. I found it wonderful to read about a very old – and much smaller – London and I think it is the perfect book for a Jane Austen fan who would like to broaden their horizon. Highly recommend!

Featured image: Thomas Gainsborough, The Mall in St. Jame’s Park (1783)

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