Sunday, May 26, 2019

Fortnightly Book, May 26

Perhaps, were it possible to effect the total extirpation of novels, our young ladies in general, and boarding-school damsels in particular, might profit from their annihilation; but since the distemper they have spread seems incurable, since their contagion bids defiance to the medicine of advice or reprehension, and since they are found to baffle all the mental art of physic, save what is prescribed by the slow regimen of Time, and bitter diet of Experience; surely all attempts to contribute to the number of those which may be read, if not with advantage, at least without injury, ought rather to be encouraged than contemned.

The next fortnightly book is Fanny Burney's Evelina, published in 1778; an epistolary novel, it's generally considered a forerunner of the works of Jane Austen, and follows the adventures of a young woman raised in seclusion as she begins to interact with the finer portions of society. She makes many mistakes, but also discovers the hollowness of some social conventions. And, of course, you can be sure there is a possibility of marriage somewhere. This will be my first time reading it; I've read excerpts from Fanny Burney in looking at various issues in Austen, but not read any of her works all the way through.

Epistolary novels are sometimes difficult to read -- although it's not so much that they are difficult in themselves as that we no longer have all the reading habits required for them -- but Burney has a reputation for being quite humorous, and, although all her novels did reasonably well, Evelina was far and away her most successful one. She also has a reputation for excellence -- among those whom we know enjoyed her work are Austen, Burke, and Johnson. Her friendship with the latter is actually how she originally became known. Evelina was published anonymously, and she took great lengths to keep her authorship secret, including disguising her handwriting, creating secret identities, and once getting her brother to pose as the author and disguise himself so that he wouldn't be recognized. But of course her circle of close friends knew it, and things leak out to their friends, and word got back to a man named George Huddesworth, who in writing a comic poem, "Warley, A Satire", included a line,

Or gain approbation from dear little Burney?

On its own perhaps not so bad, but then he put in a footnote: 'The Authoress of Evelina', and thereby let the whole secret out to the world. In any case, it doesn't seem to have caused her any hurt more significant than embarrassment, and she did fairly well for herself afterward.

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