Fanny Burney

Fanny Burney's first and best-known novel, 1778's Evelina, is usually described as the first novel of manners. Burney had originally intended the book to serve as an instruction manual for young women about to enter society, and many of the novel's more painful scenes involve the eponymous heroine flailing in society like a landed trout. Although lovely, gentle, and well bred, Burney's Evelina is painfully seventeen, and Burney describes her numerous social gaffes and subsequent embarrassment in hideous detail. The men she meets (except for the idealized-past-the-point-of-sainthood Lord Orville) are either ridiculous, wicked, or both, and they all only want One Thing. Their determined pursuit propels Evelina through a series of alternately humorous and dramatic adventures, culminating in the requisite happy ending.

Note: Fanny Burney's stepmother, who disapproved of fiction, apparently torched Burney's first attempt at a novel. Harsh.

Note #2: According to contemporary reports, Burney had a freakish ability to parrot back huge chunks of conversation.

I attended a lecture on 18th century medicine a few years ago. (And please don't tell me that I should have known better. It was required, okay?) Anyway, the speaker--whose voice I shall never forget--read aloud Burney's account of her mastectomy, which was performed WITHOUT ANESTETIC. While Burney was SOBER. It was horrible.

While Evelina is widely available in paperback, it's difficult to find copies of Burney's other three novels. On the other hand, they're nowhere near as much fun, so you might not want to. You can also read e-texts of Evelina and Camilla at this website.

Other Recommendations:
Anything by Jane Austen (who was a total Burney fangirl)

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Bronte

Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Middlemarch, by George Eliot
Posted by: Julia


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