Recent Reading…

In need of something entertaining to read, I searched my library and came up with EVELINA, by Fanny Burney. I own a few Burney items: two biographies, her Cecilia (nearly as large and thick as Richardson’s Clarissa), and a journal volume. EVELINA came from TUTTLE’s Antiquarian Books in Rutland — now sadly gone (and one less reason to travel from Burlington to Rutland!).

Who knows if I will finish EVELINA. Burney’s epistolary novel holds my interest, but at the same time I have to say I find nine-tenths of the characters thoroughly obnoxious! Early on, this novel feels a genuine precursor to Austen in several ways: the young girl entering society (Catherine in Northanger Abbey; though Bath vs London society); the odious suitor (Evelina’s Sir Clement Willoughby; Catherine’s Mr Thorpe or Elizabeth Bennet’s Mr Collins); the eligible hero (Evelina’s Lord Orville and Elizabeth’s Mr Darcy). Or IS Orville a ‘hero’?? Part of me wants to peek at the end to see if he turns out to be Lovelace-like instead!

Austen’s crowd of characters are funny, endearing, even when they slightly annoy (I’m talking about the BOOKS, not films; a little Lydia sometimes goes a long way…), while Burney’s cast here seems black or white – innocent Evelina; obnoxious Capt. Mirvan; lovely Mrs Mirvan; odious Mme Duval, etc. etc; and the scenes chatter on at such length. This would undoubtedly make for entertaining reading aloud, as would have often been done in Austen’s day. It reads VERY like a play, with a VAST amount of dialogue. Poor Evelina must surely have gotten writer’s cramp after penning some of her missives! (Was Les liaisons dangereuses as wordy w/o plot movement? Hardly… Short, pithy letters that feel like correspondence; in fact, the letters become the dialogue.)

Trying to get some AUSTEN research read, I took out from the library the second edition of Deirdre Le Faye’s Jane Austen: A Family Record. One interesting thing about it is the amount of family diaries and letters Le Faye culls in order to fill in the narrative of Austen’s life, whereabouts, and actions. I was telling Deb about the references to SUSAN, Austen’s original title for Northanger Abbey (‘til another novel of the same title got published in 1809): Publisher buys it, promises to publish quickly — then sits and sits and sits on the manuscript. How frustrating for her! So with great joy, one reads this paragraph: “It was probably early in 1816, ‘when four novels of steadily increasing success had given the writer some confidence in herself’, that Jane decided to recover the manuscript of Susan from Crosby & Co. Henry undertook the negotiation, and ‘found the purchaser very willing to receive back his money, and to resign all claim to the copyright. [Crosby had paid Jane a mere £10.] When the bargain was concluded and the money paid, but not till then, the negotiator had the satisfaction of informing him that the work which had been so lightly esteemed was by the author of “Pride and Prejudice”.’”

This is not my favorite Austen biography, there are a few too many phrases containing ‘maybe, perhaps, probably’ tossed into the narrative; but Le Faye includes much primary information, from published and unpublished sources, not found in a lot of other biographies, and therefore she presents a fleshed-out picture of Austen’s life, even when the evidence for a particular period is a bit thin. For an interesting evaluation of SEVERAL Austen biographies, see Keiko Parker, ‘Sense and “Non-Sense” in Eight Jane Austen Biographies.’

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