Frances Burney Response

Frances Burney Response 

My very sincere enjoyment of Frances Burney’s Evelina lead me to a question that is often tabled in creative writing classes as a matter of craft: what is a “tonal shift”, when can the reader bear it, in craft parlance “when is it earned” and when is it beyond the narrative pale? Expectations for tonal consistency were obviously not elucidated as rules by an institutional apparatus in the eighteenth century, and yet readers have always had expectations and critics have always responded to novels as successful or not with recourse to these. What to make of a novel that is both chipper and crass, sweet and disgusting, rude and mannered, and after all that, still successful?

Margaret Anne Doody is a highly influential eighteenth century scholar and an expert on Burney who edited an issue of Eighteenth Century Fiction on Evelina. I selected her essay  

“Beyond Evelina: The Individual Novel and the Community of Literature”(as my pre-2000 source) to shed light on the legacy of Burney scholarship as well as on new avenues for study of her oeuvre. I found that Burney had previously been deemed a minor writer in a major form worthy of studying for her role in the development of the novel, but dismissed as conventional and “light” by critics before feminist scholars made a case for the innovation the frame narrative of the novel represents and the socio-political critique it put forward in a patriarchal society. While this focus renewed interest in and respect for Burney as a novelist, it did not engage consideration of all the formal strategies Burney deploys in her writing, or even some of these strategies. Doody’s call to consider Burney’s satire in dialogue with Smollett’s and Fielding’s and Swift’s, and as informed by the socio-political context of the moment helped direct my critical reading further. 

Satire does seem to be the right word for it. After all, I want to understand the resilience of Evelina’s canonical status, the pleasures its comedy continues to bring readers and the weightiness of its plot in terms of the literary and socio-political context of its composition and the particular narrative structure it engendered which is deeply satirical, even if its satire remains almost unrecognizable as such by contemporary readers like myself. My first inkling that this book is a satire came from the very duality of its structure, Mr. Villars is opposed to Mme. Duval, the Mirvan’s are contrasted with the Braughton’s, and Lord Orville gallantly intercedes on Evelina’s behalf with every fop in the kingdom, these contrasts give an exemplary quality to Burney’s characterizations that allow them to be both instructive and ridiculous simultaneously. This is the hallmark of satire, however the tone of her satire still made me resist unreservedly identifying it as such. 

From a formal perspective, Julian Fong’s “Frances Burney as Satirist” proved to be most useful in providing answers to my inciting question about the very particular tone of Burney’s comedy.

He identifies her as a gloomy satirist whose view of female agency and of society’s ability to change is deeply pessimistic while her writing remains far from joyless. This description could not be more apt. Her purpose then is what puts her tonally at odds with other satirists like the sillier Fielding or angrier Smollett. Fong writes, “Her satiric purpose, as I understand it, is neither punitive nor reformative, but rather cautionary. She is not trying to chastise the vicious; she tries to warn her readers against the many dangers to which they may be vulnerable, particularly those that threaten young women” (939). This begs the question: if male writers are more readily accepted into the cannon how does this circumscribe today’s reader from recognizing formal strategies in women’s comedic writing. A literary historical knot a course like this one is indeed working to untangle.

Finally, Leanne Maunu’s “Quelling the French Threat in Frances Burney’s Evelina” was very enlightening in providing the historical context and familiarity with the cultural productions of the eighteenth century that made the very troubling characters of Mme Duval and Captain Mirvan legible to me as more than caricature, as studies of the nationalism that was on the rise and all its discontents. 

From it’s setting to its characters the reader can tell Evelina is a novel deeply concerned with publics, those that exist in the city of London and those that exist in the character’s mind, and Burney represents these publics as extremely fraught, her satire is indeed gloomy and serves as a caution to the reader, but not one devoid of pleasure. I’m glad these essays have helped me consider these questions and pointed to future sources and avenues for inquiry. 


Frances Burney Annotated Bibliography

Annotated Bibliography, Frances Burney’s Evelina

Doody, Margaret Anne. “Beyond Evelina: The Individual Novel and the Community of Literature”. Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Volume 3, Number 4, July 1991, pp. 359-372

This essay provides historical context about the reception history of Frances Burney’s novels and Evelina in particular, starting with her contemporaries and moving onto shifting trends in the scholarship around her work and how Evelina is taught in institutions. She describes contemporary critics of Burney’s and early scholarship on her work as failing to distinguish between the author and the “nice little rustic miss” she portrays in Evelina, as plagued by a sort of biographical fallacy that neglected Burney’s actual biography, for example the fact that Burney was 26 when she wrote Evelina and not in fact a teenager. Doody’s own biography of Frances Burney which revealed her problematic parentage is credited with a shift in the scholarship on Evelina which once dismissed the plot as conventional but now focuses the frame narrative of the novel and the means by which it’s heroine comes to claim her true name, this more recent scholarship reads the frame variously through formalist, feminist and psychoanalytic lenses. Doody is critical of this shift as she feels it represents a dismissal of Burney’s comic effects and satiric agenda, she attributes neglect of this generic concern to a critical disinterestedness in Burney’s contemporaries, namely: Eliza Haywood and Tobias Smollett. Her criticism of this focus on Evelina’s frame structure and its preoccupation with naming to the exclusion of its comedy evinces the critical establishment’s belief in the individual and a disavowal of the novel’s communal concerns, of Evelina’s relation to the Braughton’s, to Mme. Duval, to Captain Mirvan, and to the political and literary contexts of its composition.  

Fung, Julian. “Frances Burney as Satirist”. The Modern Language Review , Vol. 106, No. 4 (October 2011), pp. 937-953

Critic Julian Fung takes up the gauntlet laid down by Doody two decades later, in his essay he describes the formal character of Burney’s satire and attributes the reason it has not been studied to its inconsistency with the forms of “Augustan satire” that became dominant in the twentieth century, which is characterized by an attack on some object being carried out through humour. By comparing Burney’s writing to Fielding’s, Smollett’s and Swift’s he provides historical evidence that satire as it was understood in the eighteenth century was more various than it is now understood to be, satire could be light, it could grim, it could be angry. Fung provides a list of considerations for critics seeking to qualify the satirical effects of an author, such as: what is the protagonists role in relation to the satire, are the satirical characters dangerous, are they sympathetic, are they reformed, and can they be mollified by the protagonist. All of these considerations of plot effect the tone and style of the satire and the degree to which contemporary critics recognize it as such. For Fung, Evelina is a gloomy satire, “she warns her readers against a dangerous world and laments the impossibility of its reform by combining light, humorous ridicule with darker, more disturbing satire.” As the plot thickens lighter representations of course and rude satirical characters who do not threaten Evelina give way to grimmer representations of Evelina as a victim. This critics conclusions have implications that invoke the blind spot of eighteenth-century literary criticism of the novel, “Devotees of the ‘rise of the novel’ theory have been too focused on how Burney can be made to serve as a transitional novelist between Smollett and Austen to recognize her own considerable satiric accomplishments.”

Maunu, Leanne. “Quelling the French Threat in Frances Burney’s Evelina” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture. Volume 31, 2002, pp. 99-125.

(Because there is a limited generic criticism that engages socio-political questions of Evelina, and of the character of Mme. Duval specifically, I broadened my field of interest in Burney’s satire to include the French question which is a thematic explored satirically in the novel.)

In her lifetime, critic Leanne Maunu explains that Frances Burney was referred to as a “character-monger” by Dr. Johnson because of her skill at representing types, like the frenchified fop and the simple country girl. Maunu writes that Mme. Duval and Captain Mirvan are among these types but that they have not undergone the same kind of critical study as others (nor has their violent relationship), but that these types would have been familiar to and resonated with her contemporary readers as they drew on the nationalist rhetoric and anti-french propaganda of the day. Indeed Maunu’s socio-historical criticism describes the way the constant warfare between the two nations fomented a sense of Britishness as something distinct from and superior to Frenchness, a rival power who were perceived to threaten mores at home and colonies abroad. This political inspiration does not merely provide local colour in the novel but configures the plot— Evelina is unlike other marriage plot narratives of the period— seducer’s figure prominently but do not represent the main villain or central threat to the heroine, instead the villainess is a bawdy old French grandmother. For Maunu, Evelina’s grandmother is threatening because of her dual national identity. Indeed when Mme. Duval posits that a Grand Tour of Europe would make quite another person of Captain Mirvan, both he and the novel appear to be skeptical that becoming another person is a desirable thing. (The threat of not being who one seems to be permeates the novel as Evelina is seen with prostitutes by Orville at Vauxhall and wonders is he has misapprehended her character.) The relationship between Mme. Duval and Captain Mirvan is figured as a battle, because Mirvan is representative of the British state his violence is more or less sanctioned by the novel— even if its means are suspect its ends are deemed to be acceptable, at least in theory. But Mirvan does not merely want to beat Mme. Duval, he wants to humiliate her, deflate her pretensions to superiority and silence her. This humiliation is brutal, Mme Duval is kicked while she is down. The grimness of Burney’s satire is inconsistent with the tone of contemporary satire but it speaks to the different satiric registers she is capable of deploying in a single novel and the complexity of her project. For Maunu, “Burney uses humiliation as a strategy to induce us to laugh, but she uses the representation of the Captain to force us to catch that laughter in our throats.” It is the very grimness of her satire that allows the reader to question the righteousness of the nationalist project and Mirvan’s blind and brutal allegiance to it.