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. 

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One thought on “Frances Burney Response”

  1. The tonal question takes us straight back to the generic and realism questions we’ve discussed all term: would a shift that would be considered strange or distracting in a realist novel be more appropriate in a satire? Why? The satirist’s gender also figures into this discussion of the purpose of satire: Mrs Selwyn’s strange, marginal role as sarcastic yet uninvolved seems an important clue. The target of the satire, however, cannot simply be the nationalism of the crudest characters but also the ambiguously gendered fops. So at what point do we no longer consider this a novel, or is it some kind of hybrid genre?

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