Evelina or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World is an epistolary novel in which most of the letters are Evelina’s, giving readers direct experience of the 17-year-old heroine’s thoughts. Usually considered a novel of manners that foreshadowed Jane Austen’s writing, Evelina is actually darker than Austen’s work, exposing within a comic tone the misogyny and brutality of the English upper-middle class of the late 18th century. The innocent Evelina, who has been raised by a rural parson, goes out into society not understanding the rules of the game. She has to rely on her wits and good breading to navigate a path past rakes and self-serving relatives. Evelina’s situation is dire, for her birth father’s not acknowledging her means she has lost not only her inheritance but also her legitimacy. Her beauty won’t make up for those liabilities with prospective husbands of the right class.
A young woman of the late 18th century did not put herself in the public eye by writing, so Evelina, Frances Burney’s first novel, was published anonymously. It was an immediate success with readers and critics. It, and Burney’s three other novels and many plays, faded in the public eye when the Victorians favored Burney’s diaries and letters. Today her novels are being revived for their perspective on the difficulties of women in a male-oriented culture.
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