This week has brought the semester to an end, and I’ve been reflecting on my early British literature survey, especially the last month of it, where I focused solely on eighteenth-century female writers (at the expense of some very important male writers). The cornerstone of this final segment of the class was Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778), and I’m pleased with the results.
I enjoy Evelina; Burney is a witty writer and intersects character and incident very well. One of these days, I’m going to read Burney’s other novels. Still, Evelina can be a tedious read, especially when reading under time constraints after the first 150 pages or so. Students readily noted that it lacks plot. I explained that earlier novels, especially eighteenth-century works, can be episodic and repetitious, and that we need to read accordingly. In Evelina, Burney likes to deploy similar episodes that explore and challenge her heroine’s naiveté. So, over and over we see Evelina cope with Sir Clement’s inappropriate advances, and we follow her growth and maturity (even if she regresses on occasion). Then there are the comic episodes with Captain Mirvan and Madame Duval, which follow a pattern. One of the challenges with assigning early fiction, of course, is convincing students that such texts are worth reading, even though their pace is not what students are accustomed to. In-class close reading of some of these episodes helped.
In any case, I believe Evelina is a useful text for examining the ways culture shapes identity and gender. In class, we had productive conversations about eighteenth-century gender construction. We also explored the boundaries that circumscribed female writers 250 years ago, as well as the culture of sensibility, which is evident in Burney’s characterization of men and women. I think there is also something about the epistolary form of Evelina that helps with this work on identity and gender. So much of the novel is about authority and articulating the self through language. Evelina reports what she sees, using her letter writing to explore her experiences, sometimes without access to language to describe sexual matters. Plus, she writes mainly to Mr. Villars, her male guardian, and a number of students noted this constraint of audience for Evelina.
In our final conversations in class, I asked students what they had learned over the semester. Many of them spoke of learning about how culture affects us, our roles, behavior, identity. And that they appreciated situating literature in its historical context, because of the insights they gained about who we are today. These comments were rewarding.