(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Like many other English novels of the eighteenth century, Evelina provides a keen and detailed examination of English society, in this case the wonderfully rich social world of London. What sets Evelina apart from the works of Burney’s male contemporaries, however, and in the process gives the novel its peculiar charm and power, is the narrative perspective created by Evelina herself. Reared in virtual seclusion by a country clergyman determined to protect her, Evelina finds herself totally unprepared to maneuver smoothly through the complex maze of London society. Yet it is precisely Evelina’s naïveté and inexperience that enable Burney to point out the relative emptiness and artificiality of much that her heroine sees, and thus to imbue the narrative with both wit and satiric bite.

Burney’s first work, written when the author was in her early twenties, is an epistolary novel—that is, it consists entirely of a series of letters exchanged by several of the major characters over a period of some eight months. Most of the letters are from Evelina’s pen, and nearly all of these are directly addressed to Mr. Villars. In adopting the epistolary method, Burney followed the example of Samuel Richardson, author of Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740-1741) and Clarissa: Or, The History of a Young Lady (1747-1748) and one of the eighteenth century’s greatest novelists. More important, though, the epistolary method allows Burney direct access to Evelina’s thoughts and feelings—even more so,...

(The entire section is 634 words.)