Tuesday, November 5, 2013

ENG 7021 11/6

Evalina: Storytelling with Letters

In a text that is composed almost entirely of letters, Frances Burney's Evalina is an experimental novel in terms of its format. The novel, as a newer genre, had already been established as noted by Burney in her introduction. While it might seem odd to depict the characters through letters, it actually lends credibility to the author's ability, and allows the audience an unforeseen access in the narrative. Using a series of letters to represent an unconventional form of writing helped to make Evalina a popular text.

But what is the intention of describing Evalina's journey? Burney spells this out explicitly in the beginning: "To draw characters from nature, though not from life, and to mark the manners of the times, is the attempted plan of the following letters." (Burney 9) The audience is acquainted with the fact that this novel tries to pull inspiration from "nature," and could be considered more of a social commentary of the era, rather than simply following the happenings of any person. By "marking the manners of the times," Burney becomes a historian of social context as much as a novelist. These customs are evident in the personal tone of the letters.

These letters are hardly impersonal; with the language of letters, at times there seems to be more of a conversation between characters. This "snapshot" of interactions lends credibility to Burney for accurately depicting a believable story. The reader feels like they are peeking in on letters taken from a personal collection, both violating privacy and yet making it public. I imagine that these personal letters would have been burned by the authors' next of kin upon their death, much like Lady Montagu's journals. Their existence for our perusal breaks that tradition outright, though the reader is eager to continue.

Furthermore, the letters themselves are addressed quite differently than regular correspondence, not always
including an address or date. In fact, it isn't until the 3rd letter that the reader is given a date of the writings, which for me was rather jolting. Those two, mentioned as written "some months" before the 3rd, are a sort of history without date, as if it was a topic of conversation that was well known between Lady Howard and Mr. Villars. A few of the letters are given out of order, deconstructing the reader''s sense of time. Their individual voices throughout the text show Burney's ability as a writer; it is clear who is speaking in each letter based on their language choice.

Using the letter as format for her epistolary novel was quite different from her peers, though Burney's own role in its creation seems contested by herself in the preface: "Whatever may be the fate of these letters, the editor is satisfied they will meet with justice and commits them to the press..." (11) While Burney is indeed the author, she stresses her contribution as editor as well. It is as if she hands the power of writing over to the characters she has created; by stressing this editing contribution, Burney propels the novel as a genre, and uses everyday letters to capture the social context of part of the 18th century.

Sources
Burney, Francis. Evalina. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Painting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frances_Burney

Drawing: http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/burney/fanny/evelina/images/p092.jpg

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