Friday, March 4, 2016

taking possession of it

Mary Poovey’s Fathers and Daughters: the Trauma of Growing Up Female, 1981, is the only essay in the 1988 collection of Evelina criticisms, Modern Critical Interpretations: Fanny Burney’s Evelina, ed. Harold Bloom, that mentions the last, weird letter to the protagonist from her guardian, Mr Villers, who tells her that she has his consent to get married. “Villers, until this point apparently healthy, suddenly depicts himself as nearing the grave,” says Poovey. Myself I was so startled by his unprecedented barrage of phrases about death -- “the weak and aged frame of thy almost idolizing parent, nearly worn out by time, past afflictions, and infirmities,” “the remnant of my days,” “breathing my last faint sighs,” “the fleeting fabric of life would give way,” “pouring forth my dying words,” “a shadow insensible to her touch,” “Grieve not at the inevitable moment! but may thy own end be equally propitious” – that I re-read ten pages to see if anyone had told us Villers was sick, or had fallen off a horse, or … eh, he’s fine, and Evelina’s three-sentence response (the last letter in this epistolary book) doesn’t react to his death-language at all, or not overtly, although I wondered if Burney’s mind was still hanging on annihilation when she began it with: “All is over, my dearest Sir; and the fate of your Evelina is decided!” – the mentality of the Villers letter seeping across into another character, and both of them foreshadowing the little death that Burney will suffer in a moment: she is about to stop being the person who is writing Evelina. The plot is culminating in a triumphant wedding, but the language is staging a rebellion against happiness with a sort of implied murder.

In the Poovey context this Villers letter is proof of a Freudian conflict that the essayist has been working out, with the father figure needing to go through a textual elimination so that the new father-husband, can take his place: and in the essay it fits neatly but in the book it fits nothing, it does not appear to be part of a pattern, it comes and is denied or ignored, and this burst of strangeness from outside the story – the author’s mind encountering something that is not plot and allowing it to stay there, not erasing it, a sudden mystery -- appears to me like the cousin of a phrase in Cecilia, when the protagonist has a “secret idea” that she is “doing something right” as she sits deliberately on the chair that her beloved has just vacated: he leaves, he dramatically “tore himself away” exclaiming “this bitter hour!” and everything at the moment is fraught, Cecilia is distracted: she “went to the chair upon which he had been seated, and taking possession of it, sat with her arms crossed, silent, quiet, and erect, almost vacant of all thought, yet with a secret idea she was doing something right.” Soon another character will show “concern at the strangeness of her look and attitude.” One of the other essayists, Jennifer A. Wagner, has decided that Evelina is a novel about privacy. “Privacy is a sort of ‘self-ownership’ that society inherently and to a greater or lesser degree threatens.” Privacy and Anonymity in Evelina, 1988.


  1. Evelina's response reminds me of a certain set of social airs displayed by higher class english persons in the 18th c. that combined with her sense of satire and her comic representations give her a noticeable air of detachment which i find funny and alluring. ms. burney 's letters and journals have been much admired for their wit as well as their incisiveness; she certainly contributed to the increase of critical objectivity through her portrayal of somewhat silly characters, mostly male. i think. anyway, i found her funny and perceptive, not to say a bit waspish at times, albeit well mannered and civilized. i gather she might have been a rather valuable precursor to the inspiration of jane austen, in that way. definitely a pioneer, anyway...

  2. The consensus between the essayists I've read seems to be that she prepared the novel for Austen by making it less bawdy and more polite, more likely to be focused on manners and thoughts. Amelia is in danger of being raped at least twice, but the book has a fundamental disinterest in sex that isn't there in Fielding, or Richardson, or Smollet or Haywood.