This month I had to face the agonising idea that there might be authors out there that are better than Austen. I never thought such a despicable notion would enter into my head, but it did, with Burney‘s Evelina. This month also marked the release of the new illustrated edition of Chamber of Secrets. And finally, I picked up an old classic that I should have read a long time ago, that’s right, I read my first Bronte this month and it was utterly depressing.
Evelina by Fanny Burney
OH MY LORD ORVILLE! WHAT A TERRIFIC NOVEL! WHAT AN EXTROADINARY LADY NOVELIST!
In the words of Burney, this book is ‘dearer to me than language has the power of telling’. Never will I have words sufficient to describe how much praise I have for this novel. I not so secretly get intimidated to review works such as these; works that attempt to convey the world with so much meaning, scope and outlook, and that are also executed with Burney‘s calibre of prose. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that caters more to my taste than Fanny Burney‘s Evelina. It is an immediate favourite, one that is every bit as sharp and unapologetically satirical as the blurb claims it to be.
So first I will answer the question that is dying to be asked; is Fanny Burney‘s work better than Jane Austen‘s? Jane Austen; who, if you don’t know by now, is the love of my literary life! She is to me what the pope is to the laymen, the firework to the fizzle, the whopper to the whopper junior. So… is Burney better?
The answer is this: she comes so monstrously close. It is such a powerful statement and one that has rocked me to the core for writing, but I think we can safely say that Burney, who was read by Austen, must have profoundly influenced that monarch’s writing.
Evelina is a novel in three parts. The title heroine, the young Evelina, is made to give up her country society (and it’s simple manners), and go to London with the Mirvans. Evelina is beautiful but she is green. Rather than gracefully integrating into modern society, she falls and stumbles along. Through her own lack of education she is able to expose the flaws in people, regardless of their preconceived place in the world. She specifically notices this silly behaviour in men. All her suitor’s are utterly foppish, piggish and outlandish, all that is, excepting one. Lord Orville.
I have never been so thoroughly entertained by any work of literature. This novel is fun, exciting, beautifully paced, excruciatingly satirical and action packed. Sir Clement, Lord Merton, Mr Smith, Mr Lovel and young Branghton are all imprudent, insensitive and unyielding in their advances. And yet, regardless of birth and breeding, education or lack thereof, these ill manners are shown to transcend all boundaries. The young Branghton women and Lady Louisa are also examples of impertinence transcending class. Captain Mirvan, who is willing to riot with anything French, is perfectly equipped to torment Madame Duval, who is displeased to have anything not in her own way. Mrs Selwyn too, is such a pleasure to read, her ‘masculine’ openness and satire are hard not to laugh at. I think perhaps she is the strongest voice for Burney herself.
Among this wonderful cast of characters are scenes that amaze and delight. Had I the time to write them all you wouldn’t believe me; but in this novel, let me assure you, are highwaymen, monkeys, fireworks, forceful arm holding, dandies, fops and a certain gentlemen that ‘pays five shillings a night to let his friend’s know he’s alive!’
So with all this in mind I must attempt to explain why then that Burney has not surpassed Austen. Evelina is written in an epistolary format; in letters addressed to her guardian Mr Villars. So in effect, Evelina is telling us her own story; she is writing her own novel. She is able to dictate the tone, the pacing, the degree of revelation. When you compare this to Austen‘s own third person omniscient, in which she looks kindly at her character’s from a distance, there is some critical advantage in the way Austen creates realism.
For what it is worth, the literary device that Burney utilises has been executed to perfection. I expected Evelina as a heroine to be far less active in her own story than she was. As a consequence of its form, most epistolary texts seem to recount their heroine’s actions rather than let them partake in the story. But Evelina is as multidimensional as an Austen heroine. We witness how shockingly horrible it would have been to be both a woman of sense and strikingly beautiful in eighteenth century England.
This novel is a masterpiece of literature and one that I hope to read again and again. Burney‘s portrait is now set to go up on my wall alongside Austen‘s. Thank you Fanny Burney!
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K Rowling
The illustrated edition of the Chamber of Secrets was released on the 4th of this month and is illustrated again by Jim Kay. If you are like me and have to rush out to get these new editions when they come out, then congratulations. You are just as sane as I am.
I was busy on the day and had to wait until the afternoon to go get my copy from my local book shop. Like the Cursed Child (which was horrible), I was expecting Dymocks to have celebratory decorations that were two parts Potter and one part Halloween themed. Imagine my surprise then, when I walked in and there was not a single illustrated edition of Secrets in sight! What sacrilege behaviour on publication day! I had to ask an assistant to get a copy for me from the back. Why wasn’t it on your shop floor?! Dymocks, you fools!
As with the last illustrated edition, I had gone through and looked at all of the pictures five minutes after I had got home. I am not very familiar with illustrated works of novels but Jim Kay does a fantastic job of bringing characters and scenes to life in a completely unique way. He brings the surreal and fantastical together on the page with the very concrete prose of Rowling. In some cases the words are formatted to dance around the illustrations, joining both arts together like magic.
Advances in technology make it easier than ever to experience the novel in new ways, and I feel like this is the correct next step for the Potter series to take (i.e they should stop with new writer’s creating Potter plays, and they should not be printing the screenplay for the Fantastic Beasts film. Is this meant to create a market for publishing screenplays of films that haven’t even premiered yet? These are new times indeed!)
I’ve lost count how many times I have read Chamber of Secrets but it is still as wonderful now as it ever was. If I can be drawn into this narrative whilst being distracted by the differences in format, then I’d say Harry Potter (the original seven book series) has still got a long life ahead, spreading love and joy to the masses. I am looking forward to Jim Kay‘s portrayal of Patronuses and Dementors (next year?) in Prisoner.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Oh dear, I probably shouldn’t have read this in the same month I read Burney.
Wuthering Heights is my first Bronte novel and also my first foray into gothic fiction (that purposely seeks to be gothic and does not satirise the genre). I did not enjoy this novel quite as much as I hoped but I can understand it’s merit, and it is abundant in complexities.
The narrative begins with Lockwood who takes up the tenancy of Thrushcross Grange, the master of which is our not-quite-Byronic hero, Heathcliff, who lives two miles away in the very gothic Wuthering Heights. The story is that of two generations held in isolation. This is not a love story between Heathcliff and Cathy but rather, through their moroseness, through their passion and their obsession with one another, they leave a ubiquitous ghost that impresses on the generations thereafter. It is a dark and imposing analysis, but one that drives home the arc of the narrative and its symmetry in two parts.
In all the years I’ve heard about Wuthering Heights, no one particularly mentions Lockwood and Nelly. Lockwood recounts the story that Nelly herself is recounting, forming a sort of double disillusionment. The story dives deeper and deeper, it becomes almost paradoxical. This framing device is probably the most jarring thing in the novel, it is not because this technique that Bronte uses is invalid or that it doesn’t have importance or a purpose, but rather, it is, in my opinion, executed poorly and I will explain why.
It took me until the end of the novel to discover what the purpose of this framing device was and I believe it is this; it centres on the unreliability of the narrator, or the vision in which one narrator see’s of the other. The reader is constantly asked to remember that what Lockwood narrates from Nelly might not be exactly what Nelly recounts herself. In fact, it can’t be! And what Nelly recounts of her own story and that of the young Cathy might not be at all accurate. Again, it can’t be! So what we are meant to understand is that the story of each of the characters relies upon the impression that other people have on them. And this mirrors the scheme that Heathcliff and Cathy are responsible for leaving that omnipresent consequence onto the children. That they impress their own story, they weave their own resentment into the next generation.
This is a grand scheme and I appreciate its epic scope, but it was not executed well. There are many examples where you are asked to suspend your disbelief. For instance, people generally agree that Nelly wouldn’t be able to remember in the intricate way she provides. Is the prose beautiful when Nelly discusses the moors or the rustling leaves or the streamers of dark cloud in the sky? Yes, the writing is beautiful. But it is jarring for a number of reasons, the first is that when Nelly talks to Cathy she doesn’t seem to be this angel of poetic vision…
Nelly in her dialogue is hard, concise and sometimes brittle. Nelly as a voice of narration however, is descriptive, metaphorical and multi-faceted. Not only this, but the descriptive prose I spoke of can be found in the novel regardless of whom is narrating. There are instances where Lockwood and Cathy take notice of the setting and describe it in the same manner that Nelly has. Instead of hearing the character, you are picturing the artist (Bronte) behind the pen. Think of how each narrator recounts the voice of Joseph for instance, they all (agonisingly) provide him with the same accent, is this not Emily Bronte transcending clumsily through all her characters? It pulls the reader out of the novel, and for this it is inhibiting realism (see above for my description on how Austen creates a very superior realism).
All of this being said, this concept deserves a lot more discussion. It could be that Emily Bronte desired to have it this way; adding more and more to the idea of impressionism, the duality of impressionism in her novel, the role of the author and the role of the narrator. The setting and tone are marvellous, the novel feels modern for its time and classical in scope. The character’s are unbearably depressing but they leave a thrumming mark in the pages between the end papers. As a whole, I thought it fell short of the mark however.
If you have read any of these novels, I’d love to know what you thought of them. Talk to me down in the comments or over on my Twitter, you can click here to magically apparate there! As Wuthering Heights was my first Bronte, tell me which Bronte I should read next!
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