Her charming but cruel novel Evelina is a great read – but it lacks the true greatness of Jane Austen's work

I have just finished reading Evelina, Frances Burney’s first novel, a book that was greatly enjoyed by Jane Austen and is, in some ways, a source book for some of Jane Austen’s own writings.

Fanny Burney, as we once called her, had an interesting and varied life and lived to a ripe old age. She was born in 1752 and died in 1840. (Compare and contrast this with Jane Austen, born 1775, and died 1817.) Her social reach was much greater than Miss Austen’s as well; whereas Jane spent most of her life in quiet retirement, Fanny Burney knew some of the great men and women of her age, and was Mistress of the Robes to Queen Charlotte, as well as enjoying great literary repute in her own lifetime, something that Jane Austen only began to taste right at the end of her life.

And yet, when I was reading English as an undergraduate, Evelina was a mere footnote to our studies, being the novel that Jane Austen’s father mentioned in a letter to a prospective publisher whom he tried to interest in the original version of Sense and Sensibility.

Evelina is in fact a great read, and has moments of real comedy, and some insight into character, but altogether lacks the greatness that distinguishes Jane Austen. The depth of characterisation is simply not there, and the delicious irony is missing; moreover, a lot of the comedy is cruel and based on practical jokes. Whereas some see Jane Austen as a prude, the same could never be said of Fanny Burney, whose world is certainly that of Georgian London, rather than the more refined period of the Regency.

Much of the action of Evelina takes place in London, and while Jane Austen writes of London (as in Sense and Sensibility) her scenes tend to be set in private houses, rather than in theatres, at the opera, or in the pleasure grounds of the age, which were the haunts of a mixed crowd, which included prostitutes, two of which make an appearance in Evelina.

Indeed Miss Burney’s world contains characters of the type of which Miss Austen hardly seems aware. In Jane Austen servants are but names, and the only working-class character is the very minor Nurse Rooke in Persuasion; otherwise the lowest social rung in her novels is occupied by people like Mrs Clay, also in Persuasion, the daughter of a country lawyer.

But the perceived snobbery of Jane Austen is nothing compared to the disdain expressed in Evelina towards the vulgar Madame Duval, the heroine’s grandmother, and her cousins, the Branghtons, whose father is a silversmith in Snow Hill, in the City of London. Whereas Jane Austen can be charged with ignoring the lower classes, Fanny Burney actively loathes and despises them, and loves to see them punished. This is particularly true of Madame Duval, whose speech marks her out as someone to be scorned, and who ends up, quite literally, in a ditch. Thus perish all social climbers. This sort of spite is quite foreign to the spirit of Jane Austen.

Evelina is an epistolary novel, as was, no doubt, the earlier version of Sense and Sensibility, the Austen novel which is closest to it in spirit. In Sense and Sensibility we meet the Misses Steele, both very vulgar, and vague relations by marriage to the Dashwoods; their relation Mrs Jennings is also very vulgar, but kind and loveable, and as the novel unfolds Mrs Jennings, a truly beautifully realised minor character, grows in stature. Contrast her with Fanny Dashwood, anything but vulgar, but cold, calculating and cruel. Jane Austen’s moral sense is always more powerfully at work than her social sense.

Jane Austen was, as everyone knows, a clergyman’s daughter, and a true daughter of the Church of England. (What has the C of E ever given the world, you may ask. Well, Jane Austen, for one thing…) There are no Catholic characters in Jane Austen’s novels at all, which is rather strange for she must have known some Catholics, or at least met some on her visits to Bath and London; and there are Catholic characters in Fielding and in Thackeray, as well as in many of her contemporaries. In her juvenile effusion, The History of England, she expresses huge admiration for Mary, Queen of Scots and even says: “As I am myself partial to the roman catholic religion [sic]”; however, this interest does not seem to have lasted into adulthood.

Frances Burney, by contrast, was the daughter of a French mother, and was married to a Frenchman, General d’Arblay, in an Anglican service and a Catholic ceremony a few days later, but does not seem to have been a Catholic at all, and her only son, Alexander d’Arblay, was ordained in the Church of England. Her religious allegiances seem opaque, but no doubt there is something on this matter to be discovered in the vast corpus of her published journals.

Should one read Evelina? I think one should, as, after all, there is so little of Jane Austen to read, and she does enlighten the world of Jane Austen and her reading. But more than that, Evelina, charming as it is, makes one realise how Jane Austen stands out from the other writers of her age.