Friday, September 3, 2010

Read: Evelina

I was talking about Trollope with a well-known physicist last year -- he's a fan, I'm not -- when one of his grad students, who didn't speak much English and hadn't been listening, burst in with "What's a trollop?" I explained that a trollop was a prostitute, whereas A. Trollope was a novelist. Said Trollope fan was outraged at my quip that there are no good English novels between Persuasion and Ulysses (qua novels, that is; Dickens has a lot of virtues, but construction is not among them). Having read Middlemarch, I suppose I have to revise this opinion, which is sad because it was snappy and easily stated.

The Trollope fan also claimed that Fanny Burney's Evelina was superior to Tom Jones; I have now dutifully read it, and concluded that my Trollope problem is that I just don't much care for novelists who aren't eyecatching prose stylists. While neither Trollope or Burney would begin a novel with "Ingenuous debutante Evelina Anville crumpled behind a bush, having been bludgeoned by notable libertine Lord Merton," they aren't Joyce, and the temptation to skim is often overwhelming. Evelina has a lot of nice satirical touches -- esp. the heroine's stay with her bourgeois relatives in London, her reactions to their "vulgarity," and her extreme embarrassment whenever she runs into aristocratic acquaintances -- and is also very good, in ways that anticipate Austen, on how class distinctions and crushes interact. On the whole, though, it doesn't come off. One of the problems is that the same three aristocrats keep popping up absolutely everywhere, which gives the aristocracy the sense of a claustrophobic little club, and acts at cross purposes with the rest of the plot (which is about an ingenue in the big world). Another is that the posh people don't talk credibly; only the "broad," dialect-speaking characters do. A third is the role of "Sir Clement Willoughby" (btw, the names are not clever at all, another stylistic limitation) who is a rival suitor, a seducer, and, more often than not, a plot device. Mostly, though, it's the drab functional nature of the prose, which is a far cry from Fielding or Smollett; while this was inevitable to some extent in a novel written as a young woman's letters -- "it would be odd for a six-year-old girl to display the character of Winston Churchill" -- (a) that's arguably a statement that the novel was poorly conceived, (b) an easy fix, in this case, would have been to include letters written by the other characters, a la Smollett.

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