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I Did It All For The Monkey

A review of Evelina by Frances Burney, a somewhat questionable predecessor to Jane Austen.

I Did It All For The Monkey

BOOK REPORT for Evelina by Frances Burney

Cover story: Classic
BFF Charm: Nay
Swoonworthy Scale: 2
Talky Talk: Old Timey Diary
Bonus Factors: London Society, Monkey
Relationship Status: Accidental Second Date

Cover Story: Classic

If this cover doesn’t say, “I’m fancy and smart because I’m reading a classic book written before the days of copyrights,” I don’t know what does. But hey, if you don’t like it, just pick a different edition. Or Kindle it, for free!

The Deal:

Evelina has spent her whole life on a country parsonage under the care and tutelage of the kindly Reverend Villars. Just after she was born, her mother died of a broken heart; Evelina’s father abandoned her mother shortly after their marriage and burned the certificate. Unable to prove her legitimate parentage, Evelina is left to grow up in obscurity.

Everything changes when, in her late teens, she is thrust into Society with the help of her friends, Lady Howard and Mrs. Mirvan. Will the dashing Lord Orville love her in spite of her lack of worldliness, indifferent education, and questionable parentage? Or will her estranged, ill-bred grandmother ruin everything by riding into town?

BFF Charm: Nay

Nay

It’s not that there’s anything distasteful about Evelina, and indeed, she’s one of the only decent humans in this book. But she’s also an idiot who is perpetually getting things wrong and making a fool of herself. This might be endearing if she had a sense of humor, but instead, her only defining characteristic is obsessing over Lord Orville and what he must think of her faux pas and embarrassing relations. She’s fine, but my constant desire to smack her would prevent us from being real friends.

Swoonworthy Scale: 2

Lord Orville is kind of a dish, and the story has a very classic British novel will-they-or-won’t-they romance to it, which I love. Unfortunately, I didn’t buy Lord Orville’s attraction to Evelina, not because she’s that bad, but because she turns completely mute around him. She doesn’t say anything and then blushes a lot. I can’t for the life of me understand what he sees in her, beyond her pretty face.

Talky Talk: Old Timey Diary

Technically, this novel is supposed be epistolary, but it’s the least convincing letter writing I’ve ever seen. The vast majority of the story is told in letters from Evelina to her guardian/father figure, Rev. Villars, and they are filled with details that you would never put in a letter to your father. Allow me to paraphrase one such correspondence:

Dear Dad,

Today, I went to the opera! Unfortunately, my headcase estranged grandma and long-lost white trash cousins came over first, and they pitched such a fit about me sitting with my friends rather than them that I had to join their party! And then we had to sit in the poor people seats, and I was WAY overdressed, and they were so horrible, but I tried to make the best of it. Only, they kept talking through the whole opera because they lack all class and decency. Anyway, Sir Clement, that dude who keeps stalking me, spotted me from down in the rich people seats, and came up afterwards. I was so afraid of his finding out that I was related to such embarrassing people that I ran away! And then somehow I ended up in this sexually harassing, near stranger’s carriage because I didn’t have another ride home, and he was totally driving me to some abandonned place where he could take advantage of me, but luckily I screamed a lot and he finally took me home. And then Lord Orville was waiting there to make sure I got home safely! Oh em geeeeee I am sooooo embarrrassssseeed!

Love,
Evelina

Just translate that to Jane Austen language and make it about fifty times longer, and there you have it. Not only would I never write in detail to my father about my whiny, entitled behavior and then my almost-date-rape, but also, mailing letters was EXPENSIVE. It would have cost a small fortune to be mailing that novel’s worth of letters back home. I think Burney actually wanted to write a diary novel, but that’s not how things were done at the time.

Bonus Factor: London Society

London Society

18th Century London Society is wasted on Evelina. She keeps committing huge social gaffes and is always overly stressed about what she’s doing wrong because she’s a big ol’ wet blanket. If I were to travel back in time and take her place, I’d do a way better job AND have fun doing it.

Bonus Factor: Monkey

Angry Monkey

When my sister pitched this book to me ten years ago, she said “It’s like Jane Austen, but shitty, and then there’s a monkey at the end. Actually, you should probably just read the first couple chapters and then skip to the part about the monkey.” Truer words have never been spoken. There’s the initial exposition, a whole lot of boring stuff in the middle, and then there’s the monkey. It’s the best part of the whole novel. In fact, I’m just going to tell you what happens right now and save you the trouble of reading this book.

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” Frances Burney apparently agreed with this sentiment, because everyone lives happily ever after, except for the assholes. And in one asshole’s case, this translates to a monkey showing up out of nowhere and biting his ear off. The end.

Casting Call:

Emma Watson

Emma Watson as Evelina

Hopefully Hermione could make Evelina a little less of a moron.

Dan Stevens

Dan Stevens as Lord Orville

Crystal the Monkey

Crystal the Monkey as The Monkey

Relationship Status: Accidental Second Date

Book, I honestly have no idea why I went out with you a second time. Hell, I don’t even know why we went out the first time. After my sister briefly dated you in college, she set us up with the disclaimer, “This book is kind of dull, but it has a pet monkey, so that’s cool.” And it’s true, I really did like your pet monkey. But when I ran into you again on the internet, I don’t know why I asked you out again.

Actually, I do. It was the monkey. And it wasn’t worth it.

Alix West's photo About the Author: Alix is a writer and illustrator who spends way too much time reading Jane Austen retellings of varying quality.
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