“What other name may I claim?”: Being Nobody in Frances Burney’s Evelina

evelinaWhile Jane Austen is endearing and always worth reading time and again, Frances Burney puts a smile on my face because she isn’t as well-known, because her books seem to reflect, to an extent, her emotions while writing them, and because she wrote them despite pressure to stop.

Evelina has been a nine-year love affair, and it shows. There is nothing more satisfying than the worn down corners of a book from being shoved into purses and overstuffed backpacks, or the thumb-print sized grease stain that dots the page because you only had enough time to open a small bag of potato chips for dinner. It’s these little things that mark novels as precious to their owner, the signs of wear and tear. My copies of Evelina and Burney’s other novels have these characteristics, and I hope that one day someone else will find them as enjoyable as I do.

** As I cracked open my copy to write this, the smell of the pages carried me away to memories of cobblestone streets, dim coffee shops, and the clanking of spoons against ceramic mugs. I really miss Scotland. **

In some ways, I would suggest that Burney does more for arguing against women’s oppression than, say, Mary Wollstonecraft. Even though she might not have shouted it on the rooftops nor written scathing essays, she still felt it and spoke against it in her own way. I told you that she burned some of her writing because it was impressed upon her from a young age that this was not a field suitable for women, and that feeling continues in her writing. Her female characters are all oppressed in some way or another by the mere fact that they’re women. Granted, you could read anything through any lens you choose. For the sake of this post, let’s imagine we’re reading Evelina from the perspective of an oppressed woman in the 18th century.

Evelina, our heroine, has no name. Her father refused to acknowledge her when she was born and her mother died shortly after. Without a name, she lives a quiet life with her guardian, a man, who, though he wants what’s best for her, still contributes to her silence. She must remain silent, unmoving, so that no one will find out her sad story. It’s not appropriate while the father still refuses to acknowledge her. By some miracle, Mr. Villars (her guardian) agrees to let her stay with a friend in London, where she meets a multitude of people who question her. Who is she? Who is her family? Why does she not know the proper etiquette for dances and social calls in general? Why doesn’t she speak?

She and Mr. Villars keep up a steady correspondence throughout the book, which is how we track Evelina’s progress in society. In signing off one of her first letters to him, she writes, “I am, with the utmost affection, gratitude and duty, Your Evelina—, I cannot to you sign Anville, and what other name may I claim?”Anville is the name they chose for her to use, but it is not her name. It is almost a rearrangement of the letters in her first name. It is nobody in particular. She cannot claim her rightful name, so who is she?

On her first trip to a ball, she made several mistakes that ended up with her saying she was already engaged to dance with a man she had never actually met. Luckily, Lord Orville was gracious enough to pretend it was true. While they were dancing, Orville attempted to make conversation with her, asking her questions about how she liked the country, how she enjoyed London etc. Evelina remarks to Mr. Villars, “I fancied, he has been inquiring who I was. This again disconcerted me […].” Burney, putting emphasis on “who I was,” brings up the necessity of silence on this subject. Evelina is disconcerted by the questions, becoming quiet once again. He probed too far.

Another character remarks to Lord Orville only two pages later, “[…] but really, for a person who is nobody, to give herself such airs,—I own I could not command my passions. For, my Lord, though I have made diligent enquiry—I cannot learn who she is.” A man she just met is already calling her a nobody. While he is referring to her social status, Burney is hinting at something more. She is more than someone without a social status. She is without a name, effectively nobody. This could also refer to how Burney herself felt. She wrote her early journals to “Nobody.” She said:

“To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal! since to Nobody can I be wholly unreserved —to Nobody can I reveal every confidence, every wish of my Heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity to the end of my Life! No secret can I conceal from No-body…From Nobody I have nothing to fear.”

Burney wrote her journal knowing no one but herself would read it. “To Nobody can I be wholly unreserved,” that “Nobody” is Burney. However, she continues on to say, “No secret can I conceal from No-body.” Notice how “Nobody” is now “No-body.” Could she be referring to other people then? If so, you could argue that she means her secrets are not safe. As a woman, it was hard to be a writer and to keep your life private. Jane Austen left a squeak in a door so she would know if someone was coming in order to hide her work. Frances Burney might have felt that same invasion of privacy. For more on Burney’s use of “Nobody,” I cannot recommend Margaret Anne Doody’s Frances Burney: The Life in the Works enough.

Evelina meets her grandmother, a vulgar woman that embarrasses her to no end. A third of the way through the novel, her grandmother makes a proposal to Evelina—to claim her rightful name. She announces at a dinner party that “she had it in her head to make something of [Evelina], and that they should soon call [her] by another name than that of Anville, and yet that she was not going to have the child married, neither.” Evelina is terrified at this news. Claiming her real name from a man who didn’t want to acknowledge it in the first place causes her “great consternation.” She has to excuse herself. Madame Duval wants to improve Evelina’s status in society, to declare what is rightfully hers, turn her from a Nobody into a Somebody. The only way to do this is to give her her real name.

Evelina’s identity relies on a name. She doesn’t have one, at least not one that’s hers for the taking. It won’t be hers until her father lets her have it. She can claim nothing, so she remains silent about herself and her past. Does she claim her real identity? Does she take another instead? You’ll have to read the book to find out. My lips are sealed. I can’t help it. I firmly believe everyone should read Evelina. I’m a huge advocate for 18th-century British literature, especially women writers, so maybe I’m a little biased.

You’re welcome for finally getting around to posting this review! Too bad it took 10 months.

Frances Burney Revisited

Remember that time, 10 months to the day actually, that I posted a biography about Frances Burney and promised you a review in a week or two of her first novel Evelina? I haven’t forgotten about it. But for today, I’ll give you a mini introduction to my reactions when I first read it.

I read Evelina in my Development of the Novel course at St. Andrews. I was rather smitten with my professor at the time so obviously nothing he suggested could be horrible, right? Something about his intelligence and love of 18th-century literature made me swoon slightly. Anyway, it was one of the few novels that semester I managed to finish reading in the week allotted me with all my other work. He was right. I loved it. As I’ve come to find, Burney’s writing is always witty, and Evelina is no exception. Right then and there, I knew I had found one of the literary loves of my life. The rest is history.

For a biography of Burney, refer to this post. Stay tuned for my review of Evelina, appearing Thursday for real this time. I even have 90% of it written!

The Problem with Adults

Several years ago when Harry Potter was rearing the publication of its third book and the movies were drawing all sorts of wizard and witch wannabes, I read an article about versions with “adult” covers. Businessmen and women alike could read these middle grade novels in public without shame or fear of insult because naturally everyone’s inclination is to mock others for their choice in literature, like they wore horn-rimmed glasses with a huge piece of white tape over the bridge of the nose, and we call them four-eyes (which doesn’t even make sense because having four eyes would mean epic vision, almost on par with a superhero). We’re not in middle school anymore, and juvenile tactics are tacky.

So I ask: why do we need adult book covers for children’s books? Are we really that shallow/vain, whatever? You want to read a children’s book? Then read it. You want to read a romance novel? Read it. You want to read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? Fine, read it. I don’t read books based on what other people will think. I don’t hide the book behind a newspaper or against a table. I don’t flaunt it either. I may have written a character who likes to troll bookstores for a husband and hopes that holding Proust’s tome In Search of Lost Time so the title is in clear view would be like catnip for the intellectual man, but I don’t do it.

I read what I want, when I want. Sometimes a conversation goes like this:

Judgmental Person: “What are you reading?”

Me: “Twilight Robbery.”

J.P.: “It looks like a children’s book.”

Me: “That’s because it is! Hardy har har. It’s really good.”

J.P.: *stares bemused”

Me: *stares back even more bemused because their eyebrows are judging me strongly*

What is wrong with wanting to be swept up in an imaginary world where faeries and goblins exist, or where squirrels talk and people steal clocks that changes time forever? Nothing. If you want to go biblical, there are several verses that tell us to have “faith like a child.” Now, you may not be religious or believe in God, but I say that if it’s good enough for God, it’s good enough for me. My views on children and the imagination are an entire blog post of their own. I’ll leave you with this: For the love of every author, JUST READ.

Ransom Riggs’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

I had read an interview with Ransom Riggs about his book Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (MPHPC) in a magazine a while ago. I found the way he came up with the idea unique. I also have a fondness for old photographs because my brother and I go antiquing, and I always take great pride in finding photos that I know he’d like. If Ransom Riggs can incorporate found photos into a narrative, then I am in for better or for worse. It helps that the cover is haunting, appealing to my interest in all things mysterious.

MPHPC has a teenaged male protagonist! Yes, there are other YA novels with them, but they are few and far between. It’s refreshing to see one because we can’t always read about a girl falling in love with the bad boy. Jacob, sixteen and angsty, suffers a tragedy within the beginning pages of the novel as any good story does. He goes through a psychological trauma that brings his grandfather’s stories from when he was a child to the surface. Jacob travels to a small island off of Wales to visit Miss Peregrine’s school but soon finds that the monsters and mysteries of his grandfather’s life are a lot more plausible than anyone had imagined, including himself.

What I loved the most about this book was the inclusion of the photographs. They weren’t thrown in there like pictures you might find in chapter books but as part of the narrative. A character describes a picture and then it is included within the pages. Sometimes, it was a picture of actual characters the protagonist interacts with. While that might take away some imagination on the reader’s part, you do get a clear idea of what Riggs wants you to see. And that’s fine by me.

If any of you have been following my blog and reviews, you’ll know I like character development. Jacob did go through some character development, but for a while I was worried it would never come. He’s angsty, and perhaps sometimes too much so. That being said, I never wanted to smack him upside the head. However, the development was long in coming and perhaps MPHPC would have been better with more of it. While Jacob and his friends were a rainbow of personalities, there was one part that I found disturbing. I would love to tell you what that is, but I’m afraid it’ll spoil it for you should you decide to read it. Let me just say that I questioned the relationship between two of the characters. I’m ok with the possibility that it’s simply a quirk of mine!

It’s always frustrating to me when I get my hopes up really high for a book and it doesn’t live up to those hopes. I do my best to separate my disappointment from the execution every time I read. That was a little bit of what happened here with MPHPC. That’s why I use a two-point system—how I feel vs. how well written it is. As with anything, my word is not golden. It’s merely an opinion.

I’ll continue to read the series because it was interesting enough for me to do so, but in the later books, I would like to see a faster moving plot through the middle. Maybe Jacob will do something completely out of the ordinary in Hollow City that will blow me away. 7/8*

*See explanation of rating system

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book

As promised, here is a book review long in the waiting. I wanted to write this up for Halloween because it would have been à propos. I also wanted to do a series of Halloween-related books in October, one for each week, but it turns out a CELTA takes up your entire life. Better late than never?

I’ve read this book twice now. The first time I read it I set the book down after the first four pages in order to digest how wonderful it is. Then I devoured it in a few hours. The second time wasn’t much different. I don’t know what it is about Neil Gaiman that I love so much, or why his books make me want to cry (from jealousy), but I do. Unfortunately for you all, that means this review isn’t going to be much more than sheer praise for The Graveyard Book.

The Graveyard Book is a MG novel that delights readers, especially me, with ghosts and graveyards and mystery and suspense and…you get the picture. It follows our hero, Nobody Owens, from his infant years to his teenage years. While for an unskilled writer that could be too much information and story to get across, Gaiman manages to do so without info dumping or creating a whopper of a book. It’s masterly crafted so all the little clues and plot points come together in the end, and the reader can sit back and sigh, “Ah…it all makes sense.” To me, The Graveyard Book is a coming-of-age story about a boy who grows up in an unconventional family and household, but that doesn’t stop him from longing for and pursuing basic human desires friendship and knowledge. Perhaps we all long for these to differing agrees, but we all still do want them. Nobody Owens isn’t any different even if his parents aren’t normal.

When all I can complain about is that I want it to go on forever, then I can’t really complain. So read it for the masterful language that incorporates all of Gaiman’s work if you’re an adult, and for the spell-binding story if you’re a child. Or both if you’re like me.

If parents are looking for an enriching book for their child to read, then The Graveyard Book should be on the top of the list. With a character who questions everything and desires to learn (there should be more of this in the world!), and rich, well-written prose, this book will surely open both children and adults up to a world of imagination. 10/10*

*See explanation of rating system

Kelly Barnhill’s Iron Hearted Violet

I don’t remember finding this book, so I have no anecdote for you today, but I can say that I got it for $1, which is all you really need to know. It was at Half Price Books, as usual. Speaking of which, I made out like a bandit at the Labor Day sale this year. I got 19 books for $24, not too shabby. Here’s a conversation that passed between me and Smarty Pants.

Me: I got 19 books!

Smarty Pants: 19? Really? Was that necessary?

Me: Um, well, I guess I only needed one of them, so no?

Of course, at the end of it, I wouldn’t have put back any of the ones I bought. He should just be happy that I managed to tear 10 other books out of my clutches and place back, reluctantly, on the shelf. See? Discipline.

In Iron Hearted Violet, Princess Violet and her best friend, a livery boy by the name of Demetrius, are in for a world of trouble after they decide to explore the castle. If I had a castle, I’d explore it too, but the interesting thing about this castle is that it changes. Hallways are replaced by rooms, and staircases are no longer there. It reminds me of Hogwarts, obviously. At the end, there’s a twist to why the castle moves about, but I won’t tell you what it is. As with every adventure that two mischievous kids go on, mayhem and the end of the world are inevitable results. Violet, Demetrius, and an ancient dragon have to defeat the evil that awakens after they find a secret passage.

Iron Hearted Violet is one of the more lyrical MG books I’ve ever read. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the author is a poet, although I don’t believe that lyrical writing can only come from poets or that all poets are lyrical. Barnhill whisks you away into this world with sentences that flow together, kind of like you’re floating down a lazy river at a waterpark. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the story and not notice the sun setting and that your eyes are straining to read the print in the dim light of dusk. With a novel that places a lot of emphasis on storytelling and stories being living beings, it only makes sense that the writing for Iron Hearted Violet would beat with a hypnotic rhythm to lull us into that part of our minds that devour books and tales.

The ending was quite different from other MG books in that there wasn’t a big resolution. It resolved the problem at hand, but threw in a twist that left things open. Like I said for my review of Transfixion, not everything needs to be wrapped up in a bow. While Barnhill did a little more of that, there was still a sense of life moving on, going forward to a new adventure. If you watched Psych and saw the ending, you’d see what I mean in visual form. The ending for Psych was spectacular. I was satisfied beyond my wildest dreams, which helped diminish my grief for its ending.

Another part of Iron Hearted Violet I liked was Demetrius. He’s the best friend everyone should have. I constantly found myself saying, “Oh Demetrius, you’re so cool!” And I don’t mean “cool” in the “I’m Danny Zucko sense,” but he was just amazing. He was always there for Violet, recognizing her when no one else did, and believing in her. Who doesn’t want a best friend who’s there for you, who takes your verbal beatings because you’re hurt? I’m not saying you should yell at people, but sometimes you need to vent, and if your friend understands that it’s not him, it’s something else, then that’s great. He can listen. You can vent, and then be happy again. Demetrius was probably my favorite character. Violet was great, too, but I think what he brought to the other characters was deserving of applause.

This book did have its faults, and the most frustrating one for me was the overuse of “beloved” and “my darling.” I understand the point of it. It is polite for the society in which the characters live, but when I read it about every other page, I started to get annoyed. Similar to other terms of endearment and phrases from other books. There’s this one author, whose books I read during college, and she said a variation of “His heart ached in the region of his chest” in every book of hers, at least once, usually multiple times. It became a running joke with me when it’d show up for the first time in a new one. I was reading late at night, probably 2AM once, when I saw it. I thrust my fist into the air and yelled, “YES!” and most likely irritated my roommate. Anyway, it’s easy to slip into a habit and repeat yourself without knowing because we write in bursts. We don’t sit and write an entire novel at once. When repeating a sentence or phrase to foreshadow or for effect, it’s very easy to cross that line where it becomes a hindrance to the story because the reader doesn’t like it. That happened to me with Iron Hearted Violet, but I was able to just skip them, or let them pass with a roll of my eyes.

A moving tale that shows you how to live and love without patronizing the reader makes Iron Hearted Violet a must-read. 9/9*

*See explanation of rating system

J. Giambrone’s Transfixion

I made the rookie mistake of beginning J. Giambrone’s Transfixion when I was slightly overrun with other thoughts. Distraction is not included in any comprehension recipe. So, I started afresh the following morning, and thank goodness I did. The first two chapters then made a lot more sense, and my appreciation for the text went up exponentially.

Transfixion is not your average YA novel, for several reasons. It’s close third person, isn’t a love story (shudder to think), and doesn’t tie up the ending in a nice, pretty bow. All of which make for a refreshing foray into YA literature that I welcomed with open arms. Whether or not anyone else will agree is up for debate, seeing as how reading is subjective. Transfixion follows Kaylee Colton after what is, essentially, the end of the world as we know it. When her life is no longer recognizable, what will she do? Fight or flight? She takes the third option. The one people don’t talk about—ignore. She ignores it at first. And I would too, which is what I liked about her. When your life is falling to pieces, not many people are actually going to jump into action mode. A lot of the time, people, myself included, before even starting to think about what to do, have to process it. We are launched into autopilot and seek our coping mechanism, the one thing that will comfort us when we need comforting, even if that means denial for a little bit. That’s what Kaylee does. She escapes long enough for her brain to repair before kicking into overdrive. After reading other reviews, I think that’s what a lot of others missed: They didn’t catch that development of her character, which is, to me, what makes her a character worth reading.

As the plot progresses, Kaylee changes physically and mentally. There is no easy way to describe this process without giving away spoilers, so you’ll have to take my word for it when I say that the reader’s relationships with the other characters are affected as much as Kaylee’s relationship with them is. Kaylee is our filter in more ways than one. Her whole character’s dynamic changes when she gains something she has been missing for the majority of the novel, and that makes her realistic, too. She’s not simply a raging-hormone teenager, or a child thrust into being a warrior and excelling at it without much effort. She is normal. She fumbles, makes mistakes, learns, grows, and craves those oh-so-human elements, like a hug and a physical object from when life made sense.

Another thing I really enjoyed about Transfixion was that it wasn’t a love story. Sometimes it’s nice to have people interacting on a level that is not hormone-charged, to have friendships and relationships and not constantly be focused on “Does he like me? What does it mean when he hands me a pencil? Oh my gosh, he kissed me!” There is more to life than that, and before two people can enter into a romantic relationship, they have to understand each other fundamentally as humans first. Perhaps I should say should instead of can “enter into a romantic relationship.” Because I am consistently disappointed in the betrayal of relationships in YA literature, it was nice to come across a novel whose author didn’t focus on it, and instead preferred establishing characters as individual people without feeling the need to follow one of the staples of this field and throw in a hot-and-heavy romance. Having said that, I realize that some people will dislike this book because that isn’t the focus. To them, I say, “That’s too bad, but to each his own.”

A book is more than one element; it’s several parts put together like a puzzle. And if the pieces fall correctly, it’s an adventure and an escape for the reader into a world that won’t hurt them. This was true for Kaylee, which you learn in the beginning of the book. Giambrone’s integration of Kaylee’s coping mechanism with the storyline is a nice touch that could be missed if you aren’t reading too closely. As it is, I think that it enhanced the story and the characters, and definitely made me smile at the end.

Speaking of the ending, other reviewers have said it didn’t have a resolution, but I don’t agree. I think the ending was perfectly appropriate, and in fact, I wouldn’t have changed it. Why do we need everything wrapped up in a bow? Life isn’t like that. In life, every ending is a new beginning. You finish college and move on to a job or another academic program. A relationship ends, and you rediscover who you are outside of one, so on and so forth. Giambrone’s “resolution” was what I wanted. I would have been disappointed if it were anything else. I was satisfied, which I hardly ever am with books.

The one thing I would change is the middle. I would have liked to have seen Kaylee assert her opinion earlier and more often, but with a solid ending and beginning, I can’t fault it too much. However, if the middle had had a more assertive Kaylee, I’d have been even more pleased with it. I think it would have better driven home the point that conflict can be resolved nonviolently. If the middle had been more like the last three chapters, I’d have no complaints. But I never discovered myself yelling at the book, which is a good thing. The one time I did, it was, “Oh thank goodness!” and out of relief, not anger. Let me just say that chapter 29 had my heart racing, and how Giambrone ended that ridiculously fast-paced climax was exactly what the doctor prescribed to calm my tachycardia.

As with any book, Transfixion has its ups and downs. But with a solid beginning and ending and a protagonist that’s more like you and me than we give her credit for, it’s worth the read. So, get yourself a copy and buckle up. 8/7*

Transifixion will be released tomorrow, 9th September. Watch out for it!

*See explanation of rating system