Sivut kuvina
PDF
ePub

a

castle to make her acquaintance with this object ; but she is deeply offended with the young man because he does not make love in the high-flown manner of romantic chivalry, and, instead of serving her faithfully and humbly for several years before with faltering voice and devout reverence he begs the unutterable favor of kissing her hand, blurts out a declaration of love after a few weeks' acquaintance. As you may suppose, many capital situations occur before Arabella is enlightened as to the difference between the ways of real life and the ways of seventeenth-century romance. The story is rather wire-drawn, but full of humor. Johnson continued a friend to the authoress to the last, and wrote proposals for printing a quarto edition of her works in 1775 ; and it would seem that, with all her various literary industry, Mrs. Lennox needed such services as old age came upon her. She would seem to have been not particularly amiable in private life, if we are to believe Mrs. Thrale's judgment (recorded in Mme. D'Arblay's “Diary "), that every-body admired Mrs. Lennox, but nobody liked her. Miss Fielding, the sister of the novelist, also wrote several novels, and in the opinion of Richardson, who was not a little jealous and spiteful toward his rival and caricaturist, showed a more intimate knowledge of the human heart than her (gifted) brother. This was not the general opinion, though an admirer wrote of her that “Miss Fielding was one of those truly estimable writers whose fame smells sweet, and will do so to late posterity, one who never wrote

One line which dying she would wish to blot,'” a compliment that could hardly be paid to Henry Fielding.

Another female novel-writer, whose fame has been kept green by the fame of her children and her greatgrandchildren, was Mrs. Frances Sheridan, the authoress

MRS, FRANCES SHERIDAN

119

of “Sydney Biddulph ” and “Nourjahad," and the mother of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. In the opinion of Charles James Fox, “Sydney Biddulph ” was the best of modern novels, and Johnson wept over it, and complimented the authoress by telling her that he doubted whether “on moral principles she had a right to make her readers suffer so much." It is a curious circumstance that precisely the same complaint of carrying the sufferings of a heroine to an intensely painful pitch, harrowing the reader with continuous and unre. lieved and undeserved distresses, might be brought against more than one of the powerful novels of her great-granddaughter, the Hon. Mrs. Norton, especially against “Stuart of Dunleath." The “ Memoirs of Sydney Biddulph" appeared in 1761, and Mrs. Sheridan was undoubtedly the most eminent female novelist before Miss Burney; although, according to Mrs. Barbauld, Mrs. Brooke, another indefatigable novelist and translator, whose "Lady Julia Mandeville” was republished in Mrs. Barbauld's collection, was the "first female novel-writer who attained a perfect purity and polish of style."

You will see, then, that women had not been idle in the new field of literature before Miss Burney produced her “Evelina,” though this lady was the first to take rank with the masters of the art. “She," says Macaulay, “first showed that a tale might be written in which both the fashionable and vulgar life of London might be exhibited with great force and with broad comic humor, and which yet should not contain a single line inconsistent with rigid morality, or even with virgin delicacy. She took away the reproach which lay on a most useful and delightful species of composition. She vindicated the right of her sex to an equal share in a fair and noble province of letters." This is true in the

. main, as is generally the case with Macaulay's broad and vigorous rhetoric, only it is a trifle exaggerated.

a

[ocr errors]

All the female novelists that I have mentioned were unexceptionable in point of morality, as much so as Miss Burney. Macaulay was probably thinking of the female novelists of a much earlier period when he praised Miss Burney for her delicacy-of Mrs. Behn and Mrs. Manley and Mrs. Haywood. There is no lack of purity in the “Female Quixote,” and “Sydney Biddulph would compare favorably in this respect with Victorian novelists. And for more than thirty years before the appearance of “Evelina” her sex had taken an equal share with men in novel-writing, at least in point of quantity. It was the masterly natural freshness of the character-drawing, the clear, unencumbered vivacity of the incidents, the frankness of the humor,-in a word, the originality, the absence of literary artificiality, that signalized “Evelina" as a work of genius, and set every-body talking about the new writer. Miss Burney was not the first woman novelist, but she was the first with a distinct vein of her own who wrote with her eyes on the subject, and not on any established model of approved style. Macaulay is more exact when he speaks of the great force and broad comic humor with which Miss Burney depicted vulgar as well as fashionable life. It was the picture of vulgar life,- life in a would-be fashionable tradesman's family, --that specially attracted notice in an age when the fashionable world had been described to death in hundreds of periodical essays and novels. We happen to have preserved for us a good deal of the talk that went on about “Evelina” in the first months after its appearance when it was all the rage. Miss Burney published it anonymously, not even her own father knowing who was the author ; and she recorded in her diary, which is almost as delightful as her novels, what she heard people saying about the book and its characters. It was the vulgar characters that were particularly commented on and admired. The position of the heroine

CHARACTER-DRAWING IN

EVELINA "

121

Evelina was such as to bring her in contact with various classes. Her origin was mysterious, but she had been

. brought up by a clergyman in the country, and when she was seventeen, she was brought out in London society by a lady who knew her mother's history. Thus in the first part of the story we have descriptions of the rustic beauty's experiences at a ball, an opera, a ridotto, a visit to the Ranelagh Gardens, a visit to the Pantheon. The girl's timidity, the scrapes she falls into in consequence, and her encounters with an empty fop, an enamoured but unscrupulous baronet, and an accomplished, noble-minded, high-bred lord, who, of course, eventually marries the heroine, are described in a vein of the most exquisite comedy. In Lord Orville Miss Burney succeeded in drawing what Richardson attempted in Sir Charles Grandison

-a perfect gentleman, who is at the same time not the least of a prig. Evelina's ignorance and timidity get her into scrapes, but these are nothing to the troubles caused by a terrible relation on the mother's side, a vulgar French woman, her grandmother, Mme. Duval, who very soon turns up. The scenes between this most amusing harridan and her friend's husband, Captain Mirvan, a salt of the oldest school, are boisterously farcical. The old tar hates the French, and, conceiving a violent animosity against Mme. Duval, makes it his chief amusement to draw the old bag, as he puts it, putting her into violent passions, insulting her in every way imaginable, devising practical jokes at her expense. One of these, in which he and the baronet, who for interested reasons is his ally, disguise themselves as highwaymen, drag her roughly from her carriage, and leave her with her legs tied in a ditch, first tearing off her false hair, has uncomfortable consequences for Evelina, for her grandmother insists upon taking possession of her, and carries her off to the society of certain poor relations in the city. The Braughton family and their lodger, Mr. Smith, were the great hit of the book. Mr. Braughton, the father, was a silversmith in Snowhill, a close-fisted, money-making tradesman, but his girls were quite fine ladies, and their radiant vulgarities, their squabbles with their rude brother Tom, their contempt for their country cousin Evelina, their respect for the great Mr. Smith, made excellent sport for the fashionable readers of Miss Burney's novel. It amused them vastly to see all the foibles and artificial distinctions of polite society travestied by these lower animals. There is Mr. Smith, in particular, the firstfloor lodger, a city clerk with an immense conceit of superiority to the vulgar herd round him, a sort of pinchbeck master, who patronized Evelina and introduced her to all the glories of a Hampstead ball, where Mme. Duval, the French grandmother, danced a minuet, to the grinning admiration of all beholders. Mr. Smith, in the fine tambour waistcoat of which he was so selfconscious, was the delight of Miss Burney's readers. “ The Holborn beau for my money,” laughed Dr. John. son to Miss Burney ; “O you sly rogue, you charactermonger.” The adventures of Evelina with the Braughtons are conceived in the spirit of the liveliest farcical invention. When Miss Burney comes to her third volume and the unravelling of her plot, which contains not a few ingenious surprises, she becomes more conventional and sentimental, but nothing could be better than the freshness of incident and humorous characterdrawing of the first two volumes. It says something for the humanity of the time that Captain Mirvan was generally considered to have gone too far in his baiting of the old French woman Mme. Duval and the silly fop Mr. Lovel. This should be remembered when a certain episode in the third volume is quoted as an example of the brutality of manners among the upper classes. Two young men of the period staying at a fashionable countryhouse, in their passion for betting, get up a race of a

« EdellinenJatka »