Maria Edgeworth’s (Deleted) Thoughts on Frances Burney’s Evelina

I spent the month of June 2016 at the Huntington Library, combing through its archives for items related to my book project on revision and the eighteenth-century novel. Some of these items were the work of Maria Edgeworth, an important late eighteenth-century novelist and education writer. The Huntington has 77 letters by Edgeworth, almost all of which are unpublished. Seven of these are letters to her school friend Fanny Robinson and were written from 7 October 1782 to 18 December 1784, when Edgeworth was between fourteen and sixteen years old. Edgeworth’s early letters to Robinson provide a unique view of her first fictional projects and insight into her early creative process of composition. Some of the most interesting passages in these letters contain her opinions of Frances Burney, another important late eighteenth-century novelist and an acquaintance of Robinson’s.

Edgeworth’s desire to get acquainted with Burney with Robinson’s help is a frequent topic in these letters, which have been largely neglected, except for their appearance in a note in Emily Hodgson Anderson’s Eighteenth-Century Authorship and the Play of Fiction: Novels and the Theater.1)Emily Hodgson Anderson, Eighteenth-Century Authorship and the Play of Fiction: Novels and the Theater (New York and London: Routledge, 2009), pp. 167-68, n. 95. Anderson quotes several brief selections from this correspondence “to emphasize the obsessive nature of her [Edgeworth’s] inquiries” about Burney.2)Ibid., p. 168, n. 95. My chief interest is Edgeworth’s letter of 15 August [1783], which contains her impressions of Burney’s Evelina (1778) and is a rare instance of important eighteenth-century female novelists assessing each other’s works:

Why then did Miss Burney give him [Lord Orville] a title? was it to recommend him to title Readers?  If so she did either their Taste, or her Book, great Injustice —– And, (if I may be so bold to say <it>) her young female Plebeian admirers some Injury – for I cannot help thinking that raising their hopes & Expectations above, what in the ordinary course of things they are likely to attain, is doing them an injury – It is preparing for them Disappointment & Ennui at least —–

Evelina had no title & but small Fortune,3)Though Evelina had no fortune when she and Orville were initially engaged, on her marriage she inherited a sizeable fortune from her estranged father. but she married an Earl! – Will no conclusions be drawn from this? will no hopes be raised? Can an improbable event be brought about by probable means, without lessening our Opinion of its probability? – Even connecting the idea of every thing that is amiable in a Husband with the ideas of a Lord & a Coronet is, I should think, hurtful – But perhaps Miss Burney had reasons to counterbalance these which have not occurred to me ————————-4)15 August [1783]. Maria Edgeworth to Fanny Robinson. ALS. 7 pp. HM 28589. Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, pp. 2-3.

15 August [1783]. Maria Edgeworth to Fanny Robinson. ALS. 7 pp. HM 28589. Huntington Library, San Marino, CA. p. 2

15 August [1783]. Maria Edgeworth to Fanny Robinson. ALS. 7 pp. HM 28589. Huntington Library, San Marino, CA. p. 2

 Edgeworth’s impressions of Evelina are linked to her pragmatism and interest in the didactic, which would continue to inform her later writings and even inflame critics against her (overly) moralistic and logical heroines such as Belinda Portman in Belinda (1801) and Caroline Percy in Patronage (1814). Edgeworth did uphold her early views about marriage probability and class with the marriage of Belinda Portman to the rich, though not aristocratic Clarence Hervey in Belinda. However, the union of the destitute Caroline Percy with Count Altenburg in Patronage is suspiciously similar to the improbable marriage between Evelina and Lord Orville that Edgeworth complained about in her letter to Robinson.

The other reason this letter is significant is that it contains two rare deleted passages that I have managed to recover using my digital paleography methodologies. These techniques are discussed in more detail in my recent article for Digital Humanities Quarterly.5)Hilary Havens, “Adobe Photoshop and Eighteenth-Century Manuscripts: A New Approach to Digital Paleography,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 8.4 (2014).  http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/8/4/000187/000187.html Edgeworth’s deleted passages appear at the beginning of her discussion of Burney and Evelina:

Recovered text from Maria Edgeworth to Fanny Robinson, 15 Aug 1783.

Recovered text from Maria Edgeworth to Fanny Robinson, 15 August [1783].

… – You are acquainted with Miss Burney pray tell me all you know of her, – and more – I read <her Book>, Evelina over twice, once with the malicious view of discovering its faults but alas before I had read it half through I forgot my intention, <if any there be they escape6)I determined that the (likely) two deleted letters between the words “escape” and “me” were a false start (in part because the obliteration marks indicated that they had been deleted at a different time). This is why they are not included in the transcription. me> – Lord Orville is a man after my own heart – his character did not want a title to give it dignity; that is saying a great deal for the Hero, but…7)15 August [1783]. Edgeworth to Robinson, p. 2.

Though the recovered text contains nothing earth-shattering, the second and longer deleted passage about Evelina’s faults—“if any there be they escape me”—shows Edgeworth’s decision to attenuate her initial, unfettered praise. Edgeworth’s restraint foreshadows her disappointment at Robinson’s failure to procure the desired correspondence or even acquaintance with Burney. It would take likely thirty years before Edgeworth would meet her early idol, and by that time, both women would be established as two of the preeminent authors of their day.8)Definitive evidence of their meeting exists in a letter held in the Morgan Library (Maria Edgeworth to Madame D’Arblay, 17 May 1813, Misc English, MA Unassigned. Morgan Library, New York, NY). Although Edgeworth was only fifteen years old when she wrote this letter, it remains an important relic of her early literary opinions and gives a rare glimpse of her admiration of Burney, her literary predecessor who would later become her peer.

 

Funding for my research trip to the Huntington Library was generously provided by the NEH Summer Stipends program and a Huntington Library Mayers Fellowship.

 

Hilary Havens

Hilary Havens is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Tennessee.

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References   [ + ]

1. Emily Hodgson Anderson, Eighteenth-Century Authorship and the Play of Fiction: Novels and the Theater (New York and London: Routledge, 2009), pp. 167-68, n. 95.
2. Ibid., p. 168, n. 95.
3. Though Evelina had no fortune when she and Orville were initially engaged, on her marriage she inherited a sizeable fortune from her estranged father.
4. 15 August [1783]. Maria Edgeworth to Fanny Robinson. ALS. 7 pp. HM 28589. Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, pp. 2-3.
5. Hilary Havens, “Adobe Photoshop and Eighteenth-Century Manuscripts: A New Approach to Digital Paleography,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 8.4 (2014).  http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/8/4/000187/000187.html
6. I determined that the (likely) two deleted letters between the words “escape” and “me” were a false start (in part because the obliteration marks indicated that they had been deleted at a different time). This is why they are not included in the transcription.
7. 15 August [1783]. Edgeworth to Robinson, p. 2.
8. Definitive evidence of their meeting exists in a letter held in the Morgan Library (Maria Edgeworth to Madame D’Arblay, 17 May 1813, Misc English, MA Unassigned. Morgan Library, New York, NY).

  2 comments for “Maria Edgeworth’s (Deleted) Thoughts on Frances Burney’s Evelina

  1. Sarah Agnew
    November 6, 2016 at 6:01 am

    Such an interesting insight into how the novel was viewed at the time by another female. I’ve read Evelina twice and have never thought that about Lord Orville, but it’s a very good point.
    The other interesting point I found was when Maria writes ” I read , Evelina over twice, once with the malicious view of discovering its faults”, in what this reveals about her own personality.
    How lucky you are to have spent time at the Huntington Library. kind regards, Sarah (in Brighton, UK)

  2. MISTY KRUEGER
    December 5, 2016 at 10:29 am

    Excellent! Thanks for sharing this on ABO Public.

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