It may be a cliche for English majors to say, but I've always loved Austen. Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books--there is no romantic hero quite like Mr. Darcy. My love for Austen may be even more cliche, considering my level of academic engagement. Since my specialties are in the long 18th and 19th centuries and Austen rather deftly fits into the turn of the century, her books encompass everything I love about reading.
So it was with great delight that I read Frances Burney's Evelina this afternoon. Published in 1778, with no small indebtedness on her part to Dr. Johnson, it's the story of a country mouse making her way into society and surviving the attempts to regain her fortune which has been wrongfully taken from her. Lord Orville, the hero, is very much like Mr. Darcy, but perhaps even better, because Lord Orville knows when to laugh. Darcy is solemn all the time, but Orville is able to laugh in genuine delight when something warrants it.
Many of the concerns are the same. Both Evelina and Elizabeth Bennet are concerned with the impact their families will have in how they are seen by society, and both have an acute awareness of their own particular social failures. To be honest, as I think about it, perhaps the reason these novels were successful, and in Austen's case, remain so, is because so many teenage girls recognize the situations.
For example. I love my dad. He is, without a doubt, quirky, and it took a long time before I came to love and embrace (and in some cases, emulate) that quirkiness. But for a good portion of my teenage years, he was also a source of some embarrassment, usually caused by his sartorial choices when going to the grocery store (and the tendency to sing "If I Were King of the Forest" from The Wizard of Oz in the parking lot).
But at the tender age of thirteen, at my first boy-girl dance, after which my father was taking several friends of mine home (including the boy I liked), my father came to pick me up wearing the following outfit: red and black checked pajama pants, a maroon t-shirt with a paint stain across the front, a gray zip-up sweatjacket, a Cincinnati Reds ballcap, and topsiders with no socks. More to the point, he came inside. Where everyone could see him.
I was mortified. (So was my mother.)
While this has, in the ensuing years, become a memory that spawns laughter for all involved (and yes, some of those friends do remember my dad's wild pajama pants--and some still see him in them when he goes to the grocery store on the weekends, though the red and black checked have been replaced by pairs printed with the Grinch, Oscar the Grouch, DC Comics and Pink Floyd), at the time, it was positively horrifying. I could generally deal with the outfits going to the grocery store, because as I well knew, I was really the only teenager who actively liked going to the grocery store with her dad, and opportunities for embarrassment in front of my peers were minimal.
My point in relating this story has been that we all recognize that feeling of being embarrassed in front of someone we really want to impress by someone we know and love for their own quirky attributes, and at some particularly socially important time. For Evelina, it's as she's being presented to society and moving out in the world. Being thirteen and growing up in small-town Kentucky, the first boy-girl dance is about as similar to late 18th century Britain social situations as I can get.
But the beauty of these books is that the hero always sees past the embarrassment to the true inner beauty of the heroine and accepts her no matter what. That's the love story in these books and the part that I think every person who reads them resonates with--the simple idea that one person can love another without any judgments....and then live happily ever after.