This is the first illustrated edition of Frances Burney’s epistolary novel Evelina ‒ the story of a ‘young lady’s entrance into the world’. It includes a preface defending the novel as a genre, at a time when many critics – who were primarily male – sneered at these works and their largely female readers.

What is Evelina about?

Through a series of letters between the heroine and her guardian, the novel charts Evelina’s progress from a ‘nobody’ to an heiress (p. 37; Oxford World’s Classics edition). As the unacknowledged daughter of the dissolute Lord Belmont, she ultimately wins the hand of the noble Lord Orville and inherits her father’s fortune. Along the way, she learns to survive on ‘the busy stage of life’ in London and Bristol. Her ‘conspicuous beauty’ and ‘inexperience’ make her vulnerable to scrutiny, but they also let her critique this world from an outsider’s point of view.[1] With meticulous detail, she reveals the pleasures and perils of fashionable 18th-century town life.

The fourth edition of Evelina: John Hamilton Mortimer’s illustrations

Evelina was first published anonymously on 29 January 1778. When it proved a bestseller, the printers rushed to bring out three more editions before the end of 1779. This fourth edition has frontispieces designed by John Hamilton Mortimer and engraved by Francesco Bartolozzi. They reflect Burney’s subtle mixture of sentiment and sharp satire. In the first, a classical figure leans on the Belmont tomb, hinting at Evelina’s troubled bond with her parents. In the second, the heroine rescues the dishevelled Madame Duval after Captain Mirvan humiliates her. In the third, a monkey bites Mr Lovel’s ear, watched by elegant observers.

Each volume of this copy is signed by Ellen Burney, a relative of the author’s.

The ‘inferior’ status of novels

This edition has all the prefatory texts that appeared in the first edition: Burney’s loving ode to her father, her ironic dedication to ‘The Authors of the Monthly and Critical Reviews’ and a preface where she confronts the fact that novels are ‘disdained’ as ‘inferior’.

Burney admits that novel-readers (‘votaries’ or devotees) are ‘more numerous, but less respectable’ than readers of other genres. She also seems to concede that these books are potentially dangerous, saying it might benefit ‘young ladies’ if they were banned entirely. But since the genre seems to be incurably popular, she argues that we should welcome any new novelists (such as Burney herself) who don’t injure their readers.[2]

[1] These quotations are from the preface, pp. xi‒xv in this 1779 edition, and pp. 9‒11 in the Oxford World’s Classics edition (ed. by Edward A Bloom, Oxford, 2002).

[2] Preface, pp. xi‒xv.