Literate upper class American women often occupied their time in the latter part of the eighteenth century in reading romantic novels. See previous post on this subject. One popular novel making the rounds was Evelina by the Englishwoman Frances “Fanny” Burney. An epistolary novel, it tells the story of a young lady’s entrance into the world through a series of letters. In the original preface the author describes her purpose and method.
To draw characters from nature, though not from life, and to mark the manners of the times, is the attempted plan of the following letters. For this purpose, a young female, educated in the most secluded retirement, makes, at the age of seventeen, her first appearance upon the great and busy stage of life; with a virtuous mind, a cultivated understanding, and a feeling heart, her ignorance of the forms, and inexperience in the manners of the world, occasion all the little incidents which these volumes record, and which form the natural progression of the life of a young woman of obscure birth, but conspicuous beauty, for the first six months after her Entrance into the world.
Burney goes on to defend her own and other novels that had become so popular with young women.
Perhaps, were it possible to effect the total extirpation of novels, our young ladies in general, and boarding-school damsels in particular, might profit from their annihilation; but since the distemper they have spread seems incurable, since their contagion bids defiance to the medicine of advice or reprehension, and since they are found to baffle all the mental art of physic, save what is prescribed by the slow regimen of Time, and bitter diet of Experience; surely all attempts to contribute to the number of those which may be read, if not with advantage, at least without injury, ought rather to be encouraged than contemned.
Let me, therefore, prepare for disappointment those who, in the perusal of these sheets, entertain the gentle expectation of being transported to the fantastic regions of Romance, where Fiction is coloured by all the gay tints of luxurious Imagination, where Reason is an outcast, and where the sublimity of the Marvellous rejects all aid from sober Probability. The heroine of these memoirs, young, artless, and inexperienced, is “No faultless Monster that the world ne’er saw; but the offspring of Nature, and of Nature in her simplest attire.”
In the preface to The Journals and Letters of Francis Burney Burney describes what she tried to do (pages 2-3).
Perhaps this may seem rather a bold attempt and title, for a female whose knowledge of the world is very confined, and whose inclinations, as well as situation, incline her to a private and domestic life. All I can urge is, that I have only presumed to trace the accidents and adventures to which a “young woman” is liable; I have not pretended to show the world what it actually is, but what it appears to a girl of seventeen; and so far as that, surely any girl who is past seventeen may safely do.
Why not click on this link to Evelina and sample what so interested women readers of the time. Burney’s portrait ca. 1784-84 is at the National Portrait Gallery in London.