Perception is Everything: Evelina and Northanger Abbey

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Evelina and Northanger Abbey both belong in the 18th-century literature syllabus because they are good examples of how two different vehicles used to tell a story—a “history,” told in epistolary form, and a witty, tongue-in-cheek narrative—can completely transform the tone of a piece. On the surface, these are two novels about young women growing up in Europe during the18th century. They are both told with humor, they both offer great insight into the mind of their observant female leads, and they both give the reader a glimpse into the manners and customs of the time. On a deeper level, however, the differences between the two texts lie in the manner in which the story is told—and this comparison point is where the reader truly gleans a richer, fuller view of females coming-of-age in the 18th century.

At face value, Evelina is not necessarily a comedy, considering both males and females often seek to take advantage of her. One often feels that Evelina truly is an “innocent angel, and as artless as purity itself” (Burney 15), wandering in the midst of London’s wolves. Evelina’s life is not her own, and the letters from Lady Howard, Villars, and others concerned, including her own father, are a testament to this fact. The reader will notice that those in authority are essentially Evelina’s “puppet masters.” The humorous moments of the story, therefore, lie in her perceptions, which are concise and hilarious in their honesty. Other characters are often painted in ludicrous terms. For instance, she notes that Madame Duval “…endeavoured to adjust her head dress, but she could not at all please herself….[Evelina] should have thought it impossible for a woman at her time in life to be so very difficult in regard to dress. What [Madam...

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...e and high society, but shift the focus from a first-person perspective (Evelina) to the more omniscient third-person narrator’s voice (Northanger Abbey), and there are many comparison points to be made between the two. They enrich each other, offering two perspectives on a very similar world—one character sees reality, as it is—the humor, the difficulties, and danger of it. The other creates her own reality, allowing her imagination to cloud what may actually be truth. Combined, they offer a rich glimpse into the life of an 18th century girl becoming an 18th century woman.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Lexington, KY: SoHo, 2010. Print.

Burney, Fanny. Evelina, Or, The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World: Authoritative Text, Contexts and Contemporary Reactions, Criticism. Ed. Stewart J. Cooke. New York: W.W. Norton &, 1998. Print.

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