Ingénue Reading Ingénue

October 13, 2020

Written by guest blogger Lillian Lu.

I read Burney’s debut novel in a seminar during my first year of graduate school. The Election of 2016 had just happened and Professor Helen Deutsch had assigned several female satirists on our eighteenth-century syllabus, an important decision that did not go unnoticed. I had never heard of most of these authors, Burney included.

I felt like an ingénue myself then: 22 years old, recently moved from Boston to Los Angeles, acutely aware that I’d never learned the canon in depth, had no religious education—which seemed crucial to studying English literature—, came from a mixed-language household, was the eldest daughter of an immigrant and a refugee.

I was and am proud of the facts that make up my life, but it did make me feel insecure. Compared to my classmates who I was so impressed by—who could throw around theory like it was a familiar ball game I didn’t know the rules to—I felt I had to work even harder to understand these texts, let alone interpret them, let alone interpret satire, which required a specific understanding of context, persona, and play.

Originally, I wanted to sign up to do a presentation on Austen. But that slot filled up quickly. I signed up for Burney’s Evelina instead, and as I prepared, I kept reading lines about how Evelina is a satire and that Burney a satirist. But I was confused: a satire of what? Surely, not of Evelina. Wasn’t Evelina the narrator also a satirist? I found a couple of errant scholarly lines about this too, but nothing that examined how Evelina and her innocence might be key to satirizing toxic masculinity that meets her at every turn. There seemed to be a lot about how Evelina’s innocence makes her laughable—an object of satire—but my own reading of the novel didn’t align with this. I found her laughter and annoyance in response to violent masculinity empowering, powerful, deeply feminist, and central to the novel’s form—central to Burney’s messaging.

In Burney’s preface, she writes that “[Evelina’s] ignorance of the forms, and inexperience in the manners, of the world, occasion all the little incidents which these volumes record.”[1] Burney acknowledges that feminine ignorance is built into the patriarchy, is a very symptom of it. But she also seems to say here that Evelina’s innocence may enable the novel’s satire—these “little incidents”—turning the critique outward to the jaded characters who do not see the wrong in their behavior, who have become desensitized to it. This misalignment between ingénue and non-innocent others is the grounds of critique.

When I presented this nascent idea, I was surprised by Professor Deutsch’s encouragement that this short presentation become a longer project. She said it sounded like a fresh take.

Me? I thought. A newbie? Have a fresh take?

Years later, I answer, why not? Isn’t that the narrative power of the ingénue?

It is from this place that I read and teach.

Lillian Lu (she/her) is an English Ph.D. Candidate at UCLA, where she writes about British Romanticism, gender, and the novel. Her work has appeared in The Rambling (October 2018) and recently in Eighteenth-Century Fiction (Volume 33 Issue 1). Her creative work can be found in Immersion: An Asian Anthology of Love, Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction (Ricepaper Magazine Books 2019), Whiter: Asian American Women on Skin Color and Colorism (NYU Press 2020), and Prismatica Magazine (forthcoming Nov/Dec 2020).

Her latest article in Eighteenth-Century Fiction entitled “Assuming Innocence: The Ingénue’s Satire in Frances Burney’s Evelina” is free to read for a limited time here.

[1] Burney, Frances. Evelina; or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008): 9.

The UTP Journals blog features guest posts from our authors. The opinions expressed in these posts may not necessarily represent those of UTP Journals and their clients.

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