When we were dressed for dinner, and went into the parlour, we had the agreeable surprise of seeing Mr. Seward. There was also Mr. Lort, who is reckoned one of the most learned men alive, and is also a collector of curiosities, alike in literature and natural history. His manners are somewhat blunt and odd, and he is altogether out of the common road, without having chosen a better path.
The day was passed most agreeably. In the evening we had, as usual, a literary conversation. Mr. Lort produced several curious MSS. of the famous Bristol Chatterton; among others, his will, and divers verses written against Dr. Johnson, as a placeman and pensioner; all of which he read aloud, with a steady voice and unmoved countenance.
I was astonished at him; Mrs. Thrale not much pleased; Mr. Thrale silent and attentive; and Mr. Seward was slyly laughing. Dr. Johnson himself listened profoundly and laughed openly. Indeed, I believe he wishes his abusers no other thing than a good dinner, like Pope.
Just as we had got our biscuits and toast-and-water, which make the Streatham supper, and which, indeed, is all there is any chance of eating after our late and great dinners, Mr. Lort suddenly said,
“Pray, ma’am, have you heard anything of a novel that runs about a good deal, called Evelina?”
What a ferment did this question, before such a set, Put me in! I did not know whether he spoke to me, or Mrs. Thrale, and Mrs. Thrale was in the same doubt, and as she owned, felt herself in a little palpitation for me, not knowing what might come next, between us both, therefore, he had no answer. “It has been recommended to me,” continued he; “but I have no great desire to see it, because it has such a foolish name. Yet I have heard a great deal of it, too.”
He then repeated Evelina—in a very languishing and ridiculous tone.
My heart beat so quick against my stays that I almost panted with extreme agitation, from the dread either of hearing some horrible criticism, or of being betrayed: and I munched my biscuit as if I had not eaten for a fortnight.
I believe the whole party were in some little consternation. Dr. Johnson began see-sawing; Mr. Thrale awoke; Mr. E—— who I fear has picked up some notion of the affair from being so much in the house, grinned amazingly; and Mr. Seward, biting his nails and flinging himself back in his chair, I am sure had wickedness enough to enjoy the whole scene.
Mrs. Thrale was really a little fluttered, but without looking at me, said, “And pray what, Mr. Lort, what have you heard of it?”
“Why they say,” answered he, “that it’s an account of a young lady’s first entrance into company, and of the scrapes she gets into; and they say there’s a great deal of character in it, but I have not cared to look in it, because the name is so foolish—Evelina!”
“Why foolish, sir?” cried Dr. Johnson. “Where’s the folly of it?”
“Why, I won’t say much for the name myself,” said Mrs. Thrale, “to those who don’t know the reason of it, which I found out, but which nobody else seems to know.” She then explained the name from Evelyn, according to my own meaning.
“Well,” said Dr. Johnson, “if that was the reason, it is a very good one.”
“Why, have you had the book here?” cried Mr. Lort, staring.
“Ay, indeed, have we,” said Mrs. Thrale; “I read it when I was last confined, and I laughed over it, and I cried over it!”
“O ho!” said Mr. Lort, “this is another thing! If you have had it here, I will certainly read it.”
“Had it? ay,” returned she; “and Dr. Johnson, who would not look at it at first, was so caught by it when I put it in the coach with him, that he has sung its praises ever since,—and he says Richardson would have been proud to have written it.”
“O ho! this is a good hearing,” cried Mr. Lort; “if Dr. Johnson can read it, I shall get it with all speed.”
“You need not go far for it,” said Mrs. Thrale, “for it’s now upon yonder table.”
I could sit still no longer; there was something so awkward, so uncommon, so strange in my then situation, that I wished myself a hundred miles off, and indeed, I had almost choked myself with the biscuit, for I could not for my life swallow it: and so I got up, and, as Mr. Lort went to the table to look for Evelina, I left the room, and was forced to call for water to wash down the biscuit, which literally stuck in my throat.
I heartily wished Mr. Lort at Jerusalem. I did not much like going back, but the moment I recovered breath, I resolved not to make bad worse by staying longer away: but at the door of the room, I met Mrs. Thrale, who, asking me if I would have some water, took me into a back room, and burst into a hearty fit of laughter.
“This is very good sport,” cried she; “the man is as innocent about the matter as a child, and we shall hear what he says about it to-morrow morning at breakfast. I made a sign to Dr. Johnson and Seward not to tell him.”
She found I was not in a humour to think it such good sport as she did, she grew more serious, and taking my hand kindly said, “May you never, Miss Burney, know any other pain than that of hearing yourself praised! and I am sure that you must often feel.”
When I told her how much I dreaded being discovered, and begged her not to betray me any further, she again began laughing, and openly declared she should not consult me about the matter. But she told me that, as soon as I had left the room, when Mr. Lort took up Evelina, he exclaimed contemptuously, “Why, it’s printed for Lowndes!” and that Dr. Johnson then told him there were things and characters in it more than worthy of Fielding.
“Oh ho!” cried Mr. Lort; “what, is it better than Fielding?”
“Harry Fielding,” answered Dr. Johnson, “knew nothing but the shell of life.”
“So you, ma’am,” added the flattering Mrs. Thrale, “have found the kernel.”
Are they all mad? or do they only want to make me so?
Burney, Fanny. “A learned man on Evelina.” . Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 30 Nov 2006. 25 Apr 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/burney/learned_man_on_evelina/>.
Criticism is an art that undergoes a great variety of changes, and aims at different objects at different times.
Truly, the hatchet is hardly a weapon of precision, but would seem to have rather more the character of the boomerang, which returns to damage the reckless thrower.
What strange ideas are taken from mere book-reading!
Fate must have her joke sometimes, as well as the least of us, and she suffers cheap energy to fill the newspapers for a lustrum, and genius to await identification at the morgue
Any one who has passed through the regular gradations of a classical education, and is not made a fool by it, may consider himself as having had a very narrow escape.