As you might know, I’m taking part in ‘The Year in Books’ – a lovely project run by Laura from Circle of Pine Trees which encourages everyone to read a book a month and share their recommendations. I’ve decided to focus my choices on titles set in or around Bristol, and my January pick – Frances Burney’s Evelina – was a great way to start.
Published in 1778, it charts the emergence into society of the title character, a naïve 17-year-old who has had a very sheltered rural upbringing. It’s not the easiest novel to read – it’s written as a series of letters, and it takes a while to get used to the formal style of correspondence that was typical of the age. But, underneath all the flowery language, Burney’s writing is full of wit and charm. Through Evelina’s many mishaps and faux-pas, she mocks the foppish behaviour of the time and pokes fun at the various social rules and conventions, as well as highlighting the restrictions facing 18th-century women. It’s the kind of gentle, enjoyable satire that made Austen so famous, and if Burney were better-known then I’m sure the book would have spawned countless TV adaptations by now.
As for the setting, much of the action takes place in the Bristol district of Hotwells, then a fashionable spa resort known for its healing waters, so I was intrigued to read Burney’s portrayal. It certainly differs greatly from the inner-city area I know today: she refers to its ‘pure air’, ‘favourable weather’ and lavish balls, and describes gentry taking peaceful strolls along the Avon where the traffic-clogged A4 now runs. The pump room which she mentions is also long gone, and a single row of colonnaded houses (once an arcade of shops) is the only remnant of the old spa complex. It opened my eyes to a part of Bristol’s history that’s often overshadowed by its industrial heritage or the Georgian glitz of neighbouring Bath, and I’m keen to find out more. I’ll also be keeping a lookout for the original hot spring, which apparently still bubbles up from the riverbank at low tide.
In complete contrast to Evelina, I’m heading back to the 21st Century with my February choice – Daughter by Bristol writer Jane Shemilt. It deals with the sudden disappearance of a 16-year-old girl, and it sounds tense and gripping – exactly the kind of page-turner I need to get me through the last few weeks of winter…