The Year in Books | February 2015

February 4, 2015

The Year in Books - February 2015 | Daughter by Jane Shemilt | These Four Walls blog

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…

6 thoughts on “The Year in Books | February 2015

  1. sustainablemum

    I love to read historical novels that are set it areas that are familiar, I am reading one at the moment myself although it is written by a modern author rather than someone writing at the time. I wonder what readers will make of books we are reading now in 300 years time?

    1. Abi

      Interesting to think, isn’t it? Areas change so much, but we don’t really notice as it happens around us. Enjoy your book!

  2. Emma

    Hi Abi, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen a copy of Evelina. I have my Mum’s Everyman’s copy of Fanny Burney’s diary for selected years between 1778-1823 which I read a few years ago (I can’t remember, but I can’t imagine I read the whole thing, but maybe I did). It was fascinating reading about her rise to popularity after the publication of her book, her friendship with Dr Johnson and her position in the court of George III (including during his period of madness). It is really interesting to read your comments on Evelina.

    1. Abi

      Thanks Emma. I had to resort to Amazon to find Evelina as it doesn’t seem to be widely available. I’d really like to read Burney’s diary now as it sounds like she had a fascinating life. It’s strange that she isn’t more widely known – I have to confess I hadn’t heard of her before this and I studied literature!

    1. Abi

      Thanks! I’m really enjoying learning about different sides to the city – and The Year in Books is such a lovely idea.

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