Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World, published anonymously in January of 1778, is the first novel written by Frances Burney. It is often considered her best work, and it is certainly her most popular and widely-read. Perhaps its most defining characteristic is that it is an epistolary novel, meaning the story is told exclusively through letters written by several different characters. Most critics consider it to be a "sentimental" novel, and it certainly possesses some components of early Romanticism. Burney's work – Evelina in particular – proved a great influence on later authors like Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth. She is equally generous to her novel's own influences - in its preface, she proclaims herself indebted to Samuel Richardson, Dr. Johnson, Henry Fielding, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Tobias Smollett.
The novel has its genesis in a much more melancholy story Burney had composed but destroyed, a chronicle inspired by her mother's life entitled The History of Caroline Evelyn. Due largely to pressure from her family insisting that it was improper for a woman to write, she ceased attempts to craft fiction and instead focused on writing her private journals before again attempting the novel that became Evelina.
Burney published the novel anonymously to avoid censure from both her father and a literary public that frowned upon women who read and wrote novels. She first appealed to the publisher Robert Dodsley, who rejected the work because he did not want to print it anonymously. However, she was able to attain Thomas Lowndes's approval when her eldest brother posed as Evelina's author. She did not tell her father the truth until the novel has achieved indisputable critical success.
Frances Burney considered her novel as not just the story of a young and naive woman's entry into London society, but also as a depiction of that society's various entertainments. When she first applied for publication to Mr. Lowndes in December 1776, she drew attention to this dual focus: "The plan of the first Volume, is the Introduction of a well educated, but inexperienced young woman into public company, and a round of the most fashionable Spring diversions of London. I believe it has not before been executed." She later sent him the second volume, explaining he will there find the heroine "descending into a lower circle, now [partaking] of a round of Summer Diversions."
Burney's basic subject matter - a young woman's moral, social and sexual development - did have illustrious predecessors in the works of Samuel Richardson and Eliza Haywood. Richardson's Clarissa (1747-48) is a modern seduction novel that ends with the heroine's ruin. Haywood's 1751 novel The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless is less depressing and thus more similar to Evelina; its heroine journeys from ignorance to understanding, and from childhood to adulthood. It was similarly set in London, and the heroines of both works write of the awe they feel at their new environs and its oftentimes uncouth inhabitants. However, Evelina is revolutionary in that it possesses what scholar Vivien Jones calls "a newly systematic, and newly detailed, quality...[and] critique of the pleasure-seeking culture of the 1770's."
During Burney's lifetime, Evelina saw at least eighteen British editions, as well as a reissue. The earliest publications were released in three volumes; in 1784, editions were printed in two volumes; and starting in the 19th century, the novel was released as a single volume. Burney did not particularly approve of the book's condensation, as she considered each of the three volumes to reflect a distinct structural entity. However, it remained immensely popular through the 19th century. During the 1780's and 1790's alone, it was published in German, French, and Dutch.
Today, the novel has lost some of its ubiquity. It is studied particularly in English and Women's Studies courses, and in relation to the work of Jane Austen. Harold Bloom, the famous literary critic, was somewhat reserved in his review of the novel's merits, writing, "Its largest strength is in its humor and in Fanny Burney's quite extraordinary ear for modes of speech. What is rather disappointing is Evelina herself, who records the wit and spirits of others, while herself manifesting a steady goodness that is not ideally suited for fictional representation."