Despite the relative brevity of hercanon, Fanny Burney cannot be dismissed as a novelist with the usual generalizations from literary history—specifically, that the author shared the interests of her youthful heroines in good manners. She possessed a quick sense for the comic in character and situation, and those talents distinctly advanced the art of the English novel in the direction of Jane Austen. From one viewpoint, Burney indeed exists as an important transitional figure between the satiric allegories of the earlier eighteenth century and the instruments that portrayed middle-class manners in full flourish during the first quarter of the nineteenth century.
Burney’s contemporaries understood both her method and her purpose. Samuel Johnson thought her a “real wonder,” one worth being singled out for her honest sense of modesty and her ability to apply it to fiction, while Edmund Burke seemed amazed by her knowledge of human nature. Three years after her death, Thomas Babington Macaulay proclaimed that the author of Evelina and Cecilia had done for the English novel what Jeremy Collier, at the end of the seventeenth century, did for the drama: She maintained rigid morality and virgin delicacy. Macaulay proclaimed that Burney had indeed vindicated the right of woman “to an equal share in a fair and noble promise of letters” and had accomplished her task in clear, natural, and lively “woman’s English.”
Burney contributed more to the English novel than simply the advancement of her sex’s cause. Her heroines are mentally tormented and yet emerge as wiser and stronger human beings. The fictional contexts into which she placed her principal characters are those that readers of every time and place could recognize: situations in which the proponents of negative values seem to prosper and the defenders of virtue cling tenaciously to their ground. Burney’s women must learn the ways of a difficult world, a society composed of countless snares and endless rules. They must quickly don the accoutrements for survival: modesty, reserve, submission, and (above all else) manners. What makes Burney’s depiction of women in society particularly poignant is the knowledge that the author herself had to endure trials of survival. An awareness of the author’s accounts of actual struggles for social survival, then, becomes a necessity for understanding and appreciating the problems confronted by her fictional characters.
In Burney’s first novel, Evelina, the title character brings with her to London and Bristol two qualities most difficult for a young provincial girl to defend: her sense of propriety and her pure innocence—the latter quality not to be confused with ignorance. In London, Evelina stumbles into false, insecure situations because she does not comprehend the rules of the social game. During the course of eighty-five epistles, however, she learns. The learning process is of utmost importance to Burney, for it serves as both plot for her fiction and instruction for her largely female readership. Once in London, life unfolds new meanings for Evelina Anville, as she samples the wares of urbanity: assemblies, amusements, parks and gardens, drawing rooms, operas, and theaters. Accompanying the activities is a corps of sophisticates by whose rules Evelina must play: Lord Orville, the well-bred young man and the jealous lover; Sir Clement Willoughby, the obnoxious admirer of Evelina who tries (through forged letters) to breach the relationship between Orville and Evelina; Macartney, the young poet whom Evelina saves from suicide and against whom Orville exercises his jealous streak; Captain Mirvan, the practical joker who smiles only at the expense of others; Mrs. Beaumont, who would have the heroine believe that good qualities originate from pride rather than from principles; Lady Louisa Larpent, the sullen and distraught (but always arrogant) sister of Lord Orville who tries to separate her brother from Evelina; Mr. Lovel, a demeaning fop who constantly refers to Evelina’s simple background; the Watkins sisters, who chide Evelina because they envy her attractiveness to young men.
Despite these obstacles of situation and character, however, Evelina does not lack some protection. The Reverend Arthur Villars, her devoted guardian since the death of her mother, guides and counsels the seventeen-year-old girl from his home in Dorsetshire. Villars receives the major portion of Evelina’s letters; in fact, he initially advises her to be wary of Lord Orville but then relents when he learns of his ward’s extreme happiness. Since Evelina cannot count on immediate assistance from Villars, she does rely on several people in London. Mrs. Mirvan, the amiable and well-bred wife of the captain, introduces Evelina to a variety of social affairs, while their daughter, Maria, becomes the heroine’s only real confidant, sharing mutual happiness and disappointment. Finally, there is the Reverend Villars’s neighbor, Mrs. Selwyn, who accompanies Evelina on a visit to Bristol Hot Wells. Unfortunately, the one person closest to Evelina during her London tenure, her maternal grandmother, Madame Duval, proves of little use and even less assistance. A blunt, indelicate, and severe woman, she is bothered by her granddaughter’s display of independence and vows that the young lady will not share in her inheritance.
Villars emerges as the supporting character with the most depth, principally because he is ever present in the letters. From the novel’s beginning, the heroine reaches out to him for guidance and support, scarcely prepared “to form a wish that has not...
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