Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 976
Evelina is Fanny Burney’s first and most successful novel. When it was published in 1778, the book’s appeal was attributed to its sentimental value, but it has held lasting interest because of the realistic portrayal of eighteenth century English life. In Evelina, Burney’s attentiveness to the manners and pretentiousness of socialites enabled her to show a culture its foibles. Evelina is particularly descriptive of the social position of women.
Sensitively reared by the Reverend Mr. Villars, the heroine, Evelina, has become a kind, compassionate young woman. As she steps into the social life of London, her unblemished perception of society affords both delight at its marvels and disdain for its unscrupulousness and frivolity. Her letters to Mr. Villars convey clear images of London high society.
Evelina first writes with some amazement that London life begins so late that people spend the morning in bed. She adjusts, however, to the nightlife and enjoys the opera, plays, and other events with which she and her company are entertained almost nightly. She is annoyed by audiences who are so talkative throughout the events that the artists cannot be heard, and she quickly realizes that the purpose of the events is more for socializing than for the merit of the performances themselves.
Burney places her heroine with various guardians in a variety of situations in city and country. Evelina’s first awkward fortnight in London with the kind Mirvan ladies abruptly contrasts with her second visit in London in the company of Madame Duval and her relatives, the Branghtons. Crude and ill-mannered, they cause Evelina embarrassment by her forced association with them. In her third venture away from her benefactor Mr. Villars, Evelina is again in cultured company under the guardianship of the aggressive Mrs. Selwyn.
In each group, regardless of its social position, Evelina finds individuals of sincerity and those who are masters of divisiveness and deception. Mrs. Mirvan and Maria are sincere and well-mannered. Although uncouth, cruel, and contemptuous, Captain Mirvan is, nevertheless, sincere. He is his own person, honest in his brutal way. Madame Duval shares with her tormentor, Captain Mirvan, the quality of being her own person, disagreeable as she, too, may be.
Evelina readily acknowledges the honorable qualities of Lord Orville and Mr. Macartney. She also quickly perceives the duplicity of Sir Clement, Mr. Lovel, Lord Merton, the Branghtons, Lady Louisa, and Mr. Smith. In lady or silversmith, airs and presumptuousness repel Evelina. Evelina is shocked at the insincerity of those for whom honor and good manners directly relate to dress, immediate company, and situation. Lord Merton ignores Evelina while Lady Louisa is present yet lavishes her with attention at Lady Louisa’s absence. Sir Clement is a chameleon whose attention to Evelina is gained at any expense. Lady Louisa acts out roles constantly, purposely ignoring Evelina until she learns that Evelina is to become her brother’s wife.
Evelina detects affectation and shows it as being ridiculous. She describes for Mr. Villars an episode from her first dance at which a young man approached her with comically stilted mannerisms and speech. “Allow me, Madam . . . the honour and happiness—if I am not so unhappy as to address you too late—to have the happiness and honour.” She confesses that she had to turn away to conceal her laughter.
Evelina is bewildered by the social etiquette that she has had no opportunity to learn at Berry Hill, but her sense of propriety causes her to suffer for her ignorance. She is always aware of her dependent position and constantly relies on her protectors, benefactors, and guardians.
Burney does not intend...
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that Evelina’s dependence be read negatively. On the contrary, Evelina is idyllic in her feminine compliance and sensibility. She is a model lady for the times. It is interesting to note, however, how vastly the roles and rights of men and women in the novel differ. Mr. Lovel says, “I have an insuperable aversion to strength, either in body or mind, in a female.” Lord Merton echoes a similar view—“for a woman wants nothing to recommend her but beauty and good nature; in everything else she is either impertinent or unnatural.”
Burney comments on women’s sensibility through her characters. Lady Louisa, whose feigned delicate nature corresponds with her posturing, seems to be the extreme of insincere sensibility. Mrs. Selwyn represents another extreme. She is powerful and aggressive and is disliked by both men and women for her outspokenness. Evelina wishes that Mrs. Selwyn were more sensitive to her needs in awkward situations and finds her lacking in femininity. Evelina writes, “I have never been personally hurt by her want of gentleness, a virtue which nevertheless seems so essential a part of the female character.” Lord Orville, the ideal male in the novel, is described by Evelina as “feminine,” a compliment to his gentle character. Evelina’s description of Mrs. Selwyn as “masculine,” however, is definitely a negative criticism.
Given the impropriety of acting independently, Evelina and all gentlewomen must rely upon others for advice. Unfortunately, those counselors are likely to take advantage of women’s dependency. Fortunately, Evelina’s good sense alerts her to unreliable protectors, but her situation clearly indicates the powerless situation of women who are perpetually rescued or victimized.
Perhaps Mr. Villars’s response to Evelina’s interference in the attempted suicide of Mr. Macartney best expresses Burney’s attitude toward women. “Though gentleness and modesty are the peculiar attributes of your sex, yet fortitude and firmness, when occasion demands them, are virtues as noble and as becoming in women as in men.”
Evelina was first published without the name of the author and was generally assumed to have been written by a man. Burney was as dependent as her Evelina in getting the book into publication; a male secret agent smuggled the manuscript to the publisher.