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...
(The entire section is 976 words.)