Essays and Criticism
Burney's Portrayal of Women
Even if readers had no previous knowledge of the customs and manners of eighteenth-century England, Fanny Burney’s story Evelina; or, The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World would provide them with enough information and detail to give them a fair description. Burney’s books were hot sellers in her time for many reasons. She had a knack for creating humorous and convoluted plot lines that kept her readers engaged; and she had an astute understanding of high society gathered from her own personal experiences in court. However, one of the more significant explanations for her popularity is the fact that she had a keen understanding of the role of women, and she eagerly exposed all the most exaggerated restrictions upon her sex as well as many of the more subtle ones. Not everyone appreciated the way she poked fun at her society, but despite themselves, they anxiously anticipated all her new books, impatient to see their way of life through the vision of Burney.
Burney has written that she liked creating female protagonists who were raised in some quiet manner, usually as orphans, and then put out into society without benefit of a mentor, having to make it or break it on the merit of their own wit and courage. This was the premise of most of her novels, the material upon which she created her most intriguing plots. Burney’s heroine Evelina is a perfect example, as she represents all that is innocent, pure, and beautiful. She is every father’s dream; every suitor’s fantasy; every mother’s pride. She is the epitome of Woman, at least Woman of her time. The only thing that she lacks is the knowledge of high society’s unwritten code of conduct, or manners. This does not infer that she lacks social grace, for she is most honest, most compassionate, and most noble. These traits, however, sometimes clash with the prescribed manners of the elite; and so Evelina often finds herself embroiled in controversy.
Thrown out into the world without benefit of a mother or father as models, Evelina must lean upon the loving care that she received from her adopted father, the Reverend Arthur Villars, and from a close friend of her deceased mother, Mrs. Mirvan. However, the reverend is ill and remains in his home in the country when Evelina first ventures out; and Mrs. Mirvan sometimes forgets that Evelina, as intelligent and beautiful as she is, has had no experience in courtship manners. These manners are very formal for young women, and those who are ignorant of them stand to be disgraced, or worse, man-handled and disrespected.
Women were expected to be educated, at least in the art of conversation. From the beginning pages of this story, even noble Lady Howard has trouble being graceful toward Madame Duvall, whom she finds to be “vulgar and illiterate.” Likewise, when Evelina attends a ball and is so flabbergasted by the pomp of the London affair that she is unable to grab her wits and say anything intelligent while dancing with Lord Orville, she too is at first looked down upon. Even Lord Orville, described as a very compassionate person, first describes Evelina in a derogatory tone as being a weak country girl, simply because she was unable to carry on a conversation. Although women were supposed to be educated or at least sound intelligent, their schooling was almost always carried out only in the home. So it is not the education, per se, that young men are expecting from the women that they court, but rather that the young woman be capable of entertaining them.
Evelina was also ridiculed because she chose not to dance with a man she found unattractive. The proper way of turning someone down was to then turn down every man who came over and asked her to dance. If she did not follow this custom, she was considered rude. This put women in an awkward position. They had to oblige themselves to every fop and brute in order to remain eligible for the men capable of affecting their hearts. Underlying many of the customs is the belief that women must always remain accessible to men and that they have no right to choose what they want. They are there for the enjoyment of the men. If they refuse one, they might as well go...
(The entire section is 1707 words.)