Evelina; or, A Young Lady's Entrance into the World, Fanny Burney - Essay

Fanny Burney, Frances Burney


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Evelina; or, A Young Lady's Entrance into the World Fanny Burney

(Born Frances Burney; later Madame d'Arblay) English novelist, playwright, letter writer, and diarist.

The following entry presents criticism of Burney's novel Evelina (1778). See also Fanny Burney Criticism.

Fanny Burney's first novel, Evelina; or, A Young Lady's Entrance into the World, is an English novel of manners and is perhaps her best-known work, although it was originally published anonymously. An epistolary novel narrated by its eponymous heroine, it follows Evelina's entrance into society and her search for recognition of her true parentage. The popular novel has been recognized for its insight into social behavior and its humor, as well as its simple prose. Late twentieth century critical attention has focused primarily on Evelina's exploration of patriarchy and the issue of female identity.

Plot and Major Characters

Evelina's plot is driven by the heroine's attempt to secure a family and a name by confronting her father with her legitimacy. Evelina's problems begin before she is born when Belmont, a notorious scoundrel, secretly marries Evelina's mother, Caroline, and the bride's family reacts by cutting her off from her inheritance. An enraged Belmont burns the marriage certificate and abandons his pregnant wife. Caroline dies giving birth to Evelina and leaves the child to be raised by Mr. Villars. Evelina grows up without a true last name, and thus must assume a last name to protect both herself and the father who has refused to recognize her. As a young woman, Evelina visits London to see her friend, Mrs. Miravan, and is introduced into society. Although embarrassed by ill-bred relatives and persistently pursued by Sir Clement Willoughby, Evelina falls in love with Lord Orville—a man by all rights socially superior to a middle-class woman without a fortune. When asked by friends of Evelina to recognize his daughter, Belmont claims that his daughter has been in his care since her infancy. It is then revealed that Lady Belmont's nurse has passed off her own child as Belmont's. The fraud is quickly covered up and as Evelina's resemblance to her mother pains Belmont, she is finally recognized as his heir. Shortly thereafter, Evelina, now legitimized and with a fortune, weds Lord Orville.

Major Themes

Evelina focuses largely on female identity in late-eighteenth-century society. Once immersed into society, Evelina learns how little value women seem to have. Burney portrays the difficult position contemporary women were in—showing young women aggressively pursued as sexual objects and society's rejection of unmarried older women. Evelina matures through the course of the novel from the isolated innocent safely under Mr. Villars's care to a more experienced woman who wisely keeps her own counsel and cultivates a sense of honor. She also spends a good portion of the novel in search of her own identity, which can only be realized by gaining legitimacy through her father's name. Defying social convention, Orville intends to marry Evelina with or without her father's recognition of her and despite her lack of fortune. Once she is acknowledged as her father's heir and takes his name, she gives it up and takes Lord Orville's. This portrayal of true love in the face of social inequality was significant to a growing population of middle class young women, who themselves hoped for such good fortune. Attendant to the theme of female identity is the novel's exploration of the role of patriarchy in late-eighteenth-century society. Burney examines the way Evelina defines herself in terms of her place in a patriarchal society; her relationships with three different domineering father-figures emphasizes this struggle.

Critical Reception

Modern criticism is heavily concerned with the novel's intertwining themes of female identity and patriarchal power. The accuracy and detail of Burney's observations of her society are seldom disputed, although many critics discount the novel as essentially trivial. Susan Staves takes issue with this, contending that the characters portray genuine and painful anxiety concerning the physical limitations of women. These societal limitations render women vulnerable to the unwanted advances of men, and to the psychological restraints society places upon women—forcing the often feigned and sometimes real ignorance about the realities of sex and money. Staves argues that the romantic plot serves to undercut Evelina's exploration of these issues. Like Staves, Judith Lowder Newton examines assaults on women in Evelina's world. Newton finds that while Burney reveals that men violate and control women in this society, at the same time the author seems to conceal the relationship between women's economic dependency on men and the fact that they are subjected to male control. The genteel class, including its patriarchal codes, is idealized even though Evelina entertains the fantasy of female power. Challenging critics who view the novel as a portrayal of late-eighteenth-century cultural patriarchy, Kristina Straub asserts that Evelina is a “divided text” in which the ideology of romantic love as the aim of young women is juxtaposed with the ideological attitude toward female maturity as something “culturally problematic.” Straub identifies both ideologies as abusive towards women: the former sexually exploits young women, and the latter finds mature women useless. Irene Fizer takes another approach in her evaluation of the paternal figures: Belmont, Villars, and Orville. Fizer argues that Belmont is portrayed as a lawless, irredeemable father who generates the novel's “crises of paternity.” Taking a psychoanalytic approach, Fizer then demonstrates that with Belmont's removal, the “sexual father” is thereby differentiated from the “legal father.” Agreeing with both Staves and Newton that violence pervades Evelina, Gina Campbell shows that the male characters in the novel objectify women, robbing them of subjectivity. Campbell suggests that Burney sought to advocate female authority in the novel, but negated this thematic thrust by writing from the traditional standpoint of feminine propriety. Some critics see in Evelina a commentary or reflection of the socio-political developments in late-eighteenth-century England. Mary Severance finds a relationship between the novel's ideas and the kingship of George III, as the novel is situated within and reflects England's transformation from a “failed patriarchal socio-political order” to a democratic, modern nation. Using Jürgen Habermas's analysis of the development of capitalism in Europe, Timothy Dykstal focuses on the cultural, or public sphere, that Habermas viewed as integral to the bourgeoisie's challenge to aristocratic dominance. Within this sphere, the bourgeoisie could exchange ideas on art and culture that could help place them on equal footing with the aristocracy. Dykstal argues that most characters in Evelina, save Mrs. Selwyn, fail to make appropriate use of the public sphere, but suggests that Burney's novel demonstrates the author's hope that a type of culture—such as that provided by her novels—can help encourage independent thinking and discourage cultural illiteracy. Helen Thompson claims that Evelina aids in the reassessment of Habermas's evaluation of the rise of the public sphere. Thompson views this as a feminist endeavor, finding an intersection between gender and the historigraphical elements that Habermas maintains encourage the progression of England toward modernity.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Evelina; or, A Young Lady's Entrance into the World (novel) 1778

Cecilia; or, Memoirs of an Heiress (novel) 1782

Edwy and Elgiva (drama) 1795

Camilla; or, A Picture of Youth (novel) 1796

The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties (novel) 1814

Memoirs of Dr. Burney, Arranged from His Own Manuscripts, from Family Papers, and from Personal Recollections (memoirs) 1832

The Diary and Letters of Madame d'Arblay. 7 vols. (diary and letters) 1842-46

The Early Diary of Frances Burney, 1768-1778. 2 vols. (diary) 1889

The Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney, (Madame D'Arblay) 1791–1840. 12 vols. (diaries and letters) 1972-84

*A Busy Day (drama) 1984

*Written circa 1800.

Kemp Malone (essay date 1965)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Evelina Revisited,” Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1965, pp. 3-19.

[In the following essay, Malone offers a summary of Evelina in the hopes of renewing critical interest in the novel.]

The bicentennial of Fanny Burney's first and best novel is still fourteen years off as I write, but if I am to have a share in that event it will have to be well ahead of time, since I shall hardly be there (or indeed anywhere) in the flesh when the celebration starts. As it happens, I have just read Evelina again, after long neglect, and the reading moves me to write this essay, which I will end with a few words about the characters...

(The entire section is 7243 words.)

Susan Staves (essay date 1976)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Evelina; or, Female Difficulties,” in Modern Philology, Vol. 73, No. 4, May, 1976, pp. 368-81.

[In the following essay, Staves challenges those critics who find Evelina trivial and asserts that the anxiety felt by the main characters is quite real and is often induced by violence.]

There is a remarkable degree of critical consensus on the merits of Evelina, Fanny Burney's popular novel.1 This consensus is for the most part sound, but it has one aspect which strikes me as peculiar. Descriptions of the novel make it appear to be a combination of the usual romance with cheerful, albeit occasionally malicious, satire. The...

(The entire section is 7610 words.)

Toby A. Olshin (essay date 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘To Whom I Most Belong’: The Role of Family in Evelina,” in Eighteenth-Century Life, Vol. 6, No. 1, October, 1980, pp. 29-42.

[In the following essay, Olshin contends that Evelina's “obscure birth,” not her ignorance and inexperience, is the driving force of the novel. The critic also faults Burney for failing to move past Evelina's search for a societal identity into deeper emotional territory.]

In the original preface to Evelina, Fanny Burney describes her heroine and problems that confront her:

[A] young female, educated in the most secluded retirement, makes, at the age of seventeen, her first...

(The entire section is 5455 words.)

Judith Lowder Newton (essay date 1981)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Evelina: A Chronicle of Assault,” in Fanny Burney's “Evelina,” edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988, pp. 59-83.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1981, Newton demonstrates the way in which Evelina's world is ruled by the imposition of men on women, arguing that male assault and control is the central expression of power in Evelina. Furthermore, Newton maintains that the novel endorses a gentlemen-run patriarchy, while at the same time fantasizing about female power.]

To read this history of a young lady's entrance into the world is to read a chronicle of assault: for having made her debut in “public...

(The entire section is 10746 words.)

Kristina Straub (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Evelina: Gulphs, Pits, and Precipices,” in Divided Fictions: Fanny Burney and Feminine Strategy, University of Kentucky Press, 1987, pp. 23-52.

[In the following excerpt, Straub examines Burney's portrayal of female maturity in Evelina and finds that her treatment of independent, mature women depicts two opposing female fates: the idealization of romantic love as the only acceptable feminine goal versus negative eighteenth-century ideological assumptions about female maturity.]

Fanny Burney published her first novel, Evelina; or, the History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World, when she was twenty-six years old and a spinster....

(The entire section is 11364 words.)

Irene Fizer (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Name of the Daughter: Identity and Incest in Evelina,” in Refiguring the Father: New Feminist Readings of Patriarchy, edited by Patricia Yaeger and Beth Kowaleski-Wallace, Southern Illinois University Press, 1989, pp. 78-107.

[In the following essay, Fizer investigates Burney's scrutiny of paternity in Evelina, maintaining that the novel presents a crisis of the father figure because of the numerous paternal models it portrays.]


“I hardly know myself to whom I most belong” confesses the young heroine, Evelina Anville, at a moment of crisis, uncertain as to which of her three putative fathers she should...

(The entire section is 11310 words.)

Joanne Cutting-Gray (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Writing Innocence: Fanny Burney's Evelina,” in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 43-57.

[In the following essay, Cutting-Gray studies the significance of Evelina's journal and assesses her “calculated innocence and concealed experience.” The critic concludes that Evelina's writing is an effort to portray herself as “an entity,” but this version of herself is in fact a narrowly-defined product of the patriarchal code.]

Fanny Burney explained the “original” innocent character of Evelina, protagonist of her famous novel of 1778, to her sister Susan by saying that “she had been brought up in the...

(The entire section is 6368 words.)

Gina Campbell (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “How to Read Like a Gentleman: Burney's Instructions to Her Critics in Evelina,” in ELH, Vol. 57, No. 3, Fall, 1990, pp. 557-83.

[In the following essay, Campbell states that Evelina includes a “model of reading” similar to conduct literature in its concern with propriety, which is intended to instruct Burney's critics on how to read her work. Campbell further evaluates the way in which the male characters in the novel “read” Evelina, and render female characters into “texts” by objectifying them.]

In Evelina's dedication, “To the Authors of the Monthly and Critical Reviews,” Frances Burney courts her prospective...

(The entire section is 10953 words.)

Irene Tucker (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Writing Home: Evelina, The Epistolary Novel and the Paradox of Property,” in ELH, Vol. 60, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 419-39.

[In the following essay, Tucker explores the epistolary nature of Evelina, concentrating specifically on the paradox of the ownership of letters.]

On June 4, 1741, Alexander Pope filed suit against Edmund Curll, the prominent London bookseller who had just published Dean Swift's Literary Correspondence, for Twenty-Four Years, a volume comprised of letters written by Pope as well as those he received from such literary luminaries as Swift, Gay and Bolingbroke.1 Pope claimed rights over not only his own...

(The entire section is 9619 words.)

Mary Severance (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “An Unerring Rule: The Reformation of the Father in Frances Burney's Evelina,” in The Eighteenth Century, Vol. 36, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 119-38.

[In the following essay, Severance proposes a psychoanalytical approach to Evelina that focuses on political rather than individual psychology. From this standpoint, Severance examines the relationship of the theme and structure of Evelina to the kingship of George III and his evolution from a symbol of illegitimate power to an impotent emblem of national unity.]

If in my heart the love of Virtue glows,
‘Twas planted there by an unerring rule;
From thy example the pure flame arose,
Thy life,...

(The entire section is 8663 words.)

Timothy Dykstal (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Evelina and the Culture Industry,” in Criticism, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, Fall, 1995, pp. 559-81.

[In the following essay, Dykstal's reading of Evelina is informed by Jürgen Habermas's analysis of the role of the bourgeoisie in early capitalist Europe. According to Dykstal, Evelina presents Burney's hope that the fictional culture she presented would encourage independence and cultural literacy, both of which are necessary in Habermas's view for the bourgeoisie to challenge the dominance of the aristocracy.]

In an early scene from Volume III of Frances Burney's Evelina (1778), Mrs. Selwyn, the experienced, independent “lady of...

(The entire section is 10231 words.)

Helen Thompson (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Evelina's Two Publics,” in The Eighteenth Century, Vol. 39, No. 2, Summer, 1998, pp. 147-67.

[In the following essay, Thompson offers a re-examination of the relationship between Evelina's literary background and the feminist aspects of the novel. Thompson maintains that Evelina must mediate between two distinct publics: that which is aroused by her as a spectacle, and that which is summoned by her literary self.]

In concluding a recent volume of essays devoted to Frances Burney's Evelina; or, The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World, Margaret Doody makes the following appraisal: “It concerns me that none of these writers seems...

(The entire section is 9214 words.)

Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Deitz, Jonathan and Sidonie Smith. “From Precept to Proper Social Action: Empirical Maturation in Fanny Burney's Evelina.” In Eighteenth-Century Life 3, No. 3 (March 1977): 85-88.

Maintains that Villars is a less admirable character and consequently is more influential on Evelina's maturation than critics generally acknowledge.

Dowling, William C. “Evelina and the Genealogy of Literary Shame.” In Eighteenth-Century Life 16, No. 3 (November 1992): 208-20.

Discusses Burney's use of embarrassment in Evelina and suggests that this “appeal to shame”—an Augustan satirical...

(The entire section is 442 words.)