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.
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.
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.