Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

As its subtitle accurately indicates, Fanny Burney’s Evelina recounts the story of a young woman’s “entrance into the world.” “The world” is a particularly rich and meaningful term in Burney’s formulation, implying not only the world of London society, ranging from a modest silversmith’s shop to the grand pleasure garden of Vauxhall, but also the entire world of adult experience—in particular love, courtship, and marriage. Burney’s youthful and vivacious heroine also finds herself continually and uncomfortably caught between worlds: between the safe world of her childhood and the often-threatening “adult” world, between the country world with its fairly simple code of behavior and the city world with its bewilderingly complicated set of behavioral codes and social rituals.

Burney’s novel opens in Evelina’s sixteenth year. The kindly Reverend Mr. Villars has been the only parent Evelina has ever known, and her entire life has been spent in the safety and seclusion of a country existence, with Lady Howard and her family her only contacts to the “outside” world. Though she is the daughter of a wealthy baronet, Evelina’s future prospects (which for women in the eighteenth century almost always depended upon marriage) are severely limited by what amounts to orphan status: Her father refuses to recognize her as his daughter and heir, and she is thus left with only the modest dowry that Mr. Villars can provide her.

Evelina’s journey to London occurs as a result of Lady Howard’s intercession. She worries that Evelina’s narrow country life will eventually lead her to imagine London life as far more exciting and glamorous than it really is, and she manages to convince Mr. Villars that several months in the city will allow Evelina to return more comfortably to her place in the country. Thus Evelina finds herself in London in the company of Lady Howard’s daughter...

(The entire section is 788 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The eighteenth century has traditionally been seen as the period during which the novel began a long process of development and refinement which eventually made it the dominant literary form in the Anglo-American world. For many years the history of the novel’s “rise” to dominance was told in exclusively male terms: it was the story of several eighteenth century men (Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, Laurence Sterne) who experimented with and, in some cases, brought to perfection this new art form. These were the great “fathers” of the novel, and whenever their story was told, it was told in such a way that the influence of women on the process was minimized if not ignored or flatly denied.

Yet eighteenth century women were experimenting with the new form as well. In fact, by the end of the century many more novels were being written by women than by men. If none of these novels can legitimately be said to equal Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) or Richardson’s Clarissa, it in no way diminishes the contributions of these “mothers” of the novel, who typically had much greater difficulties to overcome than their male contemporaries.

A more truthful history of the novel must recognize the accomplishments and contributions of these women. Like other women novelists, Fanny Burney wrote at a time when writing itself, as a public profession, was seen as an exclusively male domain. Women, quite simply, were not supposed to write, much less publish, novels. Women who did write were either shunned by their male peers or, perhaps worse, treated condescendingly, as pets. Yet in Evelina Burney managed to overcome the odds and write a novel that was admired by male and female readers alike, even though it cast a critical eye on many of the social practices of her day, particularly those that contributed to the oppression of women.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Berry Hill

Berry Hill. Country home of Mr. Villars, Evelina’s guardian, located seven miles from Dorchester in southern England. Berry Hill’s rural location signifies Evelina’s innocent and unsophisticated upbringing. However, her natural grace and understanding hint at her having a noble lineage that transcends the limitations of her rustic education.


*London. Great Britain’s capital city is the site of Evelina’s entrance into the world and of her education in the world’s ways. Her initial immersion in London’s customs allows author Fanny Burney to satirize the fashions of the times, as seen through the eyes of an ingenue. As Evelina writes home, first from respectable Queen Ann Street and later from a hosier’s in working-class Holborn, she records her own and others’ impressions of city life.

Evelina’s party visits a number of theatrical and musical performances during her first sojourn in London, and these episodes contribute to a debate over the value of art and its relationship to good taste. At a performance of William Congreve’s Love for Love (1695) at Drury Lane Theatre, discussion of the play turns into an argument over how men should respond to beauty, either with passionate enthusiasm or with philosophic detachment. A later concert at the Pantheon returns to this idea, as a nobleman ogles Evelina and betrays an indelicacy unsuitable to his social position. The ultimate test of the characters’ taste comes at the Haymarket Opera House. As Evelina strives to listen to the performance, her crude cousins, the Branghtons, talk incessantly, complaining about the very features of opera that distinguish the musical form as high art.

The reactions of...

(The entire section is 724 words.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

A Scene by Edward Francesco Burney Published by Gale Cengage

Reign of George III
King George III (1738–1820) reigned during turbulent times, while suffering an illness that was...

(The entire section is 611 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Epistolary Novel
The epistolary novel, a novel told through a series of letters written by one or more characters, was...

(The entire section is 528 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

Nineteenth Century: England’s Royal Navy uses balloons and kites to send propaganda leaflets to the French people to help...

(The entire section is 264 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Write a short account, either as a letter, a short story, or a journal entry, about a time when you did something quite innocently, but also...

(The entire section is 256 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

In the spring and summer of 2000, the Argonaut Theatre Company in Britain produced a onewoman play based on Burney’s journals. Karin...

(The entire section is 52 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

For a contemporary look at the epistolary novel, one can read John Barth’s Letters (1997). Barth sets this...

(The entire section is 297 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Chisholm, Kate, “Return of the Wanderer,” in the Guardian, April 19, 2000.


(The entire section is 260 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Fanny Burney’s “Evelina.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Includes previously published material, plus Julia L. Epstein’s “Evelina’s Deceptions: The Letter and the Spirit” and Jennifer A. Wagner’s “Privacy and Anonymity in Evelina.”

Brown, Martha G. “Fanny Burney’s Feminism: Gender or Genre?” In Fetter’d or Free? British Women Novelists, 1670-1815, edited by Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1986. Argues that Burney, as novelist, belongs to the romance tradition rather than the feminist one, except when she undertakes feminism in her last...

(The entire section is 509 words.)