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.)