How do "Moll Flanders" and "Evelina" demonstrate social changes concerning identity and self-invention in the eighteenth century?

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The title characters in Moll Flanders and Evelina are women who share some personal features but for the most part are very different. While there were select paths to upward mobility in eighteenth-century England, people's lives were largely shaped by class and their parents' status. Inventing a unique and authentic self, especially within the bounds of honorable conduct, was particularly a challenge for females. Moll, born poor, becomes wealthy but does not aspire to respectability. Evelina, born into a respectable family but rejected by her father, hopes to fit into his class.

Moll Flanders, the novel, is generally considered picaresque and Moll, herself, one of the earliest female pícaro, "rogue," heroes. Defoe portrays her misadventures in England through several marriages and has her gain notoriety in a life of crime. Significantly for the times, one important vehicle of social mobility is immigration to the American colonies. Her stay in Virginia, along with her honor, is marred by the realization that she has married her brother. Nonetheless, Moll triumphs and, back in England, makes her fortune as an infamous robber.

Compared to Moll, Evelina has a less eventful life and, in terms of personality, does not seem like as much fun. She had an advantage over Moll of a very sheltered rural upbringing. Although she is susceptible to bad influences, in the form of London society and a French grandmother, Evelina holds her head high and does not pursue inappropriate lifestyles. The quest that Frances Burney sets for her is, on the surface, conventional: a respectable place in society and a happy marriage.

In her day, however, the stigma of Evelina's birth would have been a severe obstacle to overcome. Burney embraces and subverts an English stereotype of French loose morals, providing an excuse for her father's behavior. He is sufficiently well positioned that, once he accepts her, she can gain the status she desires. In this depiction of the English biases, however, Burney does offer a social and gendered critique: it is her father who did not lose face and whose position must redeem the daughter.

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