Evelina; or, The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World

views updated

Evelina; or, The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World
Fanny Burney

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Fanny Burney's Evelina; or, The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World is a fascinating and funny look at high society in late eighteenth-century Britain. Through a quite extensive collection of letters, the story unfolds and the reader is welcomed into the evolving world of a young, innocent country girl as she learns the ways of her society through misunderstandings and embarrassing social errors. Evelina's innocence is matched in equal measure with the lies and pretenses of egocentric characters who make fools of themselves in their attempts to win influence.

With twists and turns, misunderstandings, and false identities, Burney tells a story that is reminiscent of Shakespearean comedies. When Evelina; or, The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World was first published, Kate Chisholm writes in an article for the Guardian, "everyone wanted to know who had written such a wickedly funny satire on fashionable society." This book marked the beginning of Burney's very successful career as a writer, as well as the birth of one of England's most famous female novelists. Her books were the talk of the town, and people impatiently waited for each new book to appear. Burney's writing was, according to Lauren Goldstein, writing for Time Europe, "more widely read than Jane Austen's" during her time.

Evelina; or, The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World is the kind of book that is hard to put down. Even if the reader suspects how the book will end, the writing is so compelling and the story so convoluted that trying to figure out what will happen next keeps the reader turning the pages. The book was audacious in Burney's time. Today it is a fascinating look into the eighteenth century through the eyes of an intelligent and witty woman.

Author Biography

Fanny Burney was born on June 13, 1752, in King's Lyn, Norfolk, England. She was the daughter of Esther Sleepe and Charles Burney, who held a doctorate in music history. Her biographers claim that she was a very intelligent young girl who began writing odes, plays, songs, and farces at a very early age. Most of these early works were lost when Burney decided, as a teenager, to burn them. However she began to keep a diary around the age of fifteen, in which she recorded both typical, personal concerns of a young girl as well as anecdotes about her unusual experiences in court from the reign of George III to the beginning of the Victorian Age. Some of the incidents that Burney recorded and published in her The Early Diary of Frances Burney 1768–1778, were referred to for the 1994 movie The Madness of King George. Burney had served as lady-in-waiting to the king's wife, Queen Charlotte.

At the age of twenty-six Burney published her first novel, Evelina; or, The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World, anonymously in 1778. Although her father disapproved of her attempting to be published, he reconciled with his daughter after the novel became a huge success. From her popularity, she gained access to literary circles, including acquaintance with noted authors Samuel Johnson and Richard Sheridan. In 1782, Burney's second novel, Cecilia; or, Memoirs of an Heiress, increased her fame. Author Jane Austen is said to have studied Burney's works, which became such a strong influence on her writing that literary critics contend that Austen's Pride and Prejudice has some very noticeable similarities to Burney's style of writing. The title of Austen's book is actually taken from the last chapter of Burney's Cecilia; or, Memoirs of an Heiress. Historians have also recorded that Napoleon read Burney's books and sent his compliments through Burney's husband, General Alexandre d'Arblay, whom Burney married in 1793.

Burney's third novel, Camilla; or, A Picture of Youth, was published in 1796 and it also enjoyed incredible success. A few years after this publication, General d'Arblay moved his family back to his homeland of France in an attempt to regain property he had abandoned there years before. The family remained in France for ten years, during which time Burney had to have an operation to remove a cancerous breast, which she suffered without anesthesia. She chronicled this experience in her diary, and for some people, this became her most famous writing. Burney's last novel, The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties, was published in 1814 after she had moved back to England.

Although Burney wrote several plays, none of them were produced during her lifetime. Writing novels was at first considered a dishonorable occupation for women. Burney's success helped to change the attitude of most people in this respect. However, the theater remained, according to Kate Chisholm, writing for the Guardian, "an unsuitable occupation for ladies of a certain class." Not until 1993 did one of Burney's plays reach the stage. Since then Burney's material has been rejuvenated, culminating in not only having her plays produced but having a play written about her. In June 2002, in Westminister Abbey, on the 250th anniversary of her birth, Burney was commemorated in Poets' Corner, joining Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Brontë sisters as the only women so honored.

Burney enjoyed a long life, almost doubling the average life span of her contemporaries. She died at the age of eighty-eight in 1840.

Plot Summary

Letter I-Letter IX

Fanny Burney's story Evelina; or, The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World opens with a letter from Lady Howard to the Reverend Arthur Villars in which she complains about the rudeness of Madame Duvall. Lady Howard then continues the letter inviting Evelina to stay at Howard Grove for a brief period of time. The reverend agrees to send Evelina to Lady Howard so she can enjoy the company of Maria Mirvan, Lady Howard's granddaughter and a childhood friend of Evelina's. Shortly after Evelina arrives, Lady Howard sends another note to the reverend asking his permission to allow Evelina to accompany Maria and her mother to London to await the arrival of Captain Mirvan, Maria's father, who is returning from sea duty. The reverend agrees and Mrs. Mirvan, Maria, and Evelina set off for London.

Letter X-Letter XXIII

During their stay in London, Mrs. Mirvan decides to take the two young girls to a ball. At the ball, Evelina dances with Lord Orville. This is the first ball that Evelina ever attended, and she makes many social errors, including insulting a man with whom she refuses to dance and becoming somewhat dumbfounded by the presence of Lord Orville. Maria overhears Lord Orville describe Evelina as "a poor weak girl!" However, when the man with whom she refused to dance refers to Evelina as being ill bred, Lord Orville comes to her defense and states "that elegant face can never be so vile a mask!"

Evelina is somewhat intrigued by Lord Orville, but she does not like that he has referred to her as a weak girl, and every time she sees him afterward, she tries to improve his image of her, but she always finds herself at a loss for words because she is so awed by him.

While in London, the Mirvans accidentally bump into Madame Duvall who is on her way to stay with Lady Howard. Captain Mirvan makes fun of Madame Duvall at every opportunity. Madame Duvall, for her part, continually exposes her lack of social grace and intelligence. Eventually, everyone returns to Howard Grove.

Letter XXIV-Letter XXXIX

Back at Howard Grove, Evelina remarks that the atmosphere has changed so much with the presence of the Captain and his constant disapproval of Madame Duvall that she is uncomfortable there. Madame Duvall then informs her that she is writing to Sir John Belmont to find out if he would acknowledge Evelina as his daughter. If all else fails, Madame Duvall is willing to bring a lawsuit against Sir Belmont, something that everyone at Howard Grove finds disgraceful except for Madame Duvall. To soften Madame Duvall's crude attempts to win Sir Belmont's support of his daughter, Lady Howard writes a letter to Sir Belmont, asking that he allow Evelina to visit him. Sir Belmont writes back, refusing.

Sir Clement Willoughby visits Howard Grove and continues his aggressive pursuit of Evelina. Willoughby also schemes with the Captain to further antagonize Madame Duvall, by sending her off on a wild goose chase for her companion Monsieur DuBois and then faking a robbery of some of her goods. Madame Duvall leaves Howard Grove and visits with the Reverend Villars in an attempt to get him to concede to her taking Evelina back to Paris with her. In concession, he does agree to allow Evelina to stay with Madame Duvall for a short while in London.

Letter XL-Letter LVI

Evelina stays with Madame Duvall in London. She remarks that the London she had visited earlier with Mrs. Mirvan and Maria is totally different from the London that she is now experiencing. Madame Duvall introduces her to the Branghtons, relatives of Madame Duvall. For the entire length of her stay with Madame Duvall, the Branghtons are constant companions. On occasions when they go out, Evelina bumps into Lord Orville and Sir Willoughby, and she is disgraced by her companions' reactions to them. One night while they are out, Polly and Biddy Branghton take Evelina for a walk down a dark street, where they encounter a group of men who harass them. Sir Willoughby rescues Evelina.

It is during this time that Evelina meets Mr. Macartney, described as a poor Scottish poet. He is so depressed that one day Evelina finds him sitting in his room with a revolver in his hand. She stops him from committing suicide. He then is forever indebted to her kindness.

Before leaving Madame Duvall, Evelina has several men vie for her hand. These include Tom Branghton, Mr. Smith, and Monsieur DuBois. Evelina also runs into Lord Merton, who praises her beauty and flirts with her. Sir Willoughby finds out where she is staying and often visits her house.

Just before leaving, Lord Orville makes a presence. When Madame Duvall and the Branghtons realize that Evelina knows someone with as much money and great social standing as Lord Orville, they try every chance they get to take advantage of the acquaintance. At one point, they even borrow his coach by using Evelina's name. In the process, young Tom Branghton breaks one of the windows in the coach. Evelina, in an attempt to explain that she had nothing to do with this, writes Lord Orville a letter. Sir Willoughby intercepts the letter and writes a response, in Lord Orville's name. The letter is rather crude, giving Evelina a negative impression of Lord Orville. She leaves London and returns to Berry Hill and the reverend.

Letter LVII-Letter LX

Evelina is heartsick. The reverend sees that she is depressed, but he cannot get her to open up to him. Evelina does not want to talk about Lord Orville because she is so disappointed by him because of the letter that she believes he sent her. Instead of talking to the reverend, she writes to Maria, pouring out all her disappointments and confusion. She is in pain not just because of her broken heart but also because she does not know how to talk to the reverend about what is bothering her. When she finally tells the reverend what is bothering her, she shows him the letter she received. The reverend says that the only way to explain the sudden change in Lord Orville is that he must have been intoxicated when he wrote it. This softens the letter a little, but Evelina is still disappointed that he would have written to her in that state.

Because of her depression, Evelina's health fails. In order to correct this, the reverend suggests that she go with Mrs. Selwyn to a health resort in Bristol. Evelina agrees to this, and she and Mrs. Selwyn set off for Bristol Hotwells.

Letter LXI-Letter LXIV

At Bristol, Evelina's health slowly returns. While strolling on the grounds of this health spa, Evelina comes in contact with several men who flirt with her. Among them is Lord Merton, whom she learns is pursuing Lady Louisa Larpent, the sister of Lord Orville. Someone informs Evelina that Lady Louisa and Lord Orville are planning a visit at the house of Mrs. Beaumont, a friend of Mrs. Selwyn's. Circumstances once again throw Lord Orville and Evelina together.

The first time that Evelina meets with Lord Orville, she is happy to inform the reverend that Orville is still very much a gentleman. When he finds that Evelina is being mostly ignored by his sister and her friends, he sits next to Evelina and strikes up a conversation. Evelina, however, tries very hard not to allow her emotions to flare. She tries to keep calm and she does this by remembering the crude letter that he sent to her. Although he is friendly with her, she is "grave and distant." She writes, "I scarce looked at him when he spoke, or answered him when he was silent." Mrs. Selwyn is very impressed with Lord Orville, describing him as such: "there must have been some mistake in the birth of that young man; he was, undoubtedly, designed for the last age; for he is really polite!" With this sentiment from Mrs. Selwyn, Evelina starts to weaken. She asks, in a letter to Reverend Villars: "And now, my dear Sir, do not you think, according to the present situation of affairs, I may give up my resentment, without imprudence or impropriety?"

Media Adaptations

  • In the spring and summer of 2000, the Argonaut Theatre Company in Britain produced a one-woman play based on Burney's journals. Karin Fernald was the actress who starred in this play. Reviews and more details about this production and the reviews it received can be found at http://www.karinfernald.ukf.net/.

Letter LXV-Letter LXXXIV

Mrs. Selwyn and Evelina are invited to stay at Mrs. Beaumont's home. This provides further opportunity for Lord Orville to continue to impress Evelina as they eat their meals together and go for walks in the garden alone. Shortly after Evelina moves into the Beaumont home, Mr. Macartney shows up, meeting Evelina in the garden one morning when she went out by herself to walk. Lord Orville comes upon them quite unexpectedly and suspects that Mr. Macartney might be a love of Evelina's. Evelina feels compelled to keep much of Mr. Macartney's story untold because the details are so very personal. Lord Orville is a bit jealous but overcomes this because he knows of Evelina's honesty and integrity.

Mr. Macartney reveals to Evelina that he is there to confront Sir John Belmont. He has discovered, from a letter that his mother sent to him from her deathbed, that Sir Belmont is his father; Sir Belmont having had an illicit affair with Mr. Macartney's mother. Of course, this makes Mr. Macartney Evelina's half-brother.

Another guest arrives, a young woman the same age as Evelina, to whom people refer as the daughter of Sir John Belmont. Mrs. Selwyn and Evelina investigate the background of this woman and discover that Evelina's first nurse maid, Dame Green, switched her own baby for Evelina upon Evelina's mother's death, and presented the baby to Sir John Belmont as his child. Sir Belmont sent the baby to a convent in France where she was raised and educated. She has now come home to claim her inheritance. As coincidence would have it, this is the same woman that Mr. Macartney fell in love with while he was in Paris.

Mrs. Selwyn, in an attempt to clear this story up, takes Evelina to Sir John Belmont and insists that he at least see her. He agrees. Upon looking at her face, he knows at once that this is his child, because she looks so much like her mother, whereas the other young woman, whom he thought was his child, shows no resemblance to either her supposed mother or father. In an attempt for everyone to save face in this situation, Sir John Belmont suggests that the false Miss Belmont immediately marry Mr. Macartney, whom he has admitted is his son, and that Lord Orville and Evelina should also be married in a quiet ceremony. In this way, Sir John Belmont can make a simple and truthful public statement that his daughter has been married.

The story concludes with Sir Clement Willoughby confessing that it was he who wrote the crude letter and signed Lord Orville's name; and Willoughby then dismisses himself from the scene. Evelina and Lord Orville gain the reverend's blessing for the marriage, and everything ends happily.


Evelina Anville

Evelina is the protagonist of this story. Although the Reverend Villars tells Lady Howard that he has always referred to her as Evelina Anville, there is no explanation given for her last name. Evelina is the main correspondent in the series of letters that makes up this story. In these letters, she recounts her experiences from the time she is first introduced into society to the days before her wedding to Lord Orville.

Evelina is described as "innocent as an angel, and artless as purity itself." She is also said to be very beautiful. She attracts a lot of attention wherever she goes, mostly from men who want to be near her for her beauty and youth. Some men make fun of her innocence, with Lord Orville one of the few who appreciates the freshness and openness of her demeanor.

In the beginning, Evelina, through her lack of experience, makes certain social blunders. Because of these errors, some people laugh at her. Even Lord Orville wonders, in the beginning, if she lacks intelligence, due to the fact that she is so in awe of him she can barely speak. When other men force their attentions upon her, she is often left without a means of getting rid of them.

She goes from the loving home of the Reverend Villars and eventually ends up in the chaos and chicanery that seems to permeate the dwelling of Madame Duvall. After suffering through the whims of Madame Duvall, Evelina escapes back to the world of the reverend. She feels that her hopes of ever being accepted by her father and being loved by Lord Orville are all in vain. However, in the end, her innocence and honesty are well rewarded.

Mrs. Beaumont

Mrs. Beaumont owns the house at Clifton, where most of the characters meet at the end of the story. She is a shallow woman whose main interest in life is to associate with aristocracy. She is a minor character who only appears at the end of the story and whose only reason for being in the story seems to be to provide a place for the major characters to meet at the climax.

Sir John Belmont

Sir John Belmont met Caroline Evelyn in France and secretly married her. When he returned to Britain, he denounced her and the child to whom she gave birth. Later, when Lady Howard and Evelina's grandmother, Madame Duvall, write to him to ask him to receive Evelina, Sir Belmont refuses. Not until the end of the story, when Evelina chances to meet a young woman her own age, who is referred to as the daughter of Sir Belmont, is the reason for Sir Belmont's refusal to accept Evelina made clear. In the end when he sees Evelina, who resembles her mother, Sir Belmont repents all the injustice that he made Caroline endure and accepts Evelina as his true daughter.

Lady Belmont

See Miss Caroline Evelyn

Miss Belmont

Miss Belmont is Dame Green's daughter. As a baby, Dame Green presented her daughter to Sir John Belmont, telling him that she was his daughter. Miss Belmont is sent to France and raised in a convent, where she is well taken care of and educated. Mr. Macartney meets Miss Belmont during a visit to France and falls in love with her. Upon discovering the affair, Sir Belmont refuses to allow Mr. Macartney to see his daughter again. Miss Belmont shows up at the end of the story, to the surprise of Evelina, claiming to be the daughter of Sir John Belmont, heiress to his fortune. By the end of the story, when the details of the switched babies are cleared up, Evelina embraces Miss Belmont, claiming that she will treat her as a sister. Sir John Belmont, in an attempt to not embarrass Miss Belmont, does not refute her. He does, however, quickly marry her off to Mr. Macartney.

Biddy Branghton

Biddy is the older of the two daughters of Mr. Branghton. There is very little said about her, but she is often included in a crowd of people who go out in the evening with Madame Duvall. She would like to marry Mr. Smith and becomes jealous of Evelina when Mr. Smith proposes to Evelina.

Mr. Branghton

Mr. Branghton is a relative of Madame Duvall's. He lives in London and owns a silversmith shop. His children live with him above the shop, as does Mr. Macartney. He proposes that Evelina marry his son, Tom, a plan that Evelina scoffs at.

Polly Branghton

Polly Branghton is the younger of the two daughters of Mr. Branghton. She is crude and wild and at one point nearly gets Evelina in trouble by taking her out walking at night alone. Evelina often catches Polly kissing with Mr. Brown, a man whom Polly hopes to marry, not for love but to be married before her older sister.

Tom Branghton

Tom is the son of Mr. Branghton. He often makes fun of his sisters and tries to embarrass them. He develops a crush on Evelina while she is staying with her grandmother, Madame Duvall. He asks Madame Duvall and his father to make arrangements for him to become engaged to Evelina. He is confused and disappointed when Evelina turns him down.

Mr. Brown

Mr. Brown often visits the Branghton home and is attracted to Polly Branghton.

Mrs. Clinton

Mrs. Clinton was the second nursemaid to Evelina when she was a baby. She is also the housemaid of Reverend Villars. Mrs. Clinton accompanies Evelina when she travels unescorted.

Monsieur DuBois

Monsieur DuBois is Madame Duvall's traveling companion when she visits England. He speaks very little English and plays a minor role in the plot. Often, while in the care of Madame Duvall, Evelina turns to Monsieur DuBois for company, partly because he does not speak English and partly because he is the most decent person in the crowd who hangs around Madame Duvall. Before Evelina leaves Madame Duvall, Monsieur DuBois throws himself at Evelina's feet and declares his love for her. This embarrasses Evelina and surprises Madame Duvall.

Madame Duvall

Madame Duvall is described by both Lady Howard and Reverend Villars, in the opening letters of this story, as being "vulgar and illiterate" and "uneducated and unprincipled; ungentle in temper and unamiable in her manners." Madame Duvall was a "waiting girl" at a French café when Mr. Evelyn first met her. She and Mr. Evelyn were married only two years before Mr. Evelyn died. They have a child, Caroline Evelyn. Madame Duvall next marries Monsieur Duvall and sends Caroline to the Reverend Villars, according to Mr. Evelyn's will, to be raised. Upon Caroline's eighteenth birthday, Madame Duvall sends for Caroline for the purpose of marrying her to Monsieur Duvall's nephew. Caroline refuses, so Madame Duvall disowns her.

Likewise, when Evelina, Madame Duvall's granddaughter, is nearing her eighteenth birthday Madame Duvall once again becomes involved in her granddaughter's life. There are rumors that she is doing so in order to take advantage of Sir John Belmont, should he acknowledge Evelina as his daughter and therefore give her an inheritance. When this plan fails, Madame Duvall tries to marry Evelina to another of her nephews.

Madame Duvall is an embarrassment to Evelina. She is crude and has little understanding of society. Her clothing is gaudy, her manners are boorish, and her main purpose in life is the accumulation of money and status. She also likes the attention of men and often makes a fool of herself at the dances she attends. When Monsieur Dubois, a male companion of hers, falls in love with Evelina, Madame Duvall is insulted. Although she is Evelina's grandmother, she represents the exact opposite of someone upon whom Evelina would model herself.

Monsieur Duvall

Very little is known about Monsieur Duvall except for the fact that he is Madame Duvall's husband.

Miss Caroline Evelyn

Caroline Evelyn, also referred to as Lady Belmont, was the daughter of Madame Duvall and Mr. Evelyn. She was also the mother of Evelina. She was raised by the Reverend Villars and then sent to her mother upon her eighteenth birthday. When she refused to marry a nephew of Madame Duvall's, her mother disowned her. She then met Sir John Belmont and eloped with him. Sir Belmont left France and while in England, he denied that he had married Caroline, leaving her pregnant and without any support. Caroline grew ill and died in childbirth.

Mr. Evelyn

Mr. Evelyn is Evelina's maternal grandfather. He dies very shortly after marrying Madame Duvall but has the foresight of bequeathing his daughter to the care of the Reverend Villars, who was once Mr. Evelyn's tutor.

Mrs. Evelyn

See Madame Duvall

Dame Green

Dame Green was the nursemaid of Evelina. She had a daughter who was only a few weeks older than Evelina and upon the death of Evelina's mother, Dame Green became aware of the fact that Evelina's father was Sir John Belmont, a man who has promised to secure Evelina's financial and educational needs for the rest of her life. Upon learning this news, Dame Green takes her own daughter to Sir John Belmont, pretending that her baby is in fact his daughter. At the end of the story when this incident is brought to light, Dame Green at first lies about switching the babies but eventually owns up to the truth.

Lady Howard

Lady Howard opens the story with the first letter. Her character is only minimally developed after that. She is the mother of Mrs. Mirvan and grandmother of Maria Mirvan. She owns the home at Howard Grove where Captain and Mrs. Mirvan live. It is at this home that Evelina often spent her summers. Lady Howard convinces Reverend Villars to allow Evelina to travel with Mrs. Mirvan to London.

Lady Louisa Larpent

Lady Louisa Larpent is Lord Orville's sister. Her character is quite the opposite of Lord Orville's. She is loud, selfish, inconsiderate, and insecure. She likes the attention of men but chooses one of the worst of the male characters in the story for a prospective husband, Lord Merton. She ignores Evelina until Evelina's true identity is finally made known. Her major appearance is at the end of the story, when everyone meets at Mrs. Beaumont's house.

Mr. Lovel

Mr. Lovel is the first man to ask Evelina for a dance at her first London ball. She refuses him because he is very unattractive to her. However, later, when she accepts Lord Orville's invitation to dance, Mr. Lovel is offended. Apparently, Evelina has broken a social rule by doing this. This is the first appearance of Mr. Lovel. He flows in and out of the story, and every time that he does, he finds some way to make a fool of himself. At one point Captain Mirvan makes fun of Mr. Lovel for his lack of knowledge about the opera that they all are attending.

Mr. Macartney

Mr. Macartney is described as a poor man from Scotland. He is a poet who happens to be renting a room at Mr. Branghton's home when Evelina revisits London with Madame Duvall. Evelina sees Mr. Macartney sitting in his room with a loaded pistol one day, and she stops him from committing suicide. Eventually Mr. Macartney tells Evelina the story of his circumstances. At the end of the story, it is divulged that Mr. Macartney is the illegitimate son of Sir John Belmont. This makes him Evelina's half-brother. Evelina claims that she must have known it intuitively because she was drawn to him from the first time she saw him. Mr. Macartney falls in love with the false Lady Belmont, and in the end he marries her.

Lord Merton

When Evelina goes to London during the course of one of her evenings out, she meets Lord Merton, although she does not learn his name until the last quarter of the story. Lord Merton is a lecherous and insincere man. He flirts with Evelina, attracted to her because of her beauty. He cares little for her mind or her thoughts. He pretends to befriend her, but when they meet at Mrs. Beaumont's house at the end of the story, he totally ignores her, at least while he is in the presence of Lady Louisa Larpent. He is courting Lady Louisa and hopes to win her approval in order to gain a hold on Lord Orville's estate and social status.

Captain Mirvan

Captain Mirvan is Mrs. Mirvan's husband and Maria Mirvan's father. He is also the son-in-law of Mrs. Howard. At the beginning of the story, he was on duty with the British Navy. His return is the reason that Mrs. Mirvan, Maria, and Evelina travel to London. Captain Mirvan has few social skills and is very abusive toward Madame Duvall, Evelina's maternal grandmother. He is often rude and likes to play childish pranks.

Maria Mirvan

Maria Mirvan is Mrs. Mirvan's and Captain Mirvan's daughter. Since Mrs. Mirvan had been a friend of Evelina's mother, Caroline, she invites the Reverend Villars and Evelina to her home every summer. In this way, Maria and Evelina develop a relationship. At the beginning of the story, Evelina and Maria come together after an absence of four years. They go to London together and share their mutual introduction to London society. When Evelina must leave Maria to stay with Madame Duvall, she writes letters to Maria. Maria reappears at the end of the story just as Evelina is enjoying having been accepted by her father and having become engaged to Lord Orville.

Mrs. Mirvan

Mrs. Mirvan is the wife of Captain Mirvan and the daughter of Lady Howard. She was a friend of Caroline Evelyn, Evelina's mother, and has maintained a close relationship with Evelina because of that. Maria Mirvan is Mrs. Mirvan's daughter. Mrs. Mirvan is responsible for Evelina when they travel to London for the first time. She tries to educate Evelina in the ways and manners of London society. She refers to Evelina as her child; and at one point, Evelina calls her Momma. She is very patient with her sometimes obnoxious husband and is very loving toward Evelina.

Lord Orville

Lord Orville stands out as a man among men. Most of the other male characters, except for Reverend Villars, are buffoons of one sort or another. Lord Orville is gracious, warm, and distinguished, and Evelina falls in love with him from the first moment she sees him.

Although Lord Orville is attracted to Evelina, he keeps his distance. This detachment keeps Evelina perpetually wondering about him. He often visits wherever Evelina is staying, to ask about her; but their conversations are very short and he does not reveal his attraction to her. Throughout the story his presence is felt, but he is always in the distance. He is used as the model upon which Evelina judges all the other men, with no one ever matching him.

Only near the end of the story does Lord Orville admit his feelings toward Evelina; and once he does this, the emotions between the two of them quickly develop, but not without hesitations and detours. In the last quarter of the story, he first requests that Evelina consider him a friend. Later he asks that she cherish him as a brother. Finally, he lets it be known that he wants to marry her.

Mrs. Selwyn

Mrs. Selwyn is an old trusted friend of Arthur Villars. She accompanies Evelina to Bristol Hotwells in order to help Evelina regain her health. While there, she takes Evelina to Mrs. Beaumont's house where she and Evelina eventually end up staying. Mrs. Selwyn is described as having a very dry and sarcastic sense of humor. She is, however, a lot more rational than most of the characters in this story. It is through Mrs. Selwyn that Evelina is reunited with her father, Sir John Belmont. Lord Orville also uses Mrs. Selwyn as a surrogate parent of Evelina when he wants to ask for Evelina's hand in marriage.

Mr. Smith

Mr. Smith rents a room at the Branghton home. He falls in love with Evelina but is turned down by her.

Reverend Arthur Villars

Reverend Villars was the tutor of Mr. Evelyn, Evelina's maternal grandfather. Upon Mr. Evelyn's death, he leaves his daughter, Caroline, to the care of Reverend Villars. Reverend Villars raises Caroline until she is eighteen years old, at which time her mother insists that she return to France. When Caroline is rejected by her mother, she returns to England and gives birth to Evelina and asks that the reverend take care of her.

Reverend Villars takes Evelina into his home and raises her until she is seventeen, which is the point at which the story opens. Most of Evelina's correspondence is written to Reverend Villars. In the letters Evelina exposes her most tender feelings for the reverend, and he likewise shows his strong emotions for her. Evelina returns to the reverend after parting company with Madame Duvall. She stays with him for a short period of time trying to regain her health. She had become ill with emotional confusion over her feelings for Lord Orville. The reverend suggests that Evelina travel with Mrs. Selwyn in order to regain her health. In the end, Lord Orville and Evelina ask for the reverend's blessing on their proposed marriage.

Sir Clement Willoughby

Sir Clement Willoughby is aggressive in his attempts to court Evelina. He often breaks social rules of etiquette and takes advantage of Evelina's innocence. It is not clear that he loves her, but it is obvious that he wants her. When he suspects that it is Lord Orville to whom Evelina is most attracted, Sir Willoughby steals a letter that Evelina has written to Lord Orville and then responds to Evelina in another letter, pretending that it is Lord Orville who is writing. He does this in order to make Lord Orville look suspicious in Evelina's eyes. When his plan fails, it is not certain whether his heart is broken or that his pride is crushed.


High Society Manners and Foibles

The overall purpose of this novel is to expose the silliness of the mannerisms as well as the vulgarities of high society in England during the latter part of the eighteenth century. Burney's astute eye and sense of humor, as well as her in-depth acquaintance with high society, and her intelligence and gift for writing, all come together in her first novel to create a rather scathing account of the absurdities of the unwritten social rules as seen through the eyes of an innocent country girl.

As a young woman who was raised in the country, Evelina is at first thwarted and discouraged by all the social rules. As she becomes accustomed to the rules and gains confidence in her own interpretation of them, she begins to see the ludicrousness present in the social manners. It is through these eyes of innocence that Burney creates her comedy. She imbues Evelina not only with innocence but also with a strong desire to be truthful. While everyone around Evelina is scheming for money or power or a rewarding marriage, Evelina searches for honesty, dignity, intelligence, and love. In the process, she stumbles over the rules a few times, embarrassing herself and sometimes infuriating those around her. Only the most noble appreciate her good character and join her in scorning those who do not enjoy the higher standards that she has set for herself. Evelina becomes the model against which all other characters are judged. Most of them fail, for they are caught up in their egocentric passions to finagle and impress or lie and steal their ways up the social ladder.

The most obvious example of the fool is Mr. Lovel, who attends the opera to impress the people who are seated in the audience. He knows little about the opera before he attends, and while he is there he pays more attention to the people sitting in the boxes than he does to the actors on stage.

Then there is Madame Duvall, who started out as a waitress and worked her way up the social ladder through her marriages and her attempts to marry off her daughter and granddaughter. Another contemptible character is Lord Merton, who schemes to marry Lord Orville's sister because he has already wasted half of his inheritance and wishes to claim more. He feigns love for Lady Louisa but behind her back, he flirts with Evelina. Mrs. Beaumont also spends most of her life entertaining people at her house because she wants to rub elbows with the elite. She ignores Evelina until it is exposed that Evelina is the daughter of Sir Belmont.

Captain Mirvan is a special character. He has rank and has married into a family of money. Unfortunately, he appears as one of the elite who is bored. In order to entertain himself, he takes out all his fury in adolescent pranks against Madame Duvall, whom he dislikes because she is French and because she puts on false airs. He makes fun of her accent, her clothes, and her lack of education. He creates ridiculous farces, which Madame Duvall readily falls into as victim.

Sir Clement Willoughby is also very different from all the other characters. At times he appears genuine in his pursuit of Evelina. It is never made clear what his intentions or motives are. He disregards social customs in attempts to engage Evelina and he might do so, knowing that she is unaware of the rules. He lies and cheats but somehow seems to rationalize it as necessary in order to gain Evelina's hand. There are many incidents when he actually comes to her rescue. However, there are an equal number of incidents when he is the cause of her discomfort and frustration.

Burney also points out the double standards employed in society in relation to the freedoms enjoyed (or the lack of them) between the sexes. For instance, women were considered fair game if they were found walking by themselves. This is observed in the scene in which Polly and Biddy take Evelina away from their party and walk with her down what is called a dark alleyway or street. The three women are quickly surrounded by a group of rowdy men. The women are toyed with and become frightened. Their only defense is to stay together. When they are separated, their fate worsens. They are at the mercy of these scoundrels until a decent man come to their rescue.

Topics for Further Study

  • Write a short account, either as a letter, a short 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 quite embarrassing, in public. Who were the people involved? What were their reactions? How did it make you feel? Were you able to save face?
  • Lord Orville's thoughts are never realized in this story. Write several letters for Lord Orville about Evelina at different stages of the story's development. Make a point of contrasting some of Evelina's interpretations of the events. What do you think he was doing or thinking about when he was not with Evelina? How do you think he reacted to seeing her with Madame Duvall in London? What were his feelings when Tom Branghton broke the window in his carriage and then insisted on visiting him at his home, using Evelina's name to gain entry?
  • Read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, a book that is said to have been heavily influenced by Burney's writing. How does Austen's book compare to Burney's? Are the plot lines similar? Are there any characters in Austen's book that remind you of the characters in Burney's?
  • Write a paper on contemporary social customs. Which do you find the most humorous? If you could, how would you change them? After your paper is complete, find one or two classmates to act out some of these customs. Create skits, such as on Saturday Night Live, satirizing the customs that you find most annoying.

Poor people are also fair game. Burney demonstrates this through the character of Mr. Macartney. In a very simple scene in which several people are gathered in a room, Burney creates a dialogue that reflects the lack of concern for Mr. Macartney's need of a chair. Everyone in the room finds a chair for themselves, and when it is noticed that Evelina does not have a place to sit, they demand the Mr. Macartney give up his chair. The implication is that he is not worthy of it. Another time when the same group of people is together, they take a vote as to where they want to go that evening. Mr. Macartney is present in the room and when Evelina suggests that Mr. Macartney should also vote, she is laughed at. Evelina also receives similar treatment when she stays at Mrs. Beaumont's house. Everyone but Lord Orville and Mrs. Selwyn ignores her when Evelina enters a room. She is not included in any of the conversations, and no one says goodbye to her when they leave. Only after they discover that she is about to inherit a title and a fortune do they pay any attention to her.


Epistolary Novel

The epistolary novel, a novel told through a series of letters written by one or more characters, was very popular in the eighteenth century. During this time period, letter writing was used to convey new scientific discoveries, to reflect on philosophical thoughts, and, of course, for personal communications. The form of the epistolary novel is claimed to have been first used by Samuel Richardson (1689–1761), most famously in his books Pamela (1740) and Clarissa Harlow (1747–1748). Richardson was a printer and upon retiring, he was asked to write a book as guidance for young women on how to properly write letters. Instead, Richardson was inspired to use the letter form to write a story. Other authors who have used the form include Johann Wolfgang Goethe in his book The Sorrows of Werther (1774) and Jane Austen in her Love and Friendship (1790). A more contemporary version of the epistolary novel is Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982).

This form of novel allows the reader a more intimate glimpse into the character's thoughts. It also is an excellent way in which to portray a sense of immediacy, as the reader senses the tension and expectancy of the writer in the present as he or she is thinking through experiences that have just recently happened or anticipating those that are about to occur. The limitation of this form is that the reader watches the story unfold through the limited vision of those characters who are involved in the letter writing. In Evelina; or, The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World, most of the letters are written by Evelina. A few more letters in response to hers are written by Reverend Villars. One or two more are composed by Lady Howard. The reader is never privy to the thoughts of any of the other characters.

Comedy of Manners

Comedy of Manners is a witty and intelligent form for writing dramatic comedy and was often used for plays during the eighteenth century. Among the most popular works from this period are William Congreve's The Way of the World (1700), Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer (1773), and Richard Sheridan's The School for Scandal (1777). Richard Sheridan was a friend of Burney's and he often asked her to write screenplays, recognizing her skill of creating dramatic affects.

Comedy of Manners is often used to satirize the ways of a contemporary society by setting up the social standards of the day and then pitting the characters against those standards to see if they stand up to them. The comedy occurs in either the attempts of the characters to try to meet those standards or in the ridiculousness of the standards themselves. One of the biggest buffoons in Evelina; or, The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World is Madame Duvall. She is uneducated and has no training in social skills. Her assumptions about dress, manners, and proper conversation are totally inept. She makes things worse for herself by putting on airs.

A type of modern Comedy of Manners can be seen on the weekly television program Saturday Night Live, which uses comedy to satirize political and social manners.

Historical Context

Reign of George III

King George III (1738–1820) reigned during turbulent times, while suffering an illness that was slowly decaying his mental faculties. He married Charlotte of Mecklinburg-Strelitz in 1761, and together they had fifteen children. At one point in time, Burney would serve Queen Charlotte, a role she would come to dislike.

King George was afflicted with a disease known as porphyria, a disorder that causes an overproduction of the chemical porphyrin, which can lead to madness. Often, King George, while conducting official business as well as in his personal life, would lose his grip on reality, seeing things that did not exist, saying things that did not make sense.

It was during the reign of King George III that the American Revolution occurred. He insisted on taxing the new colonies and when finally engaged in a war with America, refused to give in until his troops were completely defeated. This caused him a loss of support in his own country.

War also raged on the European front during his reign, as Napoleon sought to win control of all of Europe. Although the British Navy at that time had complete control of the water, Napoleon's army was the most powerful force on land. As King George began his rule, the Seven Years' War with France was just ending. There was a very strong dislike of the French in Britain and anti-France pol-itics prevailed. The peace with France did not last very long, as Napoleon continued to conquer European countries and eventually threatened Britain once again. The British eventually defeated Napoleon in 1814.

King George's health deteriorated and eventually his oldest son, George, attempted to reign, but he was often thwarted by the irrational will of his father. King George's illness deemed him so unfit that eventually he stepped down and gave full power to his son. He died in 1820, blind, deaf, and mad.

Literary Influences

Burney was influenced most profoundly by her friend and dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751–1816). Born in Ireland, Sheridan moved to London and lived out his remaining years there. He began writing plays and in 1775 produced his first, The Rivals, which was not an immediate success, but upon revision it became one of the most popular comedies in Britain. His most famous work, The School for Scandal (1777) likewise was a major hit.

Sheridan did not remain a writer for very long. Instead, he moved into politics and became known as one of Britain's finest orators. Sheridan was also considered a radical for supporting the American Revolution as well as the revolution in France. He was also an outspoken proponent of a free press and the right of people to openly criticize their government. Toward the end of his life, Sheridan fell in disfavor with the local politicians and died a very poor man.

Compare & Contrast

  • Nineteenth Century: England's Royal Navy uses balloons and kites to send propaganda leaflets to the French people to help turn the tide of Napoleon's army.

    Twentieth Century: During World War I, Britain drops over nine million pamphlets into the German trenches to try to change the attitude of Hitler's troops.

    Today: The United States drops messages to the people of Afghanistan in order to persuade them to help get rid of the ruling Taliban government, which is supporting terrorists.
  • Nineteenth Century: The Industrial Revolution begins and is at its height in Great Britain with masses of people moving off the farm and into the city to take jobs in factories. The population of London dramatically increases.

    Twentieth Century: The Industrial Revolution slowly crosses the Atlantic Ocean and affects the United States, where the automobile becomes the prominent means of transportation. Agriculture is superseded by the manufacturing industry.

    Today: Globalization is the new buzzword around the world as industry affects every nation. Controversy arises as third world countries become a source of cheap labor for the leading industrial nations such as those in Europe, the United States, and Japan.
  • Nineteenth Century: Women in England and the United States gain strength by organizing in groups to demonstrate for their rights.

    Twentieth Century: Both England and the United States governments give women the right to vote.

    Today: Women from all over the globe gather in conventions, such as the Feminist Expo in Baltimore, to share strategies and fuel the women's movement. Topics include abortion, political involvement, and globalization and its effect on women.

Aphra Behn (1640–1689) lived a century before Burney, but she was one of a very few female authors of any influence that Burney could have turned to as a model. She is considered the first professional English female author, known for her poetry, plays, and novels. Her most famous novel was Oroonoko; or, the Royal Slave (1688), said to be one of the first philosophical novels ever written. Behn, at one time, enjoyed royal patronage. She was even asked by King Charles II to spy for Britain in the war against the Dutch. She was never paid for her services and ironically, when she returned home from Antwerp, she was briefly imprisoned for debt. Her works became very popular during the movement, in the 1970s, of feminists searching for literature written by women. She remains one of the most popular authors of her time.

Critical Overview

Fanny Burney was a popular success in her time. However, history did not look on her with favor. Her books were buried beneath the fame of other popular writers, and not until recently have her works been rediscovered.

Critics remain puzzled over the fact that Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson, who read and were influenced by Burney's works, have always enjoyed continual reprints of their works while Bur-ney's books seemed to have lost favor with publishers. Some critics believe that Burney was remembered as a diarist by most people, and her novels were forgotten.

All of this changed in 1993 when Joyce Hemlow, a scholar devoted to Burney's works, discovered a play of Burney's and realized that it was better than anything Richard Sheridan, a popular playwright and friend of Burney's, had ever written. Hemlow pushed to have the play A Busy Day produced, and the rebirth of Burney began. The director of that play, Alan Coveney, is quoted as describing Burney's work, in Kate Chisholm's article for the Guardian, "Because she does not rely on gags for comic effect, but on the interplay between the characters, her comedy is as relevant today as it was when she wrote it."

In trying to answer why Burney's works have experienced a rebirth, Lauren Goldstein, writing for Time Europe, states that it is "perhaps … because there are so many remarkable parallels between Fanny Burney's turbulent times and ours." In that same article, Goldstein quotes Paula Stepan-kowsky, the president of the Burney Society, as saying: "[Jane] Austen may have done it better, more elegantly, have been more polished, but Fanny did it first." And so the love affair between the public and Burney continues.

Daniel McCabe is a writer for the McGill Reporter. He starts a recent article with: "When it came to 18th-century England, Fanny Burney had a front row seat." Later, McCabe quotes English professor Lars Troide: "As a chronicler of her times, Troide says, 'nobody comes close to Bur-ney.'" McCabe again quotes Troide: "'She had a very keen eye for the physical world,' says Troide. 'She also had a tremendous gift for capturing character in only a few words.'"

In the Observer, Andrew Marr reviews Claire Harman's biography of Burney and summarizes some of the content with these remarks:

She was a superstar of literary London who, in her heyday, enthralled the reading public, was admired by such formidable intelligences as Johnson and Burke and whose influence on Jane Austen, Thackeray, and even Dickens is indisputable.


Joyce Hart

Hart holds degrees in English literature and creative writing and focuses her writing on literary themes. In this essay, Hart looks at Burney's portrayal of women and the restrictions upon them in eighteenth-century England.

Even if readers had no previous knowledge of the customs and manners of eighteenth-century England, Fanny Burney's story Evelina; or, The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World would provide them with enough information and detail to give them a fair description. Burney's books were hot sellers in her time for many reasons. She had a knack for creating humorous and convoluted plot lines that kept her readers engaged; and she had an astute understanding of high society gathered from her own personal experiences in court. However, one of the more significant explanations for her popularity is the fact that she had a keen understanding of the role of women, and she eagerly exposed all the most exaggerated restrictions upon her sex as well as many of the more subtle ones. Not everyone appreciated the way she poked fun at her society, but despite themselves, they anxiously anticipated all her new books, impatient to see their way of life through the vision of Burney.

Burney has written that she liked creating female protagonists who were raised in some quiet manner, usually as orphans, and then put out into society without benefit of a mentor, having to make it or break it on the merit of their own wit and courage. This was the premise of most of her novels, the material upon which she created her most intriguing plots. Burney's heroine Evelina is a perfect example, as she represents all that is innocent, pure, and beautiful. She is every father's dream; every suitor's fantasy; every mother's pride. She is the epitome of Woman, at least Woman of her time. The only thing that she lacks is the knowledge of high society's unwritten code of conduct, or manners. This does not infer that she lacks social grace, for she is most honest, most compassionate, and most noble. These traits, however, sometimes clash with the prescribed manners of the elite; and so Evelina often finds herself embroiled in controversy.

Thrown out into the world without benefit of a mother or father as models, Evelina must lean upon the loving care that she received from her adopted father, the Reverend Arthur Villars, and from a close friend of her deceased mother, Mrs. Mirvan. However, the reverend is ill and remains in his home in the country when Evelina first ventures out; and Mrs. Mirvan sometimes forgets that Evelina, as intelligent and beautiful as she is, has had no experience in courtship manners. These manners are very formal for young women, and those who are ignorant of them stand to be disgraced, or worse, man-handled and disrespected.

Women were expected to be educated, at least in the art of conversation. From the beginning pages of this story, even noble Lady Howard has trouble being graceful toward Madame Duvall, whom she finds to be "vulgar and illiterate." Likewise, when Evelina attends a ball and is so flabbergasted by the pomp of the London affair that she is unable to grab her wits and say anything intelligent while dancing with Lord Orville, she too is at first looked down upon. Even Lord Orville, described as a very compassionate person, first describes Evelina in a derogatory tone as being a weak country girl, simply because she was unable to carry on a conversation. Although women were supposed to be educated or at least sound intelligent, their schooling was almost always carried out only in the home. So it is not the education, per se, that young men are expecting from the women that they court, but rather that the young woman be capable of entertaining them.

Evelina was also ridiculed because she chose not to dance with a man she found unattractive. The proper way of turning someone down was to then turn down every man who came over and asked her to dance. If she did not follow this custom, she was considered rude. This put women in an awkward position. They had to oblige themselves to every fop and brute in order to remain eligible for the men capable of affecting their hearts. Underlying many of the customs is the belief that women must always remain accessible to men and that they have no right to choose what they want. They are there for the enjoyment of the men. If they refuse one, they might as well go home.

Evelina may have had no say in the matter when it came to choosing her dance partners, but one could argue that she had little say about anything in her life. She goes where the Reverend Villars sends her, or else she goes with Mrs. Mirvan, or Madame Duvall. If she wants to stay at home because she is tired of being seen with the company that attends Madame Duvall, she is considered rude. If she wants to go for a walk by herself, she is considered vulgar or stupid. Granted there are good reasons behind some of these restrictions, for it appears that a woman on her own is considered fair play by any man who happens to find her. It's difficult to understand that even when three women walk alone, they can be assaulted, and not by gangsters or thieves, but by men of their own station. In an age when even taking a woman's hand is considered forward, one has to wonder how these manners are completely discarded when a group of men encounters women who are not chaperoned and think nothing of taunting them to the point where the women become fearful of the harm that these men can do to them.

Another overall theme in this story is that of the importance of money and family heritage. Without these, no matter how beautiful or intelligent the woman might be, society diminishes her worth to the point that she may find herself without a husband and be forced to take on extremely minimal jobs, such as a housekeeper, in order to keep herself alive. This threat is most obvious to Dame Green, who sacrifices her daughter by giving her up to the whims of Sir John Belmont in the hopes that the young girl will be educated and financially taken care of for the rest of her life. It is a very difficult thing for a mother to give away her baby no matter what beneficial circumstances may follow. However, Dame Green was a nursemaid. She had no future to offer her daughter. The sacrifice was necessary to give her daughter a chance for a husband, the only reward women of this time had to look forward to.

Of course, Evelina was in a similar position. Without Sir Belmont acknowledging her as his daughter, not only does she not gain his social status or inherit his fortune, she does not have a legitimate name. If Sir Belmont does not claim her, she is seen in society as a bastard. No matter how much love the Reverend Villars rains down on her, he cannot protect her from her situation. Her choice is to accept her position or go with Madame Duvall and be married to some distant cousin. Since the reader is not privileged to Lord Orville's thoughts, it is not known if he is willing to marry her no matter what her background is. Were he to be informed of her sketchy heritage, he might not have been so attracted. He is noble, but he, too, has family he must be concerned with.

Readers can surmise through the Reverend Villar's warning to Evelina, that society in which Evelina lived did not hold out too much promise. "Could I flatter myself that Lord Orville would, indeed, be sensible of your worth," the reverend writes, "and act with a nobleness of mind which should prove it congenial to your own," then the reverend states that he would have no worries about Evelina. Instead, he tells Evelina to come home, to quit the fantasies she holds, to leave the world of high society, in which, he implies, Evelina does not belong.

Evelina, although run down from all the emotions that she has endured, has spunk. Although, on her own, she is willing to accept the reverend's decree and give herself up for the life of a spinster, stuck away in some isolated country manor, she jumps at the chance to avoid this when Mrs. Selwyn suggests that she stay and fight for her rights. Regardless that Mrs. Selwyn, it must be pointed out, is one of the most courageous, rational, and out-spoken women in the novel, most often she is described in a negative tone for her "propensity to satire," which is, of course, Burney's own sense of irony, since she is writing satire. Interestingly, too, Evelina, when she compliments Mrs. Selwyn for being very clever, follows this statement with "her understanding, indeed, may be called masculine." Evelina continues that in Mrs. Selwyn's attaining her gifts by studying men so closely, she has sacrificed her feminine side and "has lost all her softness."

For Evelina, gentleness is an essential virtue "of the female character." It can then be assumed from these observations that women must be reticent, and must stay in the background of life. That they must be soft could be interpreted as they must be elastic, giving in to men. Mrs. Selwyn is blunt in her conversations. She stands up to men, refusing to take a back seat. She takes their language and turns it back on them, exposing their weaknesses and refusing to be defined as a toy to be tampered with. Upon reflecting more closely on Mrs. Selwyn, readers might come to the conclusion that she most closely reflects the sentiments of the author. It is Mrs. Selwyn, after all, who saves the day, saves the whole comedy; for without her, Evelina would have floated away into obscurity, and that would not have been a happy ending at all.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Evelina; or, The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Joanne Cutting-Gray

In the following excerpt, Cutting-Gray discusses the themes of innocence and experience in Burney's novel.

Thus ought a chaste and virtuous woman … lock up her very words and set a guard upon her lips, especially in the company of strangers, since there is nothing which sooner discovers the qualities and conditions of a woman than her discourse.


A worldly wise, often subversive, journalist-narrator who represents herself as an inexperienced young rustic has intrigued, if not puzzled, the readers of Burney's first novel, Evelina. The fact that Evelina's innocence can only be seen from the narrator's perspective beyond innocence, that innocence is a reductive concept within the broader, reflexive context of writing is an important clue to the quixotic conduct of Burney's first heroine. If, as T. B. Macaulay notes, "novel" was a name that produced shudders from respectable people so that a novelist sometimes risked social ostracism, then a female novelist, much like her fictional counterpart, risked even more. It is no wonder then, that young Burney, single, genteel, and shy, kept her authorship a secret. No one, except perhaps her father, was more astonished than she at the immediate popularity of Evelina.

Aside from its popular reception, Burney's first novel also charmed the arbiters of eighteenth-century taste—Johnson, Reynolds, Burke, and Sheridan—and delighted Mrs. Thrale and Lady Mary Montagu. Mrs. Thrale, relieved to discover that Evelina was not "mere sentimental business," commented that "it's writ by somebody that knows the top and the bottom, the highest and lowest of mankind." Early reviewers of Evelina praised its charming, unaffected glimpse into the social life of London, its satire of class and individual character and its broad humor and pathos even as they cited its contrived plot and flatly conceived heroine as instances of its conventionality. Modern commentary, however, is more likely to laud Evelina's publication in 1778 as a frontier: "Behind it are centuries of silence; in front of it, that 'damned mob of scribbling women' who seized upon the novel as a means of subsistence and self-expression and thereby challenged the masculine perspective that had previously dominated literature."

As circumspect forerunner of what was called that "mob of scribbling women," Burney explained the innocent character of Evelina to her sister Susan by saying that she "had been brought up in the strictest retirement, that she knew nothing of the world, and only acted from the impulses of Nature." Quoting from her own preface, she added that the heroine was the "offspring of Nature in her simplest attire." Though Evelina incarnates artlessness in a world of duplicity and evil, she nonetheless requires "observation and experience" to make her "fit for the world." Evelina under the guardianship of the Reverend Mr. Villars is the innocent in a private world of innocence until she sallies forth into a disjunctive, public world where, affronted by male assertiveness, she, as female, becomes a problem to herself. Unless one hears in Evelina's discourse a misguided effort to maintain the "simplest attire" of innocence, one will too often see only female compliancy. As long as she insists upon preserving her innocence-passivity (a symbol for the stasis of her being), she cannot assimilate experience. Compliancy thus becomes for Evelina a deviant form of prudence that violates any practical wisdom.

Knowing nothing of the world suggests a state of unreflective union with nature prior to knowledge. This state of unselfconsciousness contrasts with a succeeding stage of irretrievable loss in which the emergent self stands over against the world. Indeed, to act only from the "impulses of Nature" accords with those older patriarchal notions of the feminine as well as our common sense precept of innocence ("Nature in her simplest attire"). Within such a limited, cultural stereotype for female behavior Evelina authors her journal-diary and retrieves in the act of writing a richness of experience otherwise denied to her. In the gap between her speech and action, between her disclaimers of experience and her writing of a journal-diary, one can hear a frustrated desire that seeks to be recognized: what will emerge as both problem and promise is Evelina's namelessness as a metonym for her absence from patriarchal language. Through the social void opened up by that gap, Evelina discovers that both she and her history can be (re)figured by her own act of writing. For that reason, writing an account of her experiences shatters the rigid concept of woman that she begins with. Writing her journal-letters will liberate Evelina from the alienating self-consciousness that divides her from herself; it will release her to the company of the two-in-one of thought—a process denied the rest of Burney's represented heroines.

What needs to be carefully traced before one can understand the significance of Evelina's journal is how, at first, she relinquishes experience for the sake of concealing herself in innocence. In her early forays into the world, the assailed heroine's intentional focus upon artlessness obscures the transparency of the natural self that she wishes to project. In effect, to act only from "the impulses of Nature" is to perform, as well as to invite, oppression. Furthermore, any binary economy of female innocence—male oppression overlooks Evelina's calculated innocence and concealed experience. Only at a point of crisis near to hysteria, when she is forced to write on her own behalf, does Evelina begin to understand how concealment does not prevent her from revealing herself—to herself, as well as to others. Even as Evelina narrates a representational myth in which the one narrated is caught in the female self-identity/male repression dichotomy, as writer she questions the essentialism underlying that binary economy.

The novel opens with the cultural definition that outlines Evelina's intrinsically innocent character. Reverend Villars describes his adopted ward, setting forth in little the problem of the female in eighteenth-century society: "This artless young creature, with too much beauty to escape notice, has too much sensibility to be indifferent to it; but she has too little wealth to be sought with propriety by men of the fashionable world." He explains the "peculiar cruelty of her situation" as "only child of a wealthy Baronet, whose person she has never seen, whose character she has reason to abhor, and whose name she is forbidden to claim; entitled as she is to lawfully inherit his fortune and estate, is there any probability that he will properly own her?" Artlessness and beauty without wealth and name is not only Evelina's global condition; it is also the charm of her appeal, the only marketable asset she has, and the greatest danger to her character.

Evelina's social position teeters precariously between legitimacy and bastardy; although she is the legitimate daughter of a baronet, her mother's legal marriage remains unacknowledged by her father. Adopted by a country parson, she can't claim social rank with such modest means. Her name-lessness—a form of social silence—creates the conflict in the novel. More than a social deficiency, namelessness functions symbolically for the patriarchy that constitutes the "named." As a metonym for woman, it stands in the way of Evelina's social acceptance and inhibits her ability to name herself other than within the category of innocence, the character given to her by her culture.

The question of character and its rival conceptions immediately emerge. Is Evelina to be described as a traditional fictional entity created and controlled by an author—even an author in the form of a dominant culture who authors her? Is she an autonomous person, a "real identity," who speaks and acts by her own authority? Is she a purely linguistic construction? Each of these notions of character fails to describe adequately the generative power of naming that multiplies the company of Evelina within the free play of writing.

Preserving Evelina's singularly innocent name seems mandated by all those in the novel concerned with the continuity of the social order. For example, Villars's wish to have Evelina returned from her social experiences unchanged, still "all innocence," implies sacrificing the seasoning of practical knowledge on the patriarchal altar of pristine ignorance. All he asks from Lady Howard in sending her his Evelina as "innocent as angel, and artless as purity itself," is that she will return his child "as you receive her." Lady Howard reassuringly agrees with Villars that Evelina is indeed "truly ingenuous and simple" with "a certain air of inexperience and innocency." Launched into the world, Evelina should somehow expand her experience, but without the loss of her intrinsic, encapsulated innocence. "The world," says Villars to Evelina, "is the general harbour of fraud and of folly, of duplicity and of impertinence" where "the artlessness of your nature, and the simplicity of your education alike unfit you for its thorny path" (emphasis added). A properly feminine, bourgeois "education" assures one of a perspective "unfit" for the intrigues of society. Villars holds an unshakable belief in Evelina's essentialistic innocence and hopes that she may be an "ornament" of delight to family, friends, and neighbors, "employing herself in useful and innocent occupations." Above all else, he cautions her to retain her "genuine simplicity." But we will see by Evelina's own account of her first social forays that she is not as devoid of practical wisdom or as unfit for society as she, and everyone else, assumes.

In writing about her first ball to Villars, Evelina finds male behavior so "provoking" that she determines not to dance at all rather than seem to be "humouring" male condescension. Her reaction is more than the shock of innocence at the disportment of behavior outside the bounds of her experience, for she interprets what she sees as an assumption of superiority toward women. Rather than lacking awareness about the situation at hand, she is lacking information about social propriety. The fact that her account to Villars focuses not on ignorance of social sanctions but on her interpretation of human incivility proves this point. In this respect, her response is spontaneous but not discriminating, intuitively just, but not socially correct.

Evelina's reflexive ability to read more than one possible meaning in otherwise socially correct behavior refutes any Lockean notion that innocence is a tabula rasa upon which an accumulating experience is engraved. Although Evelina recognizes hypocrisy (Mr. Lovel), bad taste (the Branghtons), male impertinence (Willoughby), and female constraints (codes of propriety), time and again she retreats into the blankness of self-conscious confusion, silence, and the unformed feature of innocence, as when she meets Lord Orville:

What Do I Read Next?

  • For a contemporary look at the epistolary novel, one can read John Barth's Letters (1997). Barth sets this novel in 1960s during a time of revolution and rebellion and, through some friends writing letters, compares the 1960s to the time of the American revolution.
  • Alice Walker also uses letter writing to tell a story in The Color Purple (1982), in which the character Celie writes letters to God, explaining her feelings and experiences.
  • The novel Love (1993), by Paul Kafka, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for best first fiction. Kafka (a distant relative of the novelist Franz Kafka) also writes in the epistolary form about a young man in Paris who has hopelessly fallen in love.
  • For background information on Fanny Burney, one can read World of Fanny Burney (1993) by Evelyn Farr. Another biography, Frances Burney (1988), by Margaret Anne Doody, is also highly recommended.
  • Their Faithful Handmaid: Fanny Burney at the Court of King George III (2000), by Hester Davenport, will give the reader a more concentrated study of Burney's time spent with the aristocracy of Britain.
  • For Burney's own account of her early life, one can read Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney, 1774–1777 (1991), edited by Lars E. Triode.
  • Burney's own The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties was republished in 2001. This story traces the life of a French émigré who has escaped the French Revolution and gone to Great Britain. She does not find life much better there, as Burney tells it, exposing the eighteenth-century, English middle-class's poor attitudes toward women.
  • In 1782, Burney wrote Cecilla: Memoirs of an Heiress, which has recently been republished in 1999. This story is similar to Evelina; or, The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World in that it is a love story told through social criticism.

How will he be provoked, thought I, when he finds what a simple rustic he has honoured with his choice! one whose ignorance of the world makes her perpetually fear doing something wrong!

But while castigating her own behavior, Evelina exhibits an assimilative, interpretive grasp, as when the thought occurs to her that Orville did choose her, "insignificant as I was, compared to a man of his rank and figure." This ready adaptability to fit herself to new social situations is belied by the way her letters attire her in an innocence bordering on the hysterical. Furthermore, that correct social appearance includes a contradictory comportment of innocence: unworldy enough to appear guileless or diffident, yet sophisticated enough to recognize dissimulation and artifice; subtle enough to discern deception and fraud, and poised enough to withstand male aggression.

From Evelina's writing about her very first ball, we can see that though ignorant of social decorum, she is not devoid of perception. We are led to think otherwise when Villars's letters array her in artlessness. Whenever Evelina is abashed with shyness or outraged at male impropriety toward her person, she does the same. On such occasions, she cloaks her feelings in the more artless raiment of silence even as she discloses them in her writing: "But I was silent, for I knew not what I ought to say." As she enters an already established symbolic order and submits her desire to the pressures of that order, adopting a conventional conceptual wardrobe, furnishing herself with a language that has already determined who she is, she allows her reflections to be covered over by the veneer of naïveté.

This acquiescence, a very imprudent prudence, precipitates her disasters. Lord Orville's attentions, in part an attempt to test her capability to speak, merely create a restraint that causes her to lapse into silence. Ignorant of the impropriety entailed in refusing one dance partner and accepting another, Evelina generates male judgments ranging from "beautiful" to "ill-bred," "intelligent" to " rustic," or in Orville's case, from "ignorant or mischievous" to "a poor weak girl." To submit to the pressure for female silence contributes to her appearance of artlessness, a commodity valuable to the patriarchal appetite for the natural, as, for example, when Orville later says of Evelina that "she is too young for suspicion, and has an artlessness of disposition I never saw equalled." She discovers early, however, that an uncalculated artlessness is unreadable by others without the accompanying signs of reflection in her that would prevent misreading artless for artifice. Smarting from the effects of her own innocent guise, Evelina writes that she wishes to flee London, convincing herself that she now finds it "tiresome."

If Evelina's inexperience causes her embarrassment and real anguish, so does pretending to an experience that would conceal her genuine lack of worldly tempering. This posturing reveals itself when she attempts to elude the impertinent attentions of the lecherous Sir Clement Willoughby. She imitates fashionable manners, but her artifice cannot match Willoughby's rakishness. Here is a much keener male adversary than any she has met before, and one who epitomizes the fraud and duplicity Villars worries about. Her "peevish" indignation only charms the rake into further importunities toward one whose "airs" heighten her beauty. Merely exchanging innocence for sophistication does not solve the problem of being turned—or turning oneself—into an object for exploitation.

Evelina concludes her London letters to Villars with the plaint: "I am too inexperienced and ignorant to conduct myself with propriety in this town, where everything is new to me, and many things are unaccountable and perplexing." Though her comment testifies to the inadequacy of any concept of female innocence that excludes an experiential understanding, it also clearly demonstrates a view that oscillates between the perspectives of innocence and experience. Claiming confusion admits to an articulated need for understanding experience—and therefore admits to how much she already understands it.

Even when displeased with her narrated ignorance, Villars is quite aware of Evelina's narrative understanding; her persuasive writing is enough to convince him of her budding wisdom. Nevertheless, he answers her letter with a postscripted prayer that artlessness or "gaiety of heart" will remain hers. It is not only Evelina who feels compelled to overwrite her experience with the inscription of innocence—it is Villars's religious and moral clothing as well.

The contrast between Evelina's practical wisdom and others' dullness sharpens when she meets her wealthy but vulgar grandmother and her middle-class shopkeeping relatives. The Branghtons display all the ignorant excesses of grasping bourgeois social climbers without any of the intelligence that could redeem them. Their vulgarity and lack of manners vividly contrast Evelina's grace, refinement, modesty, and quickness. Willfully ignorant of decorum governing opera, they embarrass Evelina with their stingy selection of seats, lack of civility and proper attire. Offensive at every turn, they even arouse our sympathy for her when she rushes into Willoughby's arms to escape them. At the same time, however, the Branghtons' doggedly unrefined appetites attest to Evelina's fuller understanding of those social nuances that remain unarticulated. Indeed, such outrageous, low, and vulgar behavior spontaneously prompts her will, passion, and tongue: "This family is so lowbred and vulgar, that I should be equally ashamed of such a connection in the country, or anywhere."

When straining to recommend herself to males, however, Evelina postures in the language and comportment of the idealized female for whom discrimination is forbidden. She fails to distinguish between acquiring the accoutrements of innocence and being innocent, a standard that forces her into an anxious mode and wears away her spontaneity. Even though Evelina can understand a bold stare, even from a mighty lord, to be a "look of libertinism toward women", she seems almost willfully to overlook sexual dangers. Her awareness, significantly, does not extend to the sexual-social threat in accepting, although under some duress, Willoughby's offer to drive her home unescorted or in accompanying the Branghton girls into the darkened alleys of Vauxhall. This gap in her understanding points to the broader issue of how the conceptual model of vulnerable innocence conceals from a female not only her own sexual desire but her sexual power as well. The patriarchal model for female virtue appears to posit innocence merely in order to assault it, so that lecherous Willoughby can silence Evelina's objections by invoking the patriarchal code designed to protect her. Thus, when Orville discovers her alone with the rake, she "was not at liberty to assign any reason" for her ambiguous behavior. An unarticulated injunction against understanding, as well as interpreting, herself to others lies at the core of her repressed desperation and anguish. Merely deferring to male authority encourages misinterpretation, accedes to an unconscious presumption of her own innocence, and attests to the ambiguity inherent in consciously maintaining a vicious form of female virtue: permanent naïveté.

We learn then, very early in the novel that Evelina is persuasively observant, often aware of the role she plays in creating equivocal situations. Evelina and those representing her culture have mutually, though not always overtly, collaborated to grant her a character that denies the richness of archetype by confining it to stereotype. Above all else, reflective thought must be excluded from a conception of female virtue. It is no surprise then that attending Congreves's Love for Love puts her out of countenance, paralyzes her with silence, prevents her from observing. This is not a play, Orville says, that "can be honoured with their [the ladies'] approbation"; the young ladies in question must keep their observations to themselves in order to keep their innocence intact. Despite Orville's injunction against honoring the risqué play with female approbation, Evelina writes that it was "fraught with wit and entertainment." She also admits to Villars in another letter how her own virtue "must seem rather to invite than to forbid the offers and notice I received; and yet, so great was my apprehension of this interpretation, that I am sure, my dear Sir, you would have laughed had you seen how proudly grave I appeared."

In spite of such astute reasoning, in every situation where Lord Orville sees but does not hear her, her represented (cultivated) artlessness veils her in an ambiguous silence that invites attack. Overlooking the obvious sexual threat, Evelina reluctantly agrees to accompany the vulgar Branghton girls into the darkened alleys of Vauxhall. Accosted by a group of rowdy wags bent upon the plunder of innocence, Evelina once again flies off with Willoughby into an even darker alley. Although outraged at his predatory impertinence, at the implied sexual innuendo that seeks to cut off her response, she cannot refute the stinging correctness of his satire: "Is this a place for Miss Anville?—these, dark walks!—no party! no companions!" Mr. Branghton puts it more bluntly: "You must all of you have had a mind to be affronted." "A mind to be affronted" rationalizes its complicity by taking refuge in the role of female victim. We can be outraged at Willoughby's verbal power play, but we cannot discount the truth of what he says. Willoughby himself testifies to Evelina's wisdom: "Let Miss Anville look to herself; she has an excellent understanding, and needs no counselor." But the weight of social codes and conceptual models is too much for someone who must adhere to a narrow female standard.

Whenever Evelina relinquishes the authority of her own experience in favor of a naive sexual facade, she draws from others an opposing aggressiveness. After a fireworks display at Marybone Gardens, Evelina once again rushes off in a fright, heedless of remaining with her companions. Various "bold and unfeeling" men accost her, and she runs hastily to some questionable women for refuge. It is revealing that she protests her inability to free herself from their strong grip, and yet as soon as she is recognized by Orville, she finds the strength to tear herself away. With consternation and a measure of disingenuousness she later writes, "How strangely, how cruelly have all appearances turned against me! Had I been blessed with any presence of mind, I should instantly have explained to him the accident which occasioned my being in such terrible company:—but I have none!" If courage has deserted her in this incident, so has the memory of similar experiences. To Villars, she deplores her lack of "presence of mind," while forgetting that "presence of mind" responds spontaneously to the situation at hand, but persistently believing what she ought to be supersedes what she needs to do. If further proof that Evelina has guessed full well what kind of "ladies" she has been with is needed, she provides it when amused at Madame Duval's ignorance of them: "Indeed, it is wonderful to see how easily and how frequently she is deceived."

Doomed to fly from one dangerous and improper situation into another, Evelina seems inflexibly passive in her resignation to "properly own" the female name she has adopted, in spite of growing experiental evidence that this name does not serve her best interests any more than her namelessness does. If Evelina needs to learn to overcome a passive role, she also needs to acknowledge that passivity and innocence are anything but powerless. Mrs. Selwyn, a delightfully satirical version of woman, comments that Evelina's appearance seems coquettish and creates confusion: "You, innocent as you pretend to look, are the cause." When Evelina departs from Clifton in order to flee Orville, the same event viewed from Mrs. Selwyn's perspective is seen as "the logic of coquetry" crafted to captivate Orville. Seeing herself as a victim only, that is, as an unaccountable participant, however involuntary that participation may be, reduces the richer possibilities for action that would fit Evelina for the world and not just to it. In the social arena where she must display herself as a nameless (valueless) commodity until she can acquire nameability, however, she is often overwhelmed by the harshness of a world based upon a conceptual model that categorizes her by gender, calculates her visible worth, names her as nameless, and thereby condemns her to a passive silence by speaking for her.

The Evelina so named (represented) in the journal, however, is not the one who intrigues us as much as the who that narrates and orders the events by writing about them. The Evelina who writes reveals a much more evaluative knowledge of her world than the Evelina she writes about. As the account of Mrs. Stanley's ball has shown, Evelina is not without judgment, wit, and quick intelligence. As her accounts of the Branghtons show, she is brighter, more sensitive, and perceptive than they could ever hope to be. Her journal reveals that the most intelligent men, Orville and Willoughby, do appreciate her understanding in spite of her inexperience. Furthermore, when describing the witty Mrs. Selwyn's satirical forays, the Evelina who writes is more discriminating than the older lady who seems unaware of the censure her bent for irony invites. The ability to converse by writing to "two in good company," the oneself who asks and the oneself who answers, by traveling back and forth through the gap created by speech and writing, enables Evelina to find a path through the horrific void that namelessness implies.

A central episode involving the use and authority of Evelina's name marks a turn in her understanding of herself, a turn away from any self constructed as a singular entity, and also marks the intersection between the Evelina narrated and the who that narrates. The Branghtons learn of her acquaintance with Lord Orville and insist upon taking advantage of that relationship in order to usurp the social meaning of her name when they call on Lord Orville to solicit his business for the family shop. She writes to Villars: "I could have met with no accident that would so cruelly have tormented me." This threat is even more serious than the sexual dangers she has encountered. Until now, Evelina's own essentialistic awareness of herself as an innocent has prevented her from fully recognizing the self-objectification enforced by that definition. The overt reification of her as a "device" available to the utility and consumption of bourgeois economy, another form of namelessness, presses upon her what she would otherwise wish to conceal from herself. She cries out: "By what authority did you take such a liberty," and, "who gave you leave?—who desired you?" At this instance the subdued and repressed hysteria percolating at the edges of the narrative boils to the surface. For perhaps the first time in the novel, Evelina claims her own right to the disclosing as well as the concealing power of name and discourse. To speak importunately to Orville "as comes from one Miss Anville", makes her name an item in the Branghton trade. It forces her to act to lay aside the disguise of female passivity.

Usurping and reifying Evelina's name graphically illustrates how a narrowly defined, passive female role but poorly serves her, causing her to forfeit Orville's good opinion and giving him "reason to suppose I presumed to boast of his acquaintance!" "Half frantic," driven "wild," suffering an "irreparable injury," Evelina eschews the codes of both female decorum and virtue and writes to Orville directly. Forced to assert herself to prevent an inauthentic mode of discourse, namely reification, she nonetheless is impeded when her status as a nameless female undercuts her authority to name, that is, to articulate and interpret herself to others. To the Branghtons she may insist, "I must take the liberty to request, that my name may never be made use of without my knowledge," but in experience her name as female consists of those qualities and traits attributed to her rather than by her. Evelina closes her letter to Orville with a plaintive acknowledgment that she was used as the "instrument, however innocently, of so much trouble." When the letter is purloined by Willoughby just as her name was usurped by the Branghtons, it erupts from the silence relegated to a female; domestic circle of family and friends and into the din of a male, public circulation. The letter and its erratic and unforeseen postings radically alter the message Evelina has been sending about herself—to others as well as herself.


This central episode introduces the purloined letter and the forged reply. The letter never reaches Orville because Willoughby purloins it, forges an impertinent answer, and signs Orville's name. Woman's letter, her "name" is purloined through Willoughby by the patriarchal "name of the father."

When Evelina's letter is diverted from its path, it becomes purloined in another sense. Pur-loigner in the French means to put aside or put amiss, to suffer, a letter in sufferance trapped in a discourse it does not initiate, a letter effectively silenced. So trapped, Evelina herself becomes a letter in sufferance. Nonetheless, when the letter is diverted from its "proper" course, it does not cease to function. Evelina's letter overreaches authorial intention and male possession, initiating a chain of unpredictable changes in whoever comes to read it. She intends her letter to represent her "truely" to Orville, whereas Willoughby intends his letter persuasively to present Orville as different from the man himself. In each case, the one who comes to possess the letter is determined by it. Although the forged reply at first delights Evelina, Evelina's letter comes to possess Willoughby. In holding her letter, Willoughby hides her and her possibilities and becomes possessed by what he possesses without authority. In holding the false letter, Evelina comes to a clearer understanding of the real Orville. The letter stirs desire and, in some sense, rewrites all their lives. Even at the end of the novel, Evelina's letter still has the power to cost someone's life in a duel.

At first perusal, as Evelina ruefully admits, the forged reply delights her. She marks only its expressions of regard because they answer to her own desires:

It gave me no sensation but of delight … I only marked the expressions of his own regard … repeating to myself, 'Good God, is it possible?—am I then loved by Lord Orville?'

In a second reading, "every word changed,—it did not seem the same letter." She recalls, furthermore, the circumstances surrounding the receipt of the letter:

Had this letter been the most respectful that could be written, the clandestine air given to it, by his proposal of sending his servant for my answer, instead of having it directed to his house, would effectually have prevented my writing.

In the forgery, Willoughby speaks for Orville, in his name, to discredit his authority and to conceal Evelina's "capacity": "I concealed your letter to prevent a discovery of your capacity; and I wrote you an answer, which I hoped would prevent your wishing for any other." It bears a "clandestine air" because it tries to divert her response, to prevent her from "having it directed to [Orville's] house." Once again the forged letter conceals Evelina, requiring her to envelop herself in innocence, to post herself into danger. In purloining her letter he silences her, denies her voice and name.

Nevertheless, words are changed by changing contexts, and when she and Orville meet in Bristol, Evelina rejects the forgery, rejects Villars's abstractions about character, and lets observation guide her judgment. Accordingly, she can interpret the letter more accurately in writing about it. Evelina recognizes in this concrete event how innocence can be a "false delicacy which occasioned my silence." Writing opens to her a horizon of experience beyond the literal reading of the text, beyond the sense corresponding to her desire, beyond the sense of the "Orville" presented to her. Although the words in the forged letter remain unchanged, the meaning of them does not. When she rethinks the situation by writing about it, Villars's reply and Orville's past actions change the significance of the false letter.

When Evelina meets Orville face to face, her proper, intended coldness and reserve melt away and she writes Villars:

It was my intention, nay, my endeavour, to support them with firmness: but when I formed the plan, I thought only of the letter,—not of Lord Orville.

In rejecting the false letter as a misrepresentation of Orville, Evelina acts from the stronger conviction that she knows him through a broader context of experience—character, regard, comportment.

The meaning, then, of the letter resides in the relations among sender, receiver, and holder, a communal bond that enmeshes in its web whoever comes in contact with it. When Willoughby purloins Evelina's letter, he is only the most outrageous (and hence useful) instance of a social order that in speaking for her, in owning the signs that signify her, in using namelessness as a sign of woman as currency, purloins her letter. In The Rape of Clarissa, Terry Eagleton conjoins writing and woman:

The problem of writing is in this sense the problem of the woman: how is she to be at once decorous and spontaneous, translucently candid yet subdued to social pressure? Writing, like women, marks a frontier between public and private, at once agonized outpouring and prudent stratagem.

Through the dialogic agency of a letter as both "agonized outpouring and prudent stratagem" and of her own journal, "decorous and spontaneous, translucently candid yet subdued to social pressure," Evelina better understands the consequences of her misrepresentation. Moreover, she recognizes that silence transforms her into a victim and exacerbates her sufferings; silence does not prevent her self-revelation when she admits that behavior, mood, and other nonverbal gestures create a horizon of possible meaning for Orville to interpret: "I tremble lest he should misconstrue my reserve for embarrassment!" And again, "I could not endure he should make his own interpretation of my silence".

Writing gives Evelina an opportunity to speak, lending her a voice that the world not only denies but insists she doesn't have. She does not simply record what confounds her in London—a form of spectatorship—she participates in reordering what puzzles and frightens her. In writing, Evelina learns that she is capable of thought and therefore capable of speech, and she says this in the very process of denying it: "I will talk,—write,—think of him no more!" These disclaimers cause Villars to miss the strength and achievement of Evelina's letters. He unwittingly acknowledges their authority by simply accepting them as representational, as veridical accounts. The persuasive power of her narration compensates for the authority that silences her. She corresponds because her experiences do not—discordia concors.

At times the dazzling power of narration causes Evelina to fall back upon that reductive concept of female innocence, laying claim to the unambiguous and literal, draping herself in self-illusion. To discover that writing uncovers what has been carefully concealed from oneself can be very disconcerting: "I will not write any longer; for the more I think … the less indifferent … I find myself." Writing begins to find for her, her self. What she cannot see, perhaps what at times she will not see is that transparency and innocence are available only within experience. The greater her vocabulary of experience, the broader her perspective on a situation, the more she understands the power and attendant dangers of innocence. Writing enables Evelina to share in the composition of her own destiny, to see that the role of innocent bystander is often complicitous with that of active participant.

Writing as act precludes her being a passive spectator: she is enmeshed in a web of discourse that calls for her response, that connects her to her particular place in culture. Writing reliably guides or opens her to possible modes of female conduct. When Villars warns Evelina against "those regions of fancy and passion whither her new guide conducted her," he also implies that writing informs experience, since her new "guide" is her imaginative pen—not patriarchal advice. Since the letters themselves not only reside in but are the "regions of fancy and passion," they are not as easily subject to the discursive control of patriarchal logic. Neither are they limited to the linear movement of a conventional plot, a sending that asks for no reply. In fact, the episodic zigzag movement of epistolary narrative resists any overarching structure targeted as plot. The epistolary shapes pathos, terror, emotion in such a way as to discourage the reader from building theoretical constructions of analysis upon it. Her letters are not a form for imperatives, statements of facts, or assertions. The indirection of the culturally unsayable opens "regions of fancy and passion."

Feelings are less a subject Evelina takes up than an affective condition that takes her. "I made a resolution, when I began, that I would not be urgent; but my pen—or rather my thoughts, will not suffer me to keep it—." Writing does not merely record her feelings for Orville, it shapes them, gives space for the feelings that draw her into dark alleys. Writing reveals to her—and others—the pattern of her desires. Villars, Maria, and we are sure she is in love, even though she has never admitted to it openly: "Long … have I perceived the ascendancy which Lord Orville has gained upon your mind." Evelina writes to Villars but finds herself addressing Orville:

Oh! Lord Orville!—it shall be the sole study of my happy life, to express, better than by words, the sense I have of your exalted benevolence and greatness of mind!

As Evelina's writing becomes a displacement for her concealed desires, it opens her to more than one identity, more than one version of character. It draws her out of the stifling closet of female reserve and into multiple chambers of thought.

The company of thought is available to Evelina through the conversation of her writing. This conversation enables Evelina to discover a counter-authority to that of the patriarchy. Usually when Evelina's discourse falls silent due to lack of authority, it is Villars, much like Burney's father, who feels authorized to speak for her. His letters to Evelina are filled with maxims, exhortations, and the highest sentiments of concern and moral propriety. Ever admonishing, he simply cannot forbear talking about "the right line of conduct," the same for both sexes, "though the manner in which it is pursued may somewhat vary." The varied "manner" in which "the right line of conduct" is pursued not only attests to the inadequacy of any "right line of conduct" as a guide for females but also to the impossibility of only one "right line." Nonetheless, even Villars is persuaded by Evelina's narrative power so that, when she writes about male importunity, he admonishes her to take authority in the sense of responsibility to her own experience to learn from it:

But you must learn not only to judge but to act for yourself; if any schemes are started, any engagements made, which your understanding represents to you as improper, exert yourself resolutely in avoiding them; and do not, by a too passive facility, risk the censure of the world, or your own future regret. (emphasis added)

In an astonishing admission, Villars explains to Evelina that innocence conceals the approach of duplicity: "Guileless yourself, how could you prepare against the duplicity of another? Your disappointment has but been proportioned … to the innocence which hid its approach." He repines: "That innocence … should, of all others, be the blindest to its own danger,—the most exposed to treachery,—and the least able to defend itself, in a world where it is little known, less valued, and perpetually deceived!" Innocence, he implies, nurtures hysteria. Evelina's persuasive narration holds an authority that forces Villars to redefine his cherished concept of female innocence.

The dialogue generated by these letters shows how writing addresses an important issue far beyond the need to express or the purpose of guidance—especially since Evelina often does not respond in her letters to the advice he gives. Her realistic descriptions and astute assessments of human behavior convince Villars of the authority of her writing even as he tries to maintain the fiction of her artlessness. He consistently displaces Evelina's authority, standing in for her but not letting her stand up for herself. Renouncing such a patriarchal version of authority can be the means for woman to name herself rather than let others name her.

Although Villars may speak for Evelina when she cannot, speaking for is not the same as letting speak. Evelina's letters are authoritative precisely to the extent to which they are filled with concrete, but ever-changing, interpretations of particular events. When pressed by Evelina's details concerning actual events, Villars is forced to relinquish his abstractions for more practical considerations that are attuned to the present need. Her authority corresponds to the way her letters say what is rather than what ought to be. Evelina's letter about Willoughby is so persuasive that it even moves Villars to relinquish the patriarchal mandate for female reserve:

It is not sufficient for you to be reserved: his conduct even calls for your resentment; and should he again, as will doubtless be his endeavour, contrive to solicit your favour in private, let your disdain and displeasure be so marked, as to constrain a change in his behaviour.

In other words, female virtue encompasses more than a silent reserve; virtue takes the active form of a disdain and displeasure so marked that it will force a behavioral change in others. Concealing the strength of a woman's own desires and intelligence diminishes her human richness; she remains one-dimensional as long as she is complicitous with the representational model.

In writing, Evelina finds the connections, the parallels, and the patterns of events that shape her experience to herself and her corespondents. In writing, Evelina can explain and defend how she behaved at her first ball, although she could never do so by speaking directly to those who received a wrong impression of her. In a letter she can discuss her disapprobation of people, places, and events, expressing attitudes and opinions that she must otherwise hide or dissemble. The letter privately gratifies, frees her discourse from what must otherwise adhere to social strictures. Eagleton states that a decorum of who may write to whom, and under what conditions, provides an internal censorship, since the epistle is at heart an appeal to another. Since Evelina writes the bulk of her letters to Villars who represents the authority of patriarchy, she allows the dialogue to speak for her rather than give him the impression she is making judgments. By seeming to record whole conversations, she lets the rhetoric of the letter ameliorate the impertinence of its own intimate revelation. Her epistles subversively charm more than her strained efforts to be artless; the more her letters express a deeply felt private sentiment, the more they snare the reader into a reciprocal intimacy.

Evelina allows the dialogue to speak indirectly for her rather than playing author in the patriarchal sense. She criticizes the authorial model, nonetheless, when she, like Burney, deliberately conceals her authority by editing or merely recording events in the form of private letters. Evelina's (non)authority becomes a viable alternative not only to the power exercised by males, but to that of the other women as well. Madame Duval's access to society rests entirely upon her patrilineal name and money, for which she is more tolerated than accepted. Lady Howard can speak with the authority of the patrilineal name, money, and position. She therefore does not test the limits of masculine authority. Though Mrs. Selwyn thrives on satirical challenges to authority, she is indulged for the sake of name and position. These versions of female power rely on an idea of identity coextensive with patriarchy. The forced race of the nameless old women servants, so often puzzling to readers, demonstrates the plight of woman without resource to male legitimation. The argument here is that Evelina, by contrast, opens up a non-patriarchal path for identity and authority through the company of the letter's conversation.

The novel is about sendings, letters; hence a novel without author(ity), only an editor. In both Burney's preface and Evelina's narrative, authority is renounced. What is true of the letters is true of the novel: neither Evelina, the one narrated and the one narrating, nor Burney authors it in the sense of origin and closure. They send letters—one sends to Berry Hill, one into the world—but they do not speak for others. They let others speak for themselves and keep the conversation going. They listen to the world and send letters as a function of listening. Evelina narrates: in letting the others speak she must listen and understand them better perhaps than they understand themselves. She makes Mrs. Selwyn's irony her own, makes Branghton vulgarity part of her world even as she dismisses it; she even assimilates the aggression of the male and the displacement of woman to this narrated world. She is author in the ancient sense of auctor, one who augments the conversation underway, one who need not command or coerce to make herself heard.

With the help of her new guide, Evelina discovers how she can resist any "plot" ready formed for her. It enables her to say who she is in spite of cultural limits upon her discourse. The intimacy of the letter creates the impression of saying what was not intended to be heard, what she is not authorized to say. Thus, she can use writing as a form of cultural power to disarm cherished notions rather than wresting them from the grip of the opposition. The patriarchal authorities, those "magistrates of the press, and Censors for the public" (original preface), merely assert what ought to be, while Evelina describes what is, that is, what appears. This opening for what appears, for further dialogue, prevents any determinant meaning. The Evelina narrated and the one who narrates, Villars, Maria, Burney, and imagination, the new guide, all symbolize the intersubjective relations that expropriate the individual.

Narrating names who she is long before her father or her husband give her an authorized, patrilineal name. But the narrative is not public, else it couldn't be written—or is public only by editorial intervention. Like Evelina's unauthorized being, her letters are unauthorized, private appeals to another, protected by an internal censorship:

I gave over the attempt of reading … and, having no voice to answer the enquiries of Lord Orville, I put the letter into his hands, and left it to speak both for me and itself. (emphasis added)

Otherwise they would be indecorous, even impertinent. Thus the narrating Evelina outgrows the already narrated innocent angel whom others wish to preserve.

Burney may purloin Evelina's letters by editing them, and we may eavesdrop. Like Willoughby, we may be claimed, drawn into the narrative conversation by overhearing her, but she does not in-tend the world to hear what she is not authorized to say. Instead, Evelina's authority is revealed as that of character in the ancient sense of ethos. It is based upon everything we as readers know about her: her represented and representing self, her shrewdness in oscillating between those two selves. Ethos emerges as a provisional identity, in between the narrator/narrated, in between author/editor Burney, between the different sendings. Burney's narrative about Evelina writing a narrative about herself is not properly named or fathered; like that of Evelina, it is "unnamed, unknown without any sort of recommendation" (original preface), an "other" message. Evelina's letter was purloined at birth, and her search is for a legitimate name, a voice that is authentically her own.

Evelina cannot authenticate her own narrative according to the patriarchal standards for authority and legitimacy. To do so would open her to dangers which patrilineal name, position, and money would otherwise circumvent. It would also open her to the censure that Mrs. Selwyn's irony receives. Jean-François Lyotard helps us say what is at stake in this narrative at a high level of generality, and hence, at a broad level of applicability. Legitimation, he observes, is the process of deciding the true and the false. Representation and its rational criterion of adequacy or accuracy is masculine—an Enlightenment ideal. In the Enlightenment culture of Burney's age, narrative knowledge lacks legitimacy and belongs to "fables, myths, legends, fit only for women and children." However, narrative knowledge lies behind, is presupposed by, such rational discourse. It reveals the significant shape of human life in that all questions of truth are situated in events that have enough coherence to be told as a narrative. The events and their connections are not veridical; rather they are events of vision, the a priori context for representational discourse.

It is no accident that women who, like Evelina, cannot control signification write letters that forestall closure and keep the conversation in good company. As Evelina's letters displace her as a constituted entity, they become communally constitutive. Each sending replaces the previous one so that ideological structures cannot censor them. Thus they mediate all conceptual boundaries—public, private, self, world. Instead of embalming the world in patriarchy's sterile discourse, the name of the father, these generative women—Evelina, Caroline Evelyn, Fanny Burney—give it birth, even beyond their own mortality.

Women's purloinable letter, like an unnamed child without a legitimating birthright, reveals there is no fixed identity at either end of the corespondence. Evelina's birthright cannot be subject to such a public or legal claim, for if it were, it would violate the rule of female propriety, damage her father's honor, and call her own legitimacy into question. She must rely, instead, on private intercession by others who speak on her behalf. Yet, what convinces Sir John Belmont that Evelina is his daughter is not Mrs. Selwyn's argument, not a legal claim, not even an appeal to pathos. It is Evelina's resemblance to her mother, a truth that destroys his narrative by substituting another—by refiguring his life. That is, her most convincing proof is neither a document nor a form of patriarchal speech that bears the silencing authority of a truth statement. She posts a likeness of her mother that lacks any of those patrilineal seals of legitimation. Caroline Evelyn's letter, read by John Belmont years after her death, is shattering: "Ten thousand daggers could not have wounded me like this letter." Evelina's legitimacy rests on a revolutionary displacement of the criterion of legitimacy inherent in patriarchal culture. It rests upon her own renunciation of the patriarchal authority that diminishes rather than augments when it insists upon power over discourse. Though she seems to sink into the conventional patrilineal family and ends her story, "I have time for no more [writing]," her lack of name and of the means by which her name is recovered opens a countercultural possibility for narrating ourselves without the authoritative subject at either end of the writing and conversing process. The representative heroine is subverted by her own act of representing.

We have seen that any notion of the female as a singular, stable entity is radically altered by Evelina's writing. In writing, the representational Evelina is exposed as a reductive concept, a product of the narrowly mediated, patriarchal code. Uncritically assuming that the individual is fully present as given, that representation is the ontological determination of woman, ensures an utterly predictable crisis for, and plot against, women. That plot, woman's silence, her repressed hysteria, hides possible self-discovery when it makes her name-able, sayable only by the linguistically mediated form available to her. As long as woman lacks a voice in the sense of sharing in the cultural figuration of who she is, she can never be an active conveyor of meaning. Indirection by means of writing without closure allows the forbidden unsayable to be said. Julia Kristeva writes: "In 'woman' I see something that cannot be represented, something that is not said, something above and beyond nomenclature and ideologies." Yet, every time "nomenclature and ideologies" fail women, they speak indirectly of woman's inexhaustibility and subvert their own representation of woman. Revealed and concealed in any concept of woman is the open possibility for an ongoing, ever incomplete and incompletable identity. That possibility lies in writing, for, more than marks upon a page, writing calls forth the generative power of name—all that woman is and can be and is not yet; all about her that has been overlooked and yet is to be said.

Source: Joanne Cutting-Gray, "Evelina: Writing between Experience and Innocence," in Woman as "Nobody" and the Novels of Fanny Burney, University Press of Florida, 1992, pp. 9-31.

Edward A. Bloom

In the following excerpt, Bloom gives an em-compassing critique of Burney's novel.

[Text Not Available]

[Text Not Available]

[Text Not Available]

[Text Not Available]

[Text Not Available]

[Text Not Available]

[Text Not Available]

Source: Edward A. Bloom, Introduction, in Evelina, Oxford University Press, 1968, pp. vii-xxxi.


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

Goldstein, Lauren, "Move Over Austen," in Time Europe, Vol. 155, No. 19, May 15, 2000.

Marr, Andrew, "Burney Peculiar," in Observer, July 9, 2000.

McCabe, Daniel, "The World according to Fanny," in McGill Report, Vol. 33, No. 3, October 5, 2000.

Further Reading

Bilger, Audry, Laughing Feminism: Subversive Comedy in Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen, Humor in Life and Letters series, Wayne State University Press, 1998.

The title of this work says it all. This is an interesting look into early women's writing about the female situation of their times.

Cutting-Gray, Joanne, Woman as "Nobody" and the Novels of Fanny Burney, University of Florida Press, 1992.

This is a study of Burney's writing through a feminist eye.

Daugherty, Tracy Edgar, Narrative Techniques in the Novels of Fanny Burney, Peter Lang Publishing, 1989.

This provides a close study of the writing techniques that Burney employed. It is a good book for anyone interested in writing.

Gill, Pat, Interpreting Ladies: Women, Wit, and Morality in the Restoration Comedy of Manners, University of Georgia Press, 1995.

Gill focuses on such early playwrights as William Congreve and Aphra Behn to explore the roles and function of female characters in eighteenth-century plays.

Volansky, Michele, and Michael Dixon, eds., Kiss and Tell: Restoration Comedy of Manners: Monologues, Scenes and Historical Context, Smith & Kraus, 1993.

This is a handbook for actors but also a synopsis of some of the best scenes from Comedy of Manners plays. It provides a good examination of some of the verbal wit used in the most popular plays of that time.