Lucinda Elliot

Fanny Burney’s ‘Evelina’ as an eighteeenth century ideal young woman…


I’ve been reading ‘Evelina’ the first book by Fanny Burney (What a name, eh? It’s obscene in the UK, but I think only means ‘bum’ in the US and Australia) these last couple of weeks when I’m not wondering how to squander the millions I make in royalties, pleading with people not to read my books, etc, etc.

I’m reading this book mainly for the social background, as I think you can get some of the feel for a period through its fiction. They will reflect the mindset of the age, though obviously, as today, many will be escapist happy-ever-after stuff and you ‘ll learn as much from what they do not mention as the things that they do.

Well, you get some understanding of the mindset and social mores of the middle and upper classes, that is. For the others, you have to read between the lines as they only appear as housemaids, boys delivering the milk or driving conveyances and so on; sometimes as robbers and rioters…

Of course, most of the population would have been illiterate back in the eighteenth century, and considered unworthy of mention besides, with their history unwritten, or as asides: ‘We went to relieve a family who had suffered great misfortune in the village’ etc.

I always ask myself of heroines of the eighteenth century – Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa are prime examples – how did women live with themselves in that period, obliged to deny so many of their most basic feelings, anger, the desire for independence, sexual feelings, and seen as permanent minors as they were?

Was it a case of ‘false consciousness’ and ‘denial’? Did they spend a great deal of time praying and agonising about falling so far beneath the idealized image of womanhood, beset by wicked thoughts as they must have believed themselves to be?

We can dismiss Pamela and Clarissa as a man’s ideal version of womanhood – but what do we make of Fanny Burney’s Evelina?

By modern standards she is not only innocent, but repressed and lacking in any understanding of her own motivation; but you may be sure her worthy guardian has made sure she never read a novel, so her naive and unconscious surrender to romantic love from her first meeting with the hero is fully understandable.

Evelina has been rejected before her birth by her wicked rake of a real father, who cast off her mother, whose tragic fate serves as a sort of dread example and subtext throughout the novel.

She has been brought up by her goody-goody Vicar guardian. This man seems as devoid of humour as he is of vice (that sounds like a phrase from Ms Burney – I wonder if I’m alone in always picking up a bit of an author’s style).

Fanny Burney’s attitude towards woman in a male dominated society was, of course, far more sophisticated than that of the priggish Richardson with his complacent avocation of puritanical, self-serving morality. The structure of the novel, written in the epistolary style like this predecessor, follows on from Richardson, but but like the later Austen, she shows a good deal of sophistication with regard to shades of meaning and the fine shades of distinction between ‘good’ and ‘evil’,  between the necessary conflicts and compromises in reconciling the demands of society on women with their individual notions of integrity.

Her heroine is naturally lively and wants fun; she knows she shouldn’t; she should be happy living in retirement with her guardian and only considering worthy applicants of irreproachable morals and equal status for her hand – but she’s depicted as falling guilelessly in love the handsome, charming and gallant Lord Orville, who would be her social superior by far even if her legitimacy isn’t disputed.

In a novel which – intentionally or unintentionally – depicts a series of patriarchs, Lord Orville is one of the most liberal and respectful of the breed and his intentions towards Evelina are always honourable.

By contrast, his friend, Sir Clement Willoughby (one wonders if Jane Austen’s own scoundrel Willoughby in ‘Sense and Sensbility’ was named after him), whilst full of compliments and romantic declarations and while acting as if besotted by the heroine and as her willing slave, in fact seems to have dubious intentions and his lack of true gallantry is shown by his joining with the malicious and ungallant Captain Mirvan in tormenting and insulting Evelina’s foolish and excitable grandmother.

It is a weakness in the novel that Lord Orville is depicted a good deal less clearly than the rascally Sir Clement – and his charm and wit is a far less obvious. Sir Clement Willoughby may be a villlain, but he comes across as fully warm and human – the hero does not.

One assumes that Madame Duval is intended by the author as an example of the sort of older woman not to become. Though she has acquired no dignity, she seems to have a younger lover instead, a Frenchman who has accompanied her to the UK, and at one point Evelina is astounded to surprise him in her grandmother’s bedchamber.

A wish to dance and have fun in late middle age, to try and appear younger through the use of false hair and cosmetics and to enjoy the attentions of younger men makes her an object of savage ridicule from men particularly throughout the book.

An anonymous critical essay on the ‘ENotes’ website on Fanny Burney sums up some of the conflicting themes and tensions in the novel concisely:-

‘Burney portrays the difficult position contemporary women were in—showing young women aggressively pursued as sexual objects and society’s rejection of unmarried older women. Evelina matures through the course of the novel from the isolated innocent safely under Mr. Villars’s care to a more experienced woman who wisely keeps her own counsel and cultivates a sense of honor. She also spends a good portion of the novel in search of her own identity, which can only be realized by gaining legitimacy through her father’s name. Defying social convention, Orville intends to marry Evelina with or without her father’s recognition of her and despite her lack of fortune. Once she is acknowledged as her father’s heir and takes his name, she gives it up and takes Lord Orville’s…’

We may be sure that once safely married to Lord Orville, Evelina gives up most of her spirited commentary, just as in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ Elizabeth Bennet, safely engaged to Mr Darcy, tactfully forgets how he once described her as ‘Tolerable – but not handsome enough to tempt me’ and is shown defending him tearfully from Mr Bennet’s criticism without so much as a trace of her former humour: – ‘He is perfectly amiable…Pray do not pain me by abusing him’…

2 Responses

  1. Interesting post, Lucinda. I’m not particularly well-read so far as eighteenth/early nineteenth century literature goes, with the exception of Austen. It’s not my favourite literary era; I couldn’t even make it through “Fanny Hill”. If not even C18 erotica can keep me reading…

    The position of women in historical literature is always an interesting topic. Sadly, it’s often accompanied by a great deal of self-satisfied chatter about how much more enlightened we are today. That may be so in some respects, but I think women are under just as much pressure, albeit of a different variety, these days…

  2. I so agree, Mari! I tend to think that women’s position has deteriorated since My Young Days, lol, the nineteen eighties, say. A very ugly objectification seems to have arisen among other things.
    I actually intended to put in a paragraph about the gap between official ideology and reality, for instance, regarding the ‘brittle’ nature of women’s ‘virtue’ in the eighteenth century which would have made the complexity of the situation a bit more obvious…forgot!

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