Sassy Ladies for the Win

Mrs. Selwyn is what a woman ought to be: opinionated, sarcastic, and intelligent. Our darling Evelina, who has grown to be so cultured in the six months she was away from Reverend Villars, could certainly learn from Mrs. Selwyn’s brazen attitude. In the time Evelina has spent with more refined folks, she has regressed in matters of being bold—albeit from lack of knowing the “proper” way of being—to a timid creature that can rarely speak for herself.

As volume three opens, Evelina immediately presents us with Mrs. Selwyn’s “commanding air” by giving a caustic answer to a group of obnoxious men: “You had better, therefore, make way quietly, for I should be sorry to give my servant the trouble of teaching you better manners” (265). Mrs. Selwyn’s severity is to be admired, for she stands her ground even as most women would cower away from the challenge of a group of men (precisely as Evelina does). One of Mrs. Selwyn’s best answers that showcases her biting intelligence, is in response to Lord Merton’s attempts at gaining Evelina’s favor: “In a manner which your Lordship will think very extraordinary for the young Lady reads” (267). Evelina is so focused on maintaining good appearance that she can hardly speak for herself, only allowing herself the minimal answers as to not offend the Lord in front of her.

Mrs. Selwyn is an audacious woman who knows the worth of her intelligence, moreover, knows her ability to use it in conversation. Her knowledge of what is proper gives her the foresight to address those around her properly, while still managing to make them look like imbeciles; as she does when addressing Mr. Lovel, “Mr. Lovel [. . .] if the roses should blush, how would you find it out” (353). Of course, the foppish Mr. Lovel has no adequate response to this attack: he clearly expels too much energy on looking pretty and not enough on reading. Mrs. Selwyn exemplifies this when she questions Evelina’s conversation with Lord Orville: “Pray is my Lord so kind as to assist you in preparing for your journey,–or in retarding it” (357). Evelina seems to notice a difference between the likes of Mrs. Selwyn and the Branghton girls. Not only do the Branghton girls not have a brain cell between the two of them, they are totally unaware of their lack of sophistication. Whereas Mrs. Selwyn is allowed a sort of “pass” by Evelina because Mrs. Selwyn knows her place and knows how to behave, yet ignores the rules simply because she wants to. And that, is a lesson Evelina could stand to learn instead of silencing herself into a title.

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