“Daily Life and Immediate Perspectives”

In “The novel and social/cultural history” (Chapter 2 of The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth-Century Novel), J. Paul Hunter discusses what he terms “the New Cultural History” of the eighteenth century. Hunter explains that approaches to studying the eighteenth century have changed dramatically in the last fifty years. This “new, more integrated ‘cultural’ history considers all kinds of documents, texts, and material artifacts” from that period, and gives “more attention to daily life and immediate perspectives and less emphasis on patterns that emerge retrospectively” (Hunter 14). This broadened perspective of life in the eighteenth century is particularly useful when reading novels from that period. As Hunter notes, life in the eighteenth century was a radically unstable thing, with “change – often rapid change – as the one constant” it possessed (Hunter 18). As such, it is necessary to know “what particular decades, or years, or days were like” if we want to truly understand the context in which these novels were written and disseminated.

Interestingly, the focus of the New Cultural History on “daily life and immediate perspectives” parallels a shift in literary tradition that is often associated with the rise of the novel (Hunter 14). While more traditional literature “promised universal solutions because human nature was constant across culture and times”, eighteenth-century novels depicted “a present-day individual in a recognizable social and cultural context” and then “offered varied, circumstantial, and individual outcomes” (Hunter 9-10). This shift from the universal to the individual as literary subject matter mirrors the current shift from the public to the private as historical subject matter.

Hunter asserts that the New Cultural History is “more conscious of the domestic, the material, the everyday, and the interconnected, and more ready to study ordinary people who seem powerless and neglected” (Hunter 17). The same can be said of novels we have studied in this course. Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko tells the story of a slave, illustrating in acute detail his personal experiences and simultaneously offering a unique insight into perceptions of the slave trade in the late seventeenth-century. Daniel Defoe’s Roxana tells the story of one woman’s experience with the problematic marriage laws of the time, and there is a significant focus on material objects (money, clothes) within the text. Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey depicts an individualized journey through Europe. Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is acutely “conscious of the domestic” and the narratives that can take place within a single home. All of the novels we have read focus on individual characters whose circumstances and experiences give us as readers a glimpse into the everyday life of their time.

One issue mentioned by Hunter that I found particularly interesting was his discussion of the significance of the city of London in eighteenth-century culture. He notes that “one reason that the social norms of novels had such cultural power in the eighteenth century was that they usually reflected the values of ‘modern’ London life” (Hunter 23). This point immediately made me think of Evelina, and how London seems to represent the high society to which Evelina rightfully belongs, as opposed to the lower status associated with her life in the country. According to Hunter, “Older Britons tended to hate [London’s] trendiness and distrust its fickleness and shifting standards; younger ones looked to it hopefully for their own futures…” (Hunter 24). Reverend Villars’ attitude toward London and his uneasiness about Evelina’s travelling there aligns him with those “Older Britons”, and Evelina’s youthful hopefulness for her future mirrors the appeal felt by the “younger ones”.

Hunter, J. Paul. “The novel and social/cultural history.” The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth-Century Novel. Ed. John J. Richetti. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. p. 9-39. Print.

Social Norms in Evelina

Through various characters in Evelina, Frances Burney demonstrates the preoccupation with reputation and propriety that is often associated with England in the eighteenth century. This theme is made evident in the first exchange of letters between Lady Howard and Mr. Villars. In her account of Madame Duval’s letter, Lady Howard acknowledges Madame Duval’s concerns for her own reputation: “she is totally at a loss in what manner to behave; she seems desirous to repair the wrongs she had done, yet wishes the world to believe her blameless” (Burney 11). Lady Howard goes on to condemn Madame Duval’s faux pas of writing to her at all: “it is evident, from her writing, that she is still as vulgar and illiterate as when her first husband, Mr. Evelyn, had the weakness to marry her; nor does she at all apologize for addressing herself to me, though I was only once in her company” (Burney 12). Lady Howard’s disdain for Madame Duval is obvious, and it seems that Duval’s failure to uphold social mores plays a key role in Howard’s categorization of her as an “unworthy woman” (Burney 12). Meanwhile, the mutually apologetic and gracious tones employed by both Lady Howard and Mr. Villars present these two as being very much aware of (if not obsessed with) social norms, and an urgent desire not to offend one another at any cost.

While this emphasis on manners is attributed to multiple characters, it is arguably the most significant trait of the protagonist, Evelina. She is constantly worried about offending others or embarrassing herself by going against social norms that she is unfamiliar with. She uses the word “shame” or “ashamed” numerous times when describing these anxieties: when asking Mr. Villars for permission to go to London (“I am half ashamed of myself for beginning this letter” [Burney 25]), when she can’t afford to buy anything from the mercers in the shop (“they took so much trouble, that I was almost ashamed that I could not” [Burney 30]), her anxiety during her first meeting with Lord Orville (“I was seized with a panic, that I could hardly speak a word, and nothing but the shame of so soon changing my mind, prevented me returning to my seat” [Burney 32]). Evelina describes her own self-consciousness as being a result of her upbringing as a “simple rustic… one whose ignorance of the world makes her perpetually fear doing something wrong!” (Burney 33). Of course, this ignorance is the impetus for the entire plot of the novel. As Burney explicitly states in her preface to the novel:

To draw characters from nature, though not from life, and to mark the manners of the times, is the attempted plan of the following letters. For this purpose, a young female, educated in the most secluded retirement, makes, at the age of seventeen, her first appearance upon the great and busy stage of life; with a virtuous mind, a cultivated understanding, and a feeling heart, her ignorance of the forms, and inexperience of the manners, of the world, occasion all the little incidents which these volumes record, and which form the natural progression of the life of a young woman of obscure birth, but conspicuous beauty, for the first six months after her Entrance into the world. (Burney 7-8)

By having a protagonist who is very much unaware of many of the social customs that governed British society in the eighteenth century, Burney has the freedom to comment on established conventions in a way that calls attention to them without actively condemning them. I’m curious to see how this plays out in the novel (at the moment I’m still reading Volume I), and how much Evelina assimilates into life according to these rules (if at all).


Works Cited

Burney, Frances. Evelina. New York: Penguin, 2004. Print.