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.


Burney’s Style

Author of Evelina, Frances Burney’s style when writing her text is unique. While she strongly encourages creativity, she still sticks to the conventions of the day which draw on Fielding’s notion of capturing the human experience, and the “manners of the time.” These manners are particular to specific times and places for individuals. Burney strongly believes in creativity that those individuals who are strongly sparked by reason, according to Margaret Anne Doody, fail to progress within the novel and are stunted. These conventions used by Burney were part of the conservations of eighteenth century London. These conventions were defined by their realistic characteristics. In capture emotions that were common to people of the day, and the actual places where many people who lived in London traveled (examples England, France, and other locations). The true nature of Burney’s quality in style was to find value in the simple. For example, she writes, as stated in the Preface, “The heroine of the memoirs, young, artless, and inexperienced is no faultless Monster that the world ne’er saw but the offspring of Nature, and of Nature in her simplistic attire” (8). Thus, the value of the main character is her simplicity, from which many readers could relate. With this desire to capture the human experience is to depict, individuals in realistic terms, or rather the average individual. The story is told using letters, as if it is the own personal exchanges between characters. Most of our perceptions are based upon which character has written a letter.
According to Doody, creativity is important, and it is so important that rational characters, such as “Villars, Orville, Macartney and Evelina are handicapped in making progress in the world” (xv). This novel is no different from other novels of the time, which sought to discuss the average life of the citizens of the time. Doody states, “Like Fielding, Burney offers us general truth, Human Nature, and she too emphasized her role as a current historian, recording contemporary behaviour (xvi). Leonard Davis, questions this notion of capturing “Human Behaviour” which Burney attempts. His criticism is based on the idea that human experience is only applicable for individuals in particular time and places, for example what may be characteristic for eighteenth century London, may not apply to different centuries even in the same location. The situation that may be questionable within Burney’s text, is based on as Doody notes, her depiction mostly of upper class society, who as Doody states, “whose register of Manners was above that of the circle she usually frequented, as well as with a number of personages whose behavior was much rougher than that of middle-class world” (xvi). Even in the Preface, we see a statement made about the “manners” of the majority of the citizens of the time. For example, Burney states, “To draw characters from nature, though not from life, and to mark the manners of the times, is that attempted plan of the following letters “(7). The style of the writing is interesting. The author in the Preface states, “entertain the gentle expectations of being transported to the farthest region of Romance, where Fiction is coloured by all the …tints of luxurious Imagination, where Reason is outcast, and where the sublimity of the Marvelous, rejects all aid from sober Probability (8).”
The human experience is captured by drawing on the emotions in which every parent or guardian has for the upbringing of their children. For example, the story starts with the letters of Lady Howard and Mr. Villars about the orphaned infant, whose mother is now passed. This story has realistic characteristics in that all families are concerned with the rightful upbringing of their children and Mr. Villars is no exception, be he feels that Mrs. Evelyn’s character would not be a good fit for the young daughter (14). In the story, “manners” and a proper upbringing are the values that are important within the novel (14). The heroine is a child of the wealthy “Baronet” (19). The young child has a nurse. Like Fielding and others Burney rejects the romanticism and seeks to promote simplicity and innocence. For example in one letter between Lady Howard and Mr. Villars the writer states, “Her character seems truly in generous and simple; and of the same time the nature has blessed her with an excellent understanding…she has a certain air of inexperience and innocency that is extremely interesting” (22). M. Howard further states, “You have no reason to regret the retirement in which she has lived; since that politeness which is acquired by an acquaintance with high life, is in her so well supplied by a natural desire of obliging, joined to a deportment infinitely engaging” (22). Therefore, to aspire to values and characteristics of high society is important to the proper upbringing of children. This is seen to be the human experience, in that many parents and guardians can relate to these concerns in the desire to guarantee the future of their children.
Also, there is realism in that places within the novel are actual places (England, France, etc.).
While Burney promises to fill in the gap where “Richardson, Rousseau, Fielding, and Smollet have left uncovered, (she writes, “though they may have cleared the weeds, they have also called flowers, and though they have rendered the path plain, they have left it barren” (9). She still falls into the traps of their conventions, as seen in this attempt to capture the realistic aspects of society at the time.