by Yolanda McQuinn
Social behavior often mirrors a person’s knowledge of societal expectations for men and women. The novel Evelina, by Frances Burney, takes the reader through the journey of a young lady, Evelina, who is freshly introduced to society. As a child of a dubious birth, Evelina resembles a blank canvas ready to be filled with knowledge, but her lack of understanding of the social norms expected of her sex hampers her progression on the path to becoming a polished young lady.
Burney presents the reader with several motifs for the expectations of both sexes—expectations of manners, taste, belonging, and sociability. Of the expectations mentioned, the expectation of belonging has the strongest influence on Evelina. Evelina admires and grows to loves the rich and graceful Lord Orville, and as a result she transforms her mannerisms to reflect his. This transfer of mannerisms works to Evelina’s benefit because as she learns from Lord Orville’s example she enhances her own reputation in society.
Evelina’s interest in Lord Orville begins when they first meet at an assembly during which Evelina declines the advances of a foppish suitor in favor of an invitation from Lord Orville, whom she sees as a more admirable gentleman. As the fop approaches Evelina a second time, she is unable to stop herself from laughing at the sight of him. Here, Evelina’s inability to control her laughter shows her ignorance of unacceptable social behavior in the assembly. Evelina states, “I interrupted him—I blush for my folly,—with laughing; yet I could not help it” (36). This form of behavior was considered inappropriate for a young lady attending an assembly, and Evelina, naive to the customs of an assembly, is forced into an awkward situation. Evelina tells the reader, “a confused idea now for the first time entered my head, of something I had heard of the rules of an assembly, but I was never at one before,—I have only danced at school,—and so giddy and heedless I was, that I had not once considered the impropriety of refusing one partner, and afterwards accepting another” (36). In her short discourse, Evelina scolds herself for her lacking knowledge and looking foolish to others. However, in this case, Evelina’s blunder acts as the catalyst that will later aid her transformation from caterpillar to butterfly in the eyes of society. The criticism Evelina receives, especially from Mr. Lovel, who complains about her “ill-breeding” (39), prompts Lord Orville to rescue her from Mr. Lovel’s attacks. Lord Orville rebukes Mr. Lovel by proclaiming, “that elegant face can never be so vile a mask!” (39). Although Evelina anticipates that her social gaffe will separate her from Lord Orville, her naiveté actually works in her favor because it evokes emotion from Lord Orville, provoking him to protect her and become her champion.
The expectations for women in Burney’s eighteenth-century England are higher than the expectations for men, and this double standard makes women susceptible to vulnerable attacks. Burney illustrates this vulnerability to the reader through another misfortunate occasion caused by Evelina’s lack of experience. During an outing to a garden with her cousins, the Branghtons, Evelina becomes separated from her party after the fireworks explosion scatters the members of the group in various directions. Evelina finds herself alone and narrates the following event:
At last, a young officer, marching fiercely up to me, said, “You are a sweet pretty creature, and I enlist you in my service;” and then, with great violence, he seized my hand. I screamed aloud with fear, and forcibly snatching it away, I ran hastily up to two ladies, and cried, “For Heaven’s sake, dear ladies, afford me some protection!” (260)
Initially, Evelina is unaware that she in a dangerous area. Having been separated from her party and now alone in the company of strangers, this frightening scene forces the reader to have compassion for Evelina, who does not know how to identify and react to such danger. When Evelina sees the two women, she seeks protection from them because she finds comfort in the company of women as opposed to a strange man. However, in this company she is faced with further turmoil; as she says, “they asked me a thousand questions, accompanied by as many hallows, of who I was, what I was, and whence I came” (261). Evelina learns at this moment that she cannot let her guard down even in the company of women.
Evelina is not in the company of the two women for long before she sees the familiar face of Lord Orville. One woman says, “So that gentleman belongs to you, Miss, does he?” and Evelina responds, “Yes, Madam […] I now thank you for your civility; but, as I am safe, will not give you any further trouble” (262). Once again Burney portrays Lord Orville as Evelina’s hero as he sweeps in to rescue her from an uncomfortable situation. Because Lord Orville has actively defended Evelina already, his presence alone causes her to feel safe and her affection for him continues to grow. Evelina describes the moment, saying,
I then looked up. He bowed. Good God, with what expressive eyes did he regard me! Never were surprise and concern so strongly marked,—yes, my dear Sir, he looked greatly concerned; and that, the remembrance of that, is the only consolation I feel, for an evening the most painful of my life. (263)
Evelina worries that Lord Orville, seeing her in the company of these women, will look down upon her. To Evelina’s surprise, Lord Orville expresses his true concern for her well-being along with the rest of her party. Evelina says, “With a politeness to which I have been some time very little used, he apologized for returning, and then enquired after the health of Mrs. Mirvan, and the rest of the Howard Grove family” (263). Lord Orville’s impeccable manners consistently delight Evelina. The sense of belonging that Evelina receives from Lord Orville results in her falling in love with him and later becoming his wife.
In Evelina, Burney crafted a sentimental novel that, besides simply evoking the emotions of the reader, acted as survival guide for young women in the eighteenth century. Women under similar circumstances could identify with Evelina, who finds her place in society despite her lack of breeding. Evelina shows women readers that with the proper influence and good company an individual can achieve a promising life. Although Evelina worries about her various social faux pas, fearing they will prevent Lord Orville from loving her, it is these mistakes that draw his attention to her and her naiveté that wins his heart. Despite the fact that Evelina’s blunders show how she misunderstands eighteenth-century expectations of women, her appreciation of Lord Orville’s social grace and willingness to learn from him lead her to find a sense of belonging in society.
Burney, Frances. Evelina.. Ed. by Margaret Anne Doody.
New York: Penguin Books, 1990.