Evelina: Burney’s Idealized Social Hierarchies
The societal structure of eighteenth century London was grounded in rigid class hierarchies. In Burney’s novel Evelina, the title character is born as an illegitimate child without a name because her father refuses to accept her. This situates Evelina at a particularly difficult intersection of London’s social structure. Evelina has little knowledge of the extent of social conduct in London and has no name or claimed inheritance to offer as dowry. In the context of eighteenth century London, this is a poor situation for a young unmarried woman to find herself in. Yet, Burney uses Evelina’s illegitimate status to reveal both the arbitrary nature of London’s societal expectations and the hypocritical members of society who enforce but don’t adhere to them. Despite Evelina’s naivety, she is arguably established as the best suited individual to navigate the complexities of social manners and rituals. With this in mind, it is important to critically question whether Burney challenges class hierarchies, class hypocrisy, or both.
Burney unpacks eighteenth century class structures and societal behaviors in a two-fold way: she presents Evelina as unlearned but capable. Despite Evelina’s upbringing in the country before her trip to London, she possesses a self-awareness that the majority of the novel’s characters lack. Upon first arriving in London, Evelina finds herself overwhelmed by the foreign behaviors she realizes she must conform to. Often, Evelina is stuck in tricky situations with no Barron 2 knowledge of how to proceed. This is shown when she attends a dance for the first time, and must traverse expected gender dynamics that she has no experience with. At these assemblies, it was considered impolite to refuse one man and then accept the hand of another. Without this knowledge, however, Evelina understandably refuses the hand of the first man who offers to dance, Mr. Lovel, who offends her in his forwardness and over-confidence. Evelina describes, “Not long after, a young man, who had for some time looked at us with a kind of negligent impertinence, advanced on tiptoe towards me; he had a set smile on his face, and his dress was so foppish, that I really believed he even wished to be stared at; and yet he was very ugly” (Evelina 21). Here Burney demonstrates a nuance in Evelina’s characterization. Evelina has little reference for behavior to base her judgments on Mr. Lovel, and yet she recognizes the displeasing aura he has. By situating Mr. Lovel, an unattractive character with excessive behaviors, as the individual that is experienced in London manners, Burney accentuates the hypocrisy within the culture’s framework. Further, by showing Evelina’s awareness of this displeasing nature, Burney suggests that there are appropriate manners that should be recognized: being genuine, respectful, and not condescending. Evelina recognizes and follows these behaviors with no knowledge of London formalities. In addition, Evelina’s characterization as well-mannered against the backdrop of said formalities reveals their arbitrary nature.
The fact that Burney criticizes London society but commends characters like Evelina and Lord Orville’s sensibility, or their awareness of the emotions and behaviors of others, suggests a complex perspective. Burney doesn’t mean to reject societal values of respect and politeness, but rejects arbitrary customs and criticizes hypocritical individuals. Many characters within Evelina, even Mr. Lovel and Sir Clement Willoughby, could be said to adhere to London’s expectations Barron 3 of class behaviors. This suggests that Burney is criticizing London’s class hierarchies themselves. But this assumption is made complicated when we consider that Evelina and Lord Orville end up marrying in a way that follows eighteenth century behavioral expectations swimmingly. So what is the character of Burney’s criticism? Going back to characters like Mr. Lovel and Sir Willoughby, it can be recognized that they lack what Burney values more, sensibility and respect. Therefore, Burney doesn’t necessarily challenge the entirety of London class hierarchies, but the apparent fact that few actually adhere to and follow them properly. Again, Burney’s characterization of Evelina does reject aspects of London society. The criticisms Burney does reveal typically follow a feminist line of thought: Evelina wants to be able to choose who she dances with freely, and to be safe from violent harassment from lecherous men. The bottom line is that, were characters like Mr. Lovel and Willoughby actually following London’s expectations, they would not behave towards Evelina in the manner they demonstrate. Thinking again of Evelina’s near picturesque happy ending, Lord Orville’s continuously textbook chivalry, and Evelina’s judgments of other characters as unseemly orients Burney’s argument in a slightly different light. Burney argues not against societal roles as a whole, but argues for an actual adherence to respectfulness and sensibility. Burney may reject eighteenth century arbitrary formalities, especially those that threaten women’s autonomy, but as a whole she implies that rules of conduct are necessary for living a respectful life. The object of Burney’s criticism does not lie solely in London hierarchies, but in the fact that these hierarchies function without the necessary sentiments of genuine respect at their core.
The ending of Evelina reveals a well-intentioned but somewhat insidious attitude towards eighteenth century London’s society of manners. As discussed, Burney challenges expected Barron 4 societal roles when they undermine women’s authority. However, her depiction of Lord Orville, especially in regards to his behavior towards Evelina, suggests that Burney ascribes to a standard of gender relations that is not necessarily at odds with London’s social expectations. Burney’s characterization of Evelina and Orville’s relationship implies that London’s hierarchies can be traversed properly if they are traversed by worthy and proper people. In this way, Burney shows that Evelina overcomes her illegitimacy and class standing simply by adhering to these expectations of respectability and sensibility. Burney argues that Evelina, though without classification on the social hierarchy, was able to assimilate because she possessed the attitudes toward social interactions that other characters did not. Evelina secured her happy ending by behaving in the actual ideal of London manners, not the hypocritical ideal that her counterparts display. This conclusion falls short of accounting for the very real class restrictions that prohibit people from comfortably assimilating. While Evelina was able to navigate London’s hierarchies, being well-mannered is typically not enough to overcome the reality of rigid class distinctions and subsequent discrimination.
Novels of Manner: Evelina and Pamela, Compared and Contrasted
The birth of the novel occurred in in 1719, with the publication of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. This literary form quickly became the most accessible and enjoyable style; therefore, novels began being published rapidly. With nothing for comparison and no pre-issued sets of standards, early novels often had no chapters, spelling errors (the first dictionary was not published until 1755), and no set length or format. As a result, there were many experimental formats going on in the mid-to-late 1700s. One of the most popular form to arise during this period of uncertainty was the epistolary novel.
An epistolary novel is a novel that takes the form of written correspondence between the characters within a story. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, there are several advantages to this style of novel. First of all, it allows a clear view of what multiple characters are thinking and feeling because the reader is not limited to one point-of-view of focal point. It also allows the reader a more in-depth and broad look at the story itself—the reader is able to see more than one side to every event that occurs (“Epistolary Novels”). Although this particular format of the novel lost popularity in the Nineteenth Century and eventually became rare, it flourished in the Eighteenth Century and served as the preferred platform for a particularly popular genre of early novel: the novel of manners.
A novel of manners is a novel that demonstrates how a person (almost always a woman) should behave in particular social situations and in daily life. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the story is “dominated” by the social customs, and the character must learn how she should act and react in certain situations (“Novel of Manners”). This genre was very popular during the Restoration and early in the Romantic period, presumably as a result of the emergence of the rake in literature and society alike. A rake is a man with little regard for morality, especially when it comes to sexuality. The rakeish men of this time often felt that they had the right to a woman’s body, despite her arguments. In many novels of manner, the themes of seduction and rape run rampant. The ultimate goal of the heroine of these tales often is to navigate her way through society politely and with her virtue intact.
The novels Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson and Evelina; or, the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World by Frances Burney fit neatly into both of these aforementioned categories. Both novels are epistolary novels of manner, thereby they have much in common already. However, they also have differences, in part because one is written by a male and the other female, although both stories have a female protagonist. This paper will attempt to compare and contrast each story, exploring the stylistic and thematic similarities and differences. Ultimately, however, the two novels will be unified in genre and theme, despite having apparent differences.
Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded was written by Samuel Richardson and published in 1740. It was referred to in “Learning to be Female” as “conduct-of-life” literature (Kerisson 522). The story letters tell the tale of Pamela Andrews, a servant in the household of Lady Booby. After she passes away, her son, Mr. B becomes the head of the household and wastes no time pursuing Pamela. The novel consist of a funny (if infuriating) cat-and-mouse tale of Mr. B’s unrequited love for Pamela, and Pamela cleverly escaping his grasp in order to save her virtue. Mr. B is clearly a rake character, and he attempts to seduce (or rape) Pamela on several occasions. He even hides in her room to watch her undress, and later he goes in disguise as a woman to try to get close to her. On one occasion, Pamela finally believes she is returning to her parents, only to have been tricked by Mr. B and taken to another location, another of his homes. Pamela finally does escape, but then returns out of pity when Mr. B writes to her, telling her that he has fallen ill. Although Pamela is a servant and Mr. B is a member of high society (and despite the fact that he’s literally been trying to rape her for months), the two become engaged, and Pamela handles herself with such grace and refinement that nobody seems to care that she was, at one time, a servant. Mr. B’s sister Lady Davers arrives after Mr. B must leave to attend to sick relatives, and Pamela is repeatedly insulted and ultimately held captive by Lady Davers. Pamela is forced to escape out of a window, where she is helped by Mrs. Jewkes and Monsieur Colbrand. However, being the kind and virtuous person that she is, Pamela ultimately forgive Lady Davers. She also meets Miss Goodwin, a young girl at a boarding school who is thought to be Pamela’s half sister. Eventually, Pamela learns her role as a wife of nobility, and she lives a happy life among the nobility of the land, who enjoy her company. Pamela also makes sure that Miss Goodwin is well-taken care of. Pamela was generally well-received and was what we in the modern day might call a “best seller”. According to Margret Ann Doody, “everybody read it; there was a ‘Pamela’ rage, and Pamela motifs appeared on teacups and fans” (“Introduction to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela”). However, Pamela also had critics that were not so friendly. Some people (of the higher class) were outraged by a rags-to-riches tale and were equally offended by how their people were portrayed in the story. In response to this critique, Richardson made some changes in hopes to pacify the critics.
It was not only the upper-class that took issue with Pamela, but some of Richardson’s contemporaries did as well. Most notably, Henry Fielding wrote the novella An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews, often simply called Shamela as a direct attack and satire of Richardson’s popular novel. According to “Henry Fielding Shamela Introduction”, the purpose of the parody was to “expose the hypocrisy of contemporary mores” and satirized not only the story itself, but also the political and clerical leaders of the era (LeBlanc). The introduction goes on to explain how, while Pamela uses virtue and is ultimately rewarded, Shamela behaves poorly in order to receive what she wants. Another parody was published by Eliza Haywood in 1741. Her work, entitled The Anti-Pamela; or Feigned Innocence, followed a seemingly innocent young woman named Pamela who used her cunning wit to get whatever she wished from her dim-witted master. However, despite these parodies and earlier criticisms, Pamela enjoyed enormous success.
Evelina; Or, the History of a Young Girl’s Entrance into the World was written by Frances Burney and was published in 1778. Also written in epistolary form, this novel centers around Evelina Annville, a young woman being brought up by Reverend Villars after the death of her mother and her father’s rejection. Evelina is sent to live with Lady Howard and her family in Howard Grove. Evelina then travels to London with the family, where she is introduced into London high society. Evelina’s faux paus serve as a teaching tool for the readers. Evelina attends balls and plays, meets men (some more savory than others) and must learn how to fit in with this unfamiliar society. Evelina meets her grandmother, who concocts a plan to get Evelina’s father to claim her so that she will receive her inheritance. Evelina moves to London with her grandmother and her grandmother’s nephew and his children, who often embarrass Evelina. There, she meets Mr. Macartney, a Scotsman that often seems melancholy. When she sees him about to commit suicide, Evelina heroically saves him. She later finds out that Macartney is her brother. Her father finally claims her, and Evelina receives the money due to her. She also marries Lord Orville, one of the only men with whom Evelina holds a favorable opinion throughout the novel.
Unlike Samuel Richardson, Burney did not face as much criticism for Evelina. Although is was originally published anonymously, she was ousted by one of her contemporaries in a poem that she called “vile”. The dedication of the book itself reads: “The extensive plan of your critical observations, which, not confined to works of utility or ingenuity, ‘is equally open to those of frivolous amusement, -and, yet worse than frivolous, dullness,-encourages me to seek for your protection, since, perhaps for my sins!-it intitles me to your annotations. To re-sent, therefore, this offering, however insignificant, would ill become the universality of your undertaking; though not to despise it may, alas! be out of your power.” In “How to Read Like a Gentlemen” by Gina Campbell, Campbell argues that the introduction is important because Burney realizes that she needs “a benign or at least impartial reception and recognizes that it won’t be granted as a matter of course” (Campbell 557).
Both of these stories, although unalike in plot, have many similarities. Even before delving into the text itself, there are many similarities in Pamela and Evelina. The most apparent comparison is in the format of the text. As was mentioned earlier, both novels are epistolary novels, so each of the tales are told through letters from various characters. Continuing with non-textual similarities, both works were published in the eighteenth century. Pamela and Evelina were well-received (mostly) and widely read. In addition to these surface issues, there are also some apparent thematic similarities. Both of these works can be described as “domestic” fiction, focusing on women in the many trials of courtship, seduction, and love (Ozarska 72). Both tales are coming-of-age and courtship tales that follow a young lady’s adventures into society and eventually marriage. It is also interesting to note that both heroines are unsure who their parents are—Pamela doesn’t know who her mother or father are, and Evelina knows her mother is dead but in unsure who her father is for much of the story. Another family issue present in both of the tales is discovering a sibling. Both Evelina and Pamela meet individuals who later turn out to be their siblings. In addition, both stories have subplots including possible (although not always legitimate) scares of incest.
By the same token, both novels have the same ultimate goal: to teach young women how to behave in society. Although the two novels go about doing this in different ways, the outcome in ultimately the same: you will be rewarded with a comfortable life and a good(?) husband if you act virtuously. In each story, the women are “treading between social classes not sure what their circumstances will amount to” (Anpak). This is to say that neither woman is particularly high-born, although they are (by different circumstances) introduced to high society.
Of course, the novels also have many differences. Stylistically, although they are both primarily epistolary novels, Pamela also contains journal entries, while Evelina does not. This may give Pamela herself more characterization, while we must learn about Evelina from other characters. Another main non-textual difference is that while Evelina was written by a woman, Pamela was written by a man. Although the Introduction does tell us that Richardson “drew profusely on the English popular fiction of his lifetime” in order to characterize Pamela believably, there is some doubt that a man ever could truly capture the thoughts and motivations of a woman and vice versa (Doody). Evelina is also considered to be an early indication of Romanticism, while Pamela is largely considered just a sentimental work.
Despite the fact that maintaining virtue is a huge theme in both novels, the two heroines keep their virtue in different ways. According to “The Appeal of Beauty in Distress as Seen in Fanny Burney’s Evelina and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Some Typological and Intertextual Issues”, Pamela’s virtue is “that of passive and negative resistance” while Evelina demonstrates “virtue in action”. This means that while Pamela demonstrates her virtue mainly by fending off unwanted attention and suitors, Evelina actively has to make virtuous decisions while treading this new society. While Pamela is viewed as always doing the right thing, Evelina actually makes mistakes, lies, and even goes after Lord Orville against her guardian’s wishes (Tucker 430). As a result, Evelina is, in many opinions, the more interesting of the two. The novel also adds some humor to an otherwise sentimental novel. By allowing the reader to actually see Evelina make social blunders and other mistakes, they are learning about social blunders and how to avoid them, while reading an amusing tale of a woman fumbling through the unfamiliar territory. It could be argued that while Pamela represents true virtue (always doing the right thing), Evelina represents trial and error– making mistakes, learning from them, and maintaining her dignity, although she does have to apologize occasionally for her social blunders.
Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded and Evelina; or, the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World are both eighteenth-century novels, written in similar styles and containing similar themes, though there are some differences in the characterizations of Pamela and Evelina, as well as many differences in plot. Although the protagonists of the stories go about navigating high society in different ways, both stories serve as guidebooks for young women entering into high society and beginning to navigate courtship and love.
Despite the differences in themes and plot, the goal is ultimately the same for each novel, and both stories end with the heroines receiving the same reward: marriage to a man outside of her social status. In a time when being a woman could literally be dangerous and often was, it is no wonder that stories of women resisting lustful men, moving up the societal ladder, and learning how to earn oneself a worthy husband were popular. Evelina and Pamela both struggle with difficult men and society, overcome these obstacles with grace, and eventually marry a man, moving them to a higher social status, which undoubtedly was one of the best things a woman could do for herself in this period, and certainly pleased her family as well. These novels, although no longer necessary for women in society, withstand the test of time because of the relatable characters and situations that women continue to identify with, some two hundred years later.
Anpak, Kristy. “Pamela vs Evelina: Dramatic Serenity vs At Lost Country Girl.” BritLit. Baylor University, 2013.
Burney, Frances. Evelina; Or, the History of a Young Woman’s Entrance into the World. Seven Treasures Publications, 2008.
Campbell, Gina. “How to Read Like a Gentlemen: Burney’s Instructions to her Critics in Evelina.” ELH, vol. 57, no. 3, 1990, pp. 557-83.
Doody, Margret Ann. “Introduction to Samuel Jackson’s Pamela.” Viking Press, 1995.
“Epistolary Novel.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2007.
Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Norton & Co, 2012. “Henry Fielding Shamela – Introduction” Literary Criticism (1400-1800) Ed. Michael L. LaBlanc. Vol. 82. Gale Cengage, 2003.
Kerrison, Catherine. “The Novel as Teacher: Learning to Be Female in the Early American South.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 69, no. 3, 2003, pp. 513–548.
“Novel of Manners.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2007.
Richardson, Samuel. Pamela; Or, Virtue Rewarded. Penguin Group, 1985.
Tucker, Irene. “Writing Home: Evelina, the Epistolary Novel and the Paradox of Property.” ELH, vol. 60, no. 2, 1993, pp. 419–439.
The Filial Relationship and Evelina
Franny Burney’s Evelina concerns itself with many issues, and it seems most scholars look to focus on its elements of feminism and societal criticism. However, the issues surrounding familial relationships and bloodlines are apparent throughout the entirety of the novel. Additionally, the novel’s epistolary form creates certain restrictions for the complexity of familial issues and relationships. In the beginning of the novel, we learn that Evelina is essentially an orphan, and that the closest thing she has to a parent is Mr. Villars. It becomes clear that Mr. Villars acts as a great father figure to Evelina through her many trials and tribulations. He is always level headed, and his fondness of the young girl seems obvious. We also begin to find out that Evelina’s biological family situation is particularly messy. Her mother died during childbirth, her father, Sir John Belmont, would not accept her as his legitimate child, and her English grandmother is living somewhere in France with her lover, pretending to be French. Fortunately for Evelina, this only becomes an issue once she enters into high society and questions of her lineage are brought into the light. On top of this, her grandmother coincidentally enters the picture and becomes an additional layer to her already complicated story.
Once Evelina enters society, she is quickly bombarded with men yearning to be with her. Again, due to her ridiculously good luck, Evelina is able to weed out all of the rakes and finds a good man to marry, Lord Orville. It’s after their minor issues are resolved that she meets her biological father. “’Oh, Sir,’ exclaimed I, ‘that you could but read my heart!-that you could but see the filial tenderness and concern with which it overflows!’” (Burney, 426). It turns out that the only reason he did not accept her as his daughter was because he was told that a peasant child was his real daughter, and he had raised that girl in Evelina’s place. Suddenly, Sir Belmont accepts Evelina as his legitimate daughter and all is well. But why is it that they are able to build a filial relationship despite not actually knowing each other in any capacity? It seems that Franny Burney’s understanding of filial relationships is a positive one, and from what is known about her family, that would make sense. But she also seems to suggest some kind of underlying emotional attachments between family members even if they don’t know they’re related. For example, Evelina is drawn to the Branghton’s renter, Mr. Macartney, and even saves him from his apparent suicide attempt. We could chalk it up to Evelina’s kind nature, but it seems to be much more than that. She becomes enthralled in his story, which eventually leads to her finding her birth father and confronting him with the truth of their relationship. Scholar Ruth Perry has coined it the cri du sang, or a kind of “instantaneous attraction and instinctive sympathy experienced by apparent strangers when they met”. As Perry puts it, “Even when separated at birth, parents and children, brothers and sisters always knew when they came into one another’s presence that there was a mysterious bond between them, a primal and palpable link that caused them to be interested in one another’s welfare even though they had never met before.” (Perry, 98). Burney makes this bond clear in Evelina’s relationship with Macartney, and later with Belmont as well.
Evelina did not live without a father, but rather, she lived without a name for much of her life. Mr. Villars gives her sound advice throughout the novel, and due to its epistolary form, we are able to read his very words and see his obvious love for the young girl. She never has to worry about where she will get parental guidance, because Mr. Villars will always level-headedly tell her how he believes she should act in these new surroundings. The only reason that her parentage becomes an issue is because she is ready to be married off, but with her amazingly good looks, it would be a shame for her to marry just anyone. She is aware that she is technically from somewhat noble birth, and that gives her the confidence to enter the circles of high society in London to search for a husband. Thankfully for her, Evelina was raised impeccably well and chooses the right man to pursue. Lord Orville is of very high nobility, and is also a complete gentleman, making Evelina’s namelessness a major issue in their success as a couple. It is because of this that Evelina must seek out a way to appear worthy of marriage to Lord Orville. Though Evelina has no evidence of her relation to Sir Belmont, she looks almost identical to his deceased wife, Caroline, Evelina’s mother. “I have too strong a resemblance to my dear, though unknown, mother, to allow of the least hesitation in my being owned, when once I am seen.” (Burney, 351). Evelina has to rely on the mysterious bond that she hopes she will share with her biological father in order to be accepted by him and be able to take his name. When he first sees her, he is wildly overcome with emotion and believes he is seeing his dead wife. This only allows him to feel a deep emotional connection to the woman that he loved and lost, but it is too much at first for him to accept Evelina as his daughter. Once again, Villars is able to write to Evelina and insure her that the situation will be resolved.
Additionally, Mrs. Selwyn acts as a kind of mother-figure in Evelina’s life, and helps to clear up the confusion surrounding her birth and Sir Belmont’s connection to her. Once this has all been cleared, Belmont accepts Evelina and apologizes for his previous actions toward both her and her mother Caroline. Burney’s novel’s epistolary form certainly has its limitations, but it also allows us to delve deeper into the relationships between certain characters. In particular, though he is not really a biological member of her family, Mr. Villars is really Evelina’s father. In the same way that he raised her mother, he raised Evelina, and the strength of their filial relationship is paramount to Evelina’s success. He cannot give her a noble name or a proper dowry, but he gives her the love and support that is essential from any father. This fictional collection of their correspondence allows us to see the differences between adoptive and biological familial relationships. For Evelina, she wants nothing more than to be owned and accepted into her real biological family, but when it comes to meeting her biological grandmother and cousins, the Branghtons, she realizes how much more important good character is in comparison to social class, money, and ancestry. This is also extremely obvious in her attraction to Lord Orville, his nobility just becomes an added bonus to his ability to care for Evelina and be a gentleman.
Overall, Franny Burney certainly has something important to say about familial relationships, in particular the relationship between fathers and daughters during the time that a daughter leaves home to be married. Burney makes clear that she believes in a kind of emotional connection between biological members of a family, despite separation. Evelina also serves as evidence of the importance of moral character beyond bloodlines. Evelina doesn’t necessarily come out on top because she is technically of noble birth, but instead because she is kind and sensible. She is not able to succeed in marrying because of her biological parentage, but instead because of the unfailing counsel she receives from her adoptive father. Largely, this novel serves as an examination of complex familial relationships and the impact that names and parents had on young women in times like the 1700’s.
Burney, Fanny, and Margaret Anne Doody. Evelina, or, the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World. Penguin Books, 1994. Perry, Ruth. Novel Relations: The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture, 1748-1818. Cambridge University Press, 2004.