Male Sensibility in Frances Burney’s “Evelina” Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Apr 20th, 2021


Frances Burney is undoubtedly one of the most celebrated women writers of the 18th century. Burney, who was born in 1752 and died in 1840, wrote several novels, which highlighted women’s role in a male-dominated world. Burney herself was a victim of the male domination that characterized life in the 18th century. When she wrote her celebrated novel titled Evelina, she had to publish it anonymously since she was afraid that the book would not meet her father’s expectations.

Indeed, this male domination led men to act in insensible ways. Immediately after the publication of Evelina, Fanny Burney tried her hand in playwriting, but her father would not let her realize her dream. Several years after the novel was published, Burney wrote The Witlings, which provided humorous representations of enlightened women in the society. Although the Drury Lane Theatre accepted the play, Burney’s father prevailed against the actor-manager not to screen the play since he considered it improper for a woman to write plays for the theater. Her father’s insensible act should not have come as a surprise for Burney since she had “encountered” the same male dominance through the characters in Evelina. (Thompson 70)

Book Overview

In essence, Evelina is written on the borders of most other 18th century novels, which took the form of a letter. The book is formed based on epistles written between the characters, with most of them being written by Evelina, the main character. Although many other characters contribute to the progression of the action, the story is mostly told from the main character’s perspective. In the story, Evelina is an orphan who has been reared by the loving Mr. Villars. With time, an opportunity comes up for Evelina to travel to England with someone she trusts, and Mr. Villars does not hesitate to grant her his blessings. England presents the little girl with a kind of life that she had not known before, and she spends all her free time visiting the operas and nearly all the renowned London enjoyment precincts. (Thompson 71)

During these expeditions, Evelina is confronted with every manner of societal perils characteristic of city life. Unlike her native home, she has to contend with her embarrassing relatives led by Captain Mirvan and Madame Duval and the rude behavior of the men led by Sir Clement. Despite this apparent disruption to her life, Evelina finds some consolation and love from the dignified and well-mannered Lord Orville.

Although the two have their share of misunderstandings, their good nature helps them to solve things in the end. Unlike many characters in the book, who demonstrate insensibility, Evelina is sensible, and in the end, she meets a suitor who matches her good sense. Indeed, the author of this book presents extraordinary traits as an observer of present-day societal traditions. She is dazzling at scrutinizing the conduct, inspiration, and shortcomings of her characters. The brilliance with which Burney does this makes it easier for us to analyze the psychological meaning of each character’s behavior. This is especially helpful when it comes to observing the sensibility of the men in the novel. Additionally, the author helped readers in the 21st century to get a glimpse of life in the 18th century. (Shubinsky)

Men Sensibility in the Book

By reading Evelina, we are presented with a clear picture that depicts male insensibility toward women in the 18th century. A clear example of men’s role in the 18th century is shown in letter XI of Burney’s book, where Evelina is writing one of her famous letters from Queen Ann Street. Even before we encounter any male character, Evelina tells us that Mrs. Mirvan, who is as a mother to her, has to sit with Maria and her until they are provided with partners. This clearly shows that the women during this time did not have much say on what transpired in their lives, even on such sensitive issues as dating.

In retelling her story, Evelina says that “the gentlemen, as they passed and repassed, looked as if they thought we were quite at their disposal, and only waiting for the honor of their commands; and they sauntered about, in a careless, indolent manner, as if with a view to keep us in suspense.” (Burney 39) Indeed, Evelina claims that she was not only speaking for herself but the whole womenfolk in general. Indeed, the episode gives us the impression that this was the accepted way of life in the 18th century.

The nature of male sensibility in the 18th century is seen in what transpires after Evelina gives us an account of what happens at the party in Queen Ann Street. As Evelina and Maria wait for their matches for the evening, there appears a man who asks Evelina for a dance in a manner that did not have any courtesy. Instead of approaching the seated women respectfully, he walks up to Evelina, and without giving much regard to her or the other women, he begins pulling her toward the dance floor. This act can only be considered as insensitivity since the man does this without minding if Evelina wanted to dance with him. Although this man plays a minor role in the play, he is an essential character since his attitude is replicated in the manner of most men within the book. (Burney 41)

Lord Orville

Not long after this, there appears another man who is a bit older than the previous one but handsome as well. In describing this man, Evelina says that he had an “air of mixed politeness and gallantry,” something that carries her off her feet. What comes out from this description is that despite women’s domination during this period, they still expected to be treated with courtesy and respect. From the first instant, Lord Orville is presented as a dignified man since he has the sense of asking Evelina if she is engaged even before he asks her for a dance. This is in stark contrast with the previous man who had only asked the question after his proposal had been rejected. This clearly shows that the men during this period were different, just like in our modern day society. (Burney 40)

Throughout the conversation with Evelina, Lord Orville is presented as “sensible and spirited; his air, and address open and noble; his manners gentle, attentive, and infinitely engaging; his person is all elegance.” (Burney 42) All this happens even though Lord Orville is a nobleman. Upon learning that the man who has asked her for a dance is a nobleman, Evelina is scared since she is sure he will be offended, knowing she is of low birth.

This gives her the urge to run to Mrs. Mirvan and request her to apologize on her behalf for running away. However, Lord Orville finds her before she locates Mrs. Mirvan, and instead of being angry at her, he even has a good sense of asking if he has offended her in any way. I am using the word good sense advisedly since I do not see any other way to describe a man who has the courtesy of finding out if he has erred without knowing.

This is all confusing to Evelina, and all that she thinks of asking is if he has seen Maria just to change the topic. It is evident that Evelina was not used to this attention since it was rare, and finding a man who gave her much attention, not to mention that he was a nobleman, surprised her a great deal. (Burney 44) The surprise that we observe in Evelina’s face is what Diana Shubinsky describes as the reason why marriages in the 18th century do not engage the interest of readers. This is because we are used to seeing the man as the hero in everything such that the woman becomes nothing but a mere shadow. (Shubinsky)

Going back to the story, Lord Orville is willing to run an errand to Maria or find her anyone else she can talk to since he is convinced she is unwell. Once she agrees to some refreshment, Lord Orville flies away to get her one, which leaves Evelina virtually ashamed of being so troublesome. This unusual attention makes her so confused to think or act with any consistency. After the refreshments, he asks her for a dance a second time, and without uttering a word, she agrees to be led to the dance hall.

Even after making some apparent stupid mistakes, Lord Orville is patient with Evelina, thus exposing another side of him that we had not seen before. James Thompson has also made this observation in his book titled Between Self and World (1988), where he claims that Lord Orville must have confused Evelina with his many positive attributes. (Thompson 70)

During the dance, Evelina is so scared such that her legs almost buckle. At this point, Evelina is disappointed in herself, and she expects the good Lord to be too, but he seems not to regret his choice of a dance partner. Instead of being mortified and displeased, Lord Orville seems content and even assists and encourages the shocked Evelina. The girl is too shocked to a point where she concludes, “The people in high life have too much presence of mind to seem disconcerted, or out of humor, however they may feel: for had I been the person of the most consequence in the room, I could not have met with more attention and respect.” (Burney 45) This aspect of showering someone who, in every aspect, seems to be a failure can only be considered sensibility on the part of Lord Orville.

After the couple is done with the obvious flopped dance, the audience is again presented with another sensible act from Lord Orville. Upon realizing that she is passive during the time he talked about the people in the room, he changes the topic and instead decides to talk about public places and public performers. When he notices that she is ignorant of them, he nobly changes the subject to the amusements and occupations of the country.

This shows that Lord Orville is sensitive enough to notice when the woman does not appreciate the conversation he has initiated. He is willing to change the subject to something that she can appreciate. Just at the same time, the “creature of a man” that had approached Evelina for a dance earlier reappeared and seemed offended that the girl had rejected his offer and instead chose to dance with the more agreeable Lord Orville.

Although the man whose name is Mr. Lovel knew that Evelina had rejected his proposal for other reasons, he delights in giving her mental anguish by claiming that she had rejected his offer simply because she wanted to look for someone who belonged to a higher class. (Burney 80) The aspect where men delight in giving women around them mental anguish is replicated in Rogers and William’s book (1987). They identify insensitivity as a central theme in all women’s books of the 18th century. These authors claim that Burney used the characterization of Lord Orville to represent the minorities during that period. (Rogers & William 101)

Sir Clement

Moving away from Lord Orville, we encounter Sir Clement, who has an entirely different character from that of the good Lord. When we meet Sir Clement as the Mirvan’s are about to travel, we find a man who has no regard for those around him, especially women. On top of this apparent lack of care for women, Sir Clement is also a sycophant who uses every available opportunity to turn things to his favor.

When he unexpectedly shows up as the family is planning to go on a trip, neither the Captain nor Mrs. Mirvan appreciates his presence and this, in a way, hurts his ego. Despite knowing that he is not welcome in this family, Sir Clement “introduces himself under the pretense of inquiring after their health, and enters the room with the easy air of an old acquaintance.” (Burney 82) This clearly shows that Sir Clement only thought of himself just like Mr. Lovel, whom we had earlier encountered during the assembly.

Being the opportunist that he is, Sir Clement Willoughby sees an opportunity to enter into the Captain’s good books by helping him in a debate he is having with Madame Duval on the superiority of the English culture. According to Captain Mirvan and Sir Clement, the French did not have any manners, and they had to learn from the English people.

This just shows the insensibility on Sir Clement side since he has the “sagacity to discover, that he could take no method so effectual for making the master of the house his friend, as to make Madame Duval his enemy.” (Burney 85) By looking at the issue, one realizes the authenticity of this observation since no one would term a man who uses other people’s misery to advance his own selfish interests as having any sense. This is further demonstrated when he asks Evelina if she was tired after the ridotto to bring back bad memories. Indeed, Sir Clements’ behavior matches the observations of the 18th-century writers, many of who claimed that men had little regard for women, and they delighted in bringing them pain at their pleasure. (Rogers & William 101)

The insensible nature of Sir Clement is expounded further after this occurrence when he uses his skill to arouse the debate that had earlier been dropped. This he does without considering the anguish that it was bringing to Madame Duval. Burnley tells us that Mrs. M. Sheied to end this debate and she could have succeeded had it not been for the “interposition of Sir Clement who would not suffer it to be given up, and supported it with such humor and satire, that he seems to have won the Captain’s heart; though their united forces so enraged and overpowered Madame Duval, that she really trembled with passion.” (Burnley 86) Having won Captain Mirvan’s heart, Sir Clement is invited for the voyage, and he gladly accepts the offer without thinking of the inconvenience that this would bring to his hosts. Sir Clements’ intrusion forces the traveling party to call a hackney-coach to take in the extra luggage. This indeed is an insensible act on the part of Sir Clement. (Burnley 88)

As though this is not bad enough, Sir Clement insists on traveling in the same coach with the Captain and Madame Duval, making the older woman even more uncomfortable. As expected, the quarreling that had been dropped at the onset of the journey is picked up, and this is evident once the traveling party arrives at Ranelagh since everyone seems to avoid Madame Duval. Later on, during tea, the insensitive nature of Sir Clement is once again revealed during a conversation started by Madame Duval, who castigates the women for coming to that place with their hats.

Instead of defending the women as courtesy demands, Sir Clement agrees with her and claims that the hats were “originally worn by some young and whimsical coquettes.” This, by any standard, is unmanly, primarily when it is directed at a woman that one is trying to court. Sir Clements’ insensitivity during the discussion is not lost on the old Madame Duval, and she advises him to learn to be more polite and desist talking to women in such a rude manner. (Burnley 93) On a large scale, Sir Clements’ attitude towards women is characteristic of life in the 18th century since we see it being replicated in most of the male characters created at that time. (Thompson 71)

Throughout the book, Sir Clement tries different tactics to woo Evelina, but he fails on all accounts. While the direct manner in which he approaches her at first is commendable, it beats logic why one would want to continually put down and insult a woman, which he claims to be in love with. Instead of looking for romantic ways to win Evelina’s love, all that Sir Clement does is to win the support of Captain Mirvan, who, by every standard, is a male chauvinist.

In light of Captain Mirvan, Sir Clement comes out as an insensitive person who does not value or respect women’s rights. In Clements’ dictionary, women are supposed to give in to men’s demands, and that is why he tries all unorthodox means to win the love of Evelina. In a final show of insensibility, Sir Clement disguises himself as Lord Orville and writes a damning letter to ensure that the two do not stand a chance of being together.

This trait is best described by Rogers and William (1987), who claim that Sir Clement represents a breed of men who expect that “the same eagerness to please, shall uniformly prevail in the wife, when the amiable, the devoted lover, is metamorphosed into the sullen and tyrannical husband.” (Rogers & William 350) Since men of Sir Clements’ ilk were the most prevalent during the 18th century, Evelina was lucky since she used her excellent sense and married the sensible Lord Orville. He had been used by the author to demonstrate men of his caliber were rare. (Shubinsky)


In her book titled Evelina, Frances Burney brought out the nature of life in the 18th century. Through excellent presentation, Burney presents readers in the 21st century with a perfect view of experience in the preceding centuries. Throughout the book, the author presents the theme of sensibility, thus showing us the kind of emotional suffering, which women during that period had to deal with.

During this period, the men are depicted as having been insensible, and the women had learned to accept this fact. During this period, the women were used to the insensibility of men such that when a sensible person like Lord Orville materialized, he was often misconstrued as not being genuine. Indeed, Burney seems to be writing out of the experience, considering that her own father was always putting her down and even killed her dream of being an accomplished playwright.

Works Cited

Burney, Fanny. Evelina, n.d. Girlebooks, 22-120. Print.

Rogers, Katherine, and William, McCarthy. Meridian Anthology of Early Women Writers from Aphra Behn to Maria Edgeworth 1660-1800, 1987. New York: Meridian, 100-103. Print.

Shubinsky, Diane. Sense and Sensibility: An Eighteenth Century Narrative, n.d. Web.

Thompson, James. Between Self and World, 1988. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 69-71. Print.

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