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.
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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 […]