Evelina (By Frances Burney)

– The Perfection Of Femininity Essay, Research Paper


When Frances Burney wrote Evelina in the Eighteenth Century, she was

able to capture the essence of what it meant to be a female at this time in history.

Throughout the novel, the character of Evelina captures the hearts of those around

her. Mr. Villars describes Evelina as ?this artless young creature, with too much

beauty to escape notice? (19). The character of Evelina encompasses the traits

attributed to the description of the female gender. These traits include a focus on

the importance of reputation; a lack of passion; and distinct physical attributes.

Above all else, Evelina holds her reputation in highest regards. Eighteenth

Century literature focuses on the belief that an individual?s external behavior

reflected his or her interior belief system. In ?An Essay on Man,? Alexander Pope

writes, ?Know then thyself, presume not God to scan / The proper study of

mankind is man? (II. 1-2). Eighteenth Century society judges individuals based on

their outside appearance. Throughout the novel, Evelina emphasizes her concern

with what other people think of her. When Evelina is in the company of Madame

Duval and her Branghton cousins, she oftentimes hides from her acquaintances,

embarassed to be seen in such company. Upon being seen by Lord Orville when

she is accompanied by prostitutes, Evelina laments, ?How vainly, how proudly

have I wished to avoid meeting him when only with the Branghtons and Madame

Duval,-but now, how joyful should I be had he seen me to no greater

disadvantage? (265). Evelina?s fears her reputation can easily be marred, should

just one man, such as Lord Orville, hold her in low regard.

Lord Orville?s opinion of Evelina plays an important role in her life,

because her primary cause for guarding her reputation is its importance in

courtship. Mr. Villars wisely reminds Evelina, ?Remember…nothing is so delicate

as the reputation of a woman; it is, at once, the most beautiful and most brittle of

human things? (184). The noblemen of the Eighteenth Century sought women

with virtuous reputations. Evelina cautiously regards her suitors, chastising Sir

Clement for his ?insolence? (221). In several instances, Sir Clement attempts to

?affront? Evelina and he offends her with his sexual aggressiveness. On one

occassion, Sir Clement discovers Evelina when she has been seperated from her

party. He uses the opportunity to lead her away into the dark alleys and when

Evelina is offended, he cries, ?Good God!-good Heaven!-my dearest life, what is it

I have done?-what is it I have said?? (221). Evelina refuses to be treated as

woman whose virtue could be in question. For example, after sending a letter of

apology Lord Orville for her party using his carriage without permission, Evelina

is mortified when Lord Orville sends a response which implies her intention to be

impure. Evelina?s main concern is that others think highly of her, especially when

it comes to her virtue.

While Evelina does keep her virtue intact, the most potentially damaging

aspect of her character are the circumstances of her birth. Since her father has not

claimed her as his legitimate child, Evelina must assume the false name of Anville.

Lady Howard writes to Lord Belmont, informing him, ?To be owned properly by

you, is the first wish of her heart? (148). It is not until Lord Belmont

acknowledges Evelina as his daughter that she is able to achieve true harmony in

her life. From this point on, Evelina?s life achieves near-perfection. She marries

the man of her dreams, holds a high place in society, and both her reputation and

the reputation of her mother is clear.

While Evelina exalts in her reunion with her father, she feels uncomfortable

expressing the strong emotions she feels on such an occassion. This is due to the

fact that the ideal Eighteenth Century female was unable to display passion.

Evelina acts passive and agreeable, just as Evelina does in her conversations with

the Branghton sisters. After being asked what she thinks of Mr. Brown, Evelina

replies, ?I am no judge,-but I think his person is very-very well? (190). Evelina?s

ambiguous response perplexes the sisters, because she has skirted the issue at

hand. Evelina also manages to remain unsided when the Branghtons ask her to

vote on their choice of activities for the evening. Evelina responds, ?I said, that as

I was ignorant what choice was in my power, I must beg to hear their decisions

first? (214). Evelina never casts a vote and the party remains at home. While

Evelina may appear indecisive in these situations, she plays the role of passive

female to fit the description of ideal femininity.

In actuality, Evelina displays high levels of passion at several points in the

novel. Upon meeting her father, Evelina writes, ?I could restrain myself no longer;

I rose and went to him; I did not dare speak, but with pity and concern unutterable,

I wept and hung over him? (427). Evelina is unable to hide the passion she feels

towards her father. When Evelina finds Mr. Macartney about to kill himself, she

writes, ?I grew stiff with horror: till recollecting that it was yet possible to prevent

the fatal deed, all my faculties seemed to return, with the hope of saving him?

(202). Evelina shows remarkable passion when saving the life of her brother. She

also reveals her passion for the city of London when she writes to Mr. Villars to

ask for permission to go to there. She writes, ?I have no happiness or sorrow, no

hope or fear, but what your kindness bestows, or your displeasure may cause. You

will not, I am sure, send a refusal without reasons unanswerable, and therefore I

shall chearfully acquiesce. Yet I hope-I hope you will be able to permit me to go!?

(26). In actuality, Evelina desperately wishes to visit London, and while she does

not directly express this interest to Mr. Villars, her passion in the matter becomes

clear. Essentially, Evelina does feel passions, yet she hides them with her displays

of passivity and indecisiveness.

While the ideal Eighteenth Century woman did not openly display her

passions, she did display certain physical attributes. Throughout the novel,

Evelina?s suitors praise her for her beauty. Sir Clement describes Evelina as

?loveliest of women? (221), while Lord Orville?s companion refers to Evelina as

?the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life? (38) and compares her to the

infamous Helen of Troy. Evelina accentuates her beauty by assuming good

grooming habits along with wearing fine garments, on which the Branghton sisters

compliment her.

Evelina?s beauty is decribed as pale and soft, resembling a delicate work of

art. When she becomes lost from her party, a party of men heckles the beautiful

girl assuming she is a prostitue, as one exclaims, ?[She is] the voice of the prettiest

little actress I have seen this age? (220). Evelina?s beauty, while it does cause her

troubles, eventually results in her marriage to the man of her dreams. The novel

concludes with Evelina marrying Lord Orville, which also concludes the point in

her life which she is considered a vital and important female in society. The ideal

woman in the Eighteenth Century, upon marriage, immediately withdrew to

domestic life. At formal gatherings in London, married women retired to a

seperate room to play cards. Evelina writes, ?My mamma Mirvan, for she always

calls me her child, said she would sit with Maria and me till we were provided

with partners, and then join the card-players? (31). At the end of the novel,

Evelina marries Lord Orville, finishing her reign as the ideal of Eighteenth

Century femininity.

When Evelina rides off into the sunset, so to speak, with her Prince

Charming at the end of Evelina, the reader exalts in her victory. This is due to the

fact that Evelina represents the ideal female of the Eighteenth Century, so her

happiness is a necessary conclusion. Throughout the novel, Evelina?s gender is

contructed in the following characteristics: a focus on the importance of

reputation, a lack of passion, and distinct physical attributes. While Evelina may

or may not naturally possess these characteristics, she adopts them in order to

appear the ideal of femininity. In the end, Evelina achieves the exact results she

was looking for.


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