If you think about the heroines in 18th century literature, most of them have a rather arduous time, e.g., Moll Flanders’ hard knock life (Defoe), Clarissa’s determination to endure and persevere (Richardson), Pamela’s dull, methodical virtue (Richardson), or Emily’s inability to understand the floor plan (Radcliffe). In contrast, Evelina's character exudes spontaneity, and the book—particularly set against the darker novels of this age—seems sunny in comparison.
Her novel is a true bildungsroman
, for Evelina’s central problem is learning to act correctly in her world. [As a side note, I’ve developed a new respect for the niceties of etiquette after reading The Book of Household Management
(Isabella Mary Beeton, 1861), which outlines the infinitely complex rules of conduct for the lady of the house in the mid-nineteenth century.:]
The country and the city form the two poles of Evelina’s life. As a “rustic,” Evelina’s rural values put her at a disadvantage in urban society. By learning the more polished social skills, she gradually establishes a harmonious relationship with the urban world and its complicated etiquette. In keeping with the broad aims of comedy, Evelina’s problems are small problems. Her main problem is one of balance; she must neither be destroyed by the urban world nor completely seduced by it. Rather, Evelina needs to retain the best of both worlds: the simplicity and honesty typically associated with the country along with the culture of the city.
Though Evelina’s mother is dead, and her father does not acknowledge her, she nevertheless has someone to whom she may appeal when her small crises arise. Unlike the other heroines of this era—who are often forced to act quickly—Evelina’s predicaments are on a far smaller scale, and she is either given enough time to control the outcome or someone intercedes on her behalf.
Evelina’s early mistakes prove less grave errors than humorous faux pas. Her initial enthusiasm for the wonders of London diminishes after she attends her first ball. There, Evelina declines her first invitation to dance, assessing her admirer, quite rightly, to be a conceited fop. When another man, Lord Orville, whom Evelina describes as “gaily, but not foppishly dressed, and indeed extremely handsome” asks her to dance, Evelina complies. His composure and grace, however, make Evelina feel awkward. When Lord Orville attempts to get her to talk, first discussing the ball, then public places and events, and finally the country, Evelina perceives his intent:
It now struck me, that he was resolved to try whether or not I was capable of talking on any subject. This put so great a constraint on my thoughts, that I was unable to go further than a monosyllable, and not even so far, when I could possibly avoid it.”
…And it is these types of passages that look forward to the wit of Jane Austen in the 19th century.
Meanwhile, Evelina’s embarrassment continues. Mr. Lovel, the man who had originally asked Evelina to dance, returns. As he begins to speak, his “stately foppishness” makes Evelina lose control and start laughing. Mr. Lovel—who had come back to ask why Evelina had refused to dance with him—becomes enraged and even Lord Orville can only stare. Dimly and belatedly, Evelina remembers the rules of decorum:
A confused idea now for the first time entered my head, of something I had heard of the rules of assemblies; 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. I was thunderstruck at the recollection….
Evelina’s gaffes continue, but her problem is more a matter of fine tuning. The appeal of this novel rests in Evelina’s astute observations of herself and society.
Like Jane Austen, Fanny Burney casts a clear eye on her world and notes its foibles with wit, wisdom, and poignancy.