Unused to the situations in which I find myself, and embarrassed by the slightest difficulties, I seldom discover, till too late, how I ought to act.
Frances Burney, Evelina
How is a woman’s worth determined in society? Frances Burney’s Evelina is an epistolary novel that tells the story of a modest, beautiful young woman seeking to maintain her good reputation in spite of having uncertain parentage. Evelina’s mother Caroline eloped with and secretly married Sir John Belmont, a libertine who subsequently denied the marriage. Caroline died in disgrace, and Evelina’s grandmother, Madame Duval, left the child to be raised in the country by an upstandingif slightly unimaginative guardian, the Reverend Villars.
The novel opens with the reappearance of Evelina’s madcap grandmother, who plans to force Belmont to acknowledge parentage of his daughter. Hoping to spare Evelina the embarrassment of such a scheme, Reverend Villars sends her to London in the company of respectable friends. There she finds herself occasionally lost in the complexities of high society manoeuvrings, but ultimately acquits herself well and attracts the admiration of the upstanding Lord Orville. Over the course of their courtship, Evelina must fend off the attentions of the unscrupulous Sir Clement Willoughby, lend her assistance to a penurious poet, weather the embarrassment of visiting very vulgar cousins and see through the trickeries of a jealous suitor who attempts to separate her from Orville. Burney gives free rein to her talent for comedy and satire in many of these episodes.
Ultimately successful in love despite her embarrassing relations, Evelina’s final desire is to reconnect with her father. A clever woman friend and mentor, Mrs Selwyn, arranges a surprise meeting with Sir John. Upon seeing his daughter and her resemblance to his dead wife, Belmont is overcome by remorse and acknowledges her as his legitimate daughter.
Courtship, love and family status
Remember, my dear Evelina, nothing is so delicate as the reputation of a woman: it is, at once, the most beautiful and most brittle of all human things.
Throughout the novel, the Reverend Villars is a voice of caution and social convention; his views are gently tested but ultimately upheld by the novel. It is Villars’s cautionary edict about the difficulty of maintaining a woman’s reputation that Jane Austen would put into the mouth of her no less conventional, but more ridiculous Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (1813).
Foreshadowing Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, Evelina is high-spirited, but also well-mannered. She attracts the attention and admiration of a number of suitors, but she also has the confidence and good sense to select the most decent and well-bred man. Importantly, Lord Orville proposes marriage to Evelina before her parentage is cleared up. However, Evelina continues to be tormented by her unresolved relationship to her father. Personal happiness and social legitimacy remain inextricably tangled. Burney’s novel highlights the unfairness and arbitrariness of social convention, but never denies the profound effects of social dynamics on individual character and happiness.