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An introduction to Evelina

Frances Burney’s Evelina unveils the dizzying and dangerous social whirl of Georgian London, where reputations and marriages are there to be made and broken. Dr Chloe Wigston Smith investigates Burney’s critique of fashion culture and the demands it places on women, in a novel that prizes feminine resilience.

Creating Evelina

Evelina (1778) was the first novel that Frances Burney published, but it was not the first she wrote. As a teenager, she penned the story of her heroine’s mother, Caroline Evelyn. She gathered this story with her other childhood writings to burn it all at age 15. On 27 March 1768, she started a new diary which she famously addressed to ‘Nobody’:

To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal! since to Nobody can I be wholly unreserved – to Nobody can I reveal every thought, every wish of my heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity to the end of my life! ... No secret can I conceal from Nobody, and to Nobody can I be ever unreserved.

This entry, like so much of Burney’s writing, reveals a complex desire to express herself unreservedly while underscoring, at the same time, the challenges of doing so.

Evelina by Frances Burney, fourth edition with frontispieces by John Mortimer

Evelina by Frances Burney, fourth edition with frontispieces by John Mortimer

Evelina was first printed anonymously in 1778. When it proved a bestseller, the printers rushed to bring out three more editions, but still without putting Burney’s name on the title page.

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Burney is often described as a reluctant writer, or at least one nervous to have her writing circulate in public. Her journals, and Evelina’s dedication to the often sharp book reviewers of her day, offer plenty of evidence to support this view: ‘I am frightened out of my wits from the terror of being attacked as an author, and therefore shirk, instead of seeking, all occasions of being drawn into notice’ (Diary, Berg, September 1778). But this portrait of a shy and retiring writer stands at odds with the clever insights and satirical voice that cut across her published and unpublished work. In addition to keeping up an extensive correspondence, Burney filled her journals with engaging records of her life, family and social circle. After Evelina, she went on to publish three more novels and wrote several plays (both comedies and tragedies) that were never performed. Burney’s prose reveals her wit and humour, and her precise sense of voice, telling detail and sensitivity to the world around her.

Portrait of Frances Burney by Edward Francisco Burney, c. 1784‒1785

Portrait of Frances Burney by Edward Francisco Burney, c 1784-1785

This portrait of Burney, painted around 1784‒85, seems to convey the tension between shyness and sharp insight.

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She recorded, for instance, the lively history of her negotiations with booksellers and the months following Evelina’s appearance. Nervous about the public response to her novel, the 24-year-old Burney was anxious to conceal her identity as its author, even from her father. Keeping her authorship secret was a challenge, as her handwriting was known by London printers (she had served as her father’s unpaid amanuensis, creating fair copies of his manuscripts for his books on music). After being turned down by her first-choice publisher, James Dodsley, Burney asked Thomas Lowndes, her eventual publisher, if he would be willing to receive

a MS. Novel sent to you without any public Name, or private recommendation? ... And whether if, after reading, you should think it worth printing, you would buy the Copy without ever seeing, or knowing, the Author? ... I must beg you to direct your Answer to Mr King, To be left at the Orange Coffee House till called for.

Correspondence between Frances Burney and the publisher Thomas Lowndes about Evelina

Correspondence between Frances Burney and Thomas Lowndes about Evelina

Lowndes followed Burney’s instructions, addressing this envelope to ‘Mr King at the Orange Coffee House. To be left till called for’.

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Mr King was the pseudonym used by Burney’s cousin, Edward Francesco, who along with her brother, Charles Burney (using the name Mr Grafton), served as intermediaries during the negotiations with Lowndes. Charles donned an ‘old great coat, and a huge hat’ to muffle his appearance, and when Lowndes agreed to accept the full manuscript, Burney copied her work in a ‘feigned hand’. The novel received positive reviews, but Burney waited six months to reveal her authorship to her father. Her journals from this period document often comical attempts to gauge her father’s response, and those of other unknowing readers, to her writing. Samuel Crisp, close family friend of the Burneys and the ‘Daddy Crisp’ to whom Burney often turned to for advice and support in these years, took a teasing delight in both her literary success and desire for anonymity.

Manuscript copies of poems from Evelina and contemporary reviews of the novel

Manuscript copies of poems from Evelina and contemporary reviews of the novel

Though she kept her writing a secret from him, Burney dedicated Evelina to her father. This pencilled note reveals that her ‘ode’ to him was drafted at ‘4 in the morng’.

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The success of Evelina, subtitled ‘A young lady’s entrance into the world’, propelled its author’s own entrance into London literary culture. But it would be a mistake to see Evelina as a cipher for Burney herself. Similar to all of Burney’s fictional heroines, Evelina hails from a social stratum above that of her creator, whose family was composed of professional writers, artists and musicians. Her mother, Esther Sleepe, came from a family of fan-makers and is likely to have continued to work into the early years of her marriage, as discovered by historian Amy Erickson. Certain friends and acquaintances, such as the diarist and literary hostess Hester Thrale, looked down upon the Burney family’s social status. Artisans and shopkeepers frequently appear in Burney’s novels, but rarely in heroic roles (except very briefly in her last and most complex novel, The Wanderer). In Evelina, the Branghtons are silversmiths in the City of London and appear as the heroine’s inconvenient relatives on her maternal side. True to the popular marriage plots of Georgian fiction, Burney’s heroines all find a partner at a suitable age, but Burney herself turned down a proposal from Thomas Barlow (despite her Daddy Crisp’s encouragement), waiting to marry a French émigré, Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard D’Arblay, at age 41, much to her father’s disapproval.

Le Menuet, unmounted fan leaf

Le Meneut, unmounted leaf fan

This fan (1790‒1811) is decorated with caricatures of people dancing the minuet – the most important couple-dance of the 18th century.

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Letters from Frances Burney to Samuel Crisp, one defending the single life and the other describing Samuel Johnson

Letters from Frances Burney to Samuel Crisp, one defending the single life and the other describing Samuel Johnson

After her first encounter with the famous Dr Johnson, Frances Burney said he was ‘almost bent double’ and ‘shockingly near sighted’, with his mouth ‘almost constantly opening and shutting as if he was chewing’. This is one of several letters edited by Burney with a view to possible publication.

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Raising Evelina

Evelina is, at first glance, a nobody. Raised in relative isolation in the countryside, she has almost no experience of society. Most important, she lacks the paternal ties that were crucial to 18th century culture, especially for unmarried women. Evelina’s mother died shortly after her birth, distressed by her abandonment by Sir John Belmont, ‘a profligate young man’ (Vol. I, Letter II). The young couple had married in private, but Evelina’s father burned their marriage certificate and denied the union. The novel takes the form of a female Bildungsroman – in which a young woman marries by its end – but places its heroine’s legitimacy as a central narrative problem, and uncovers, often in excruciating detail, the social and personal consequences of irresponsible fathers, as well as a host of other dangerous forms of masculine behaviour. Burney relies on the epistolary form, composing the novel as a series of letters, largely written by Evelina to her guardian. Evelina shares her experiences and her feelings, as she attempts to navigate a culture with contradictory rituals and expectations for young women.

Evelina by Frances Burney, fourth edition with frontispieces by John Mortimer

Evelina by Frances Burney, fourth edition with frontispieces by John Mortimer

In this frontispiece, a classical figure leans on the Belmont tomb, hinting at Evelina’s troubled bond with her parents.

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To set her marriage plot in motion, Burney sends her heroine first to Howard Grove (home to Lady Howard and her daughter Mrs Mirvan, friend of Evelina’s mother), and from here Evelina travels to London with the Mirvan family. It is her first major trip away from Berry Hill, where she was raised by the Reverend Arthur Villars, a mentor to both her grandfather and mother. But Burney introduces another potential guardian in the form of Evelina’s grandmother Mme Duval, a former tavern girl and now the widow of a Parisian gentleman. With her French airs and embarrassing manners, Mme Duval stands in sharp contrast to Evelina’s elite lineage on her father’s side and to her refined upbringing. Mme Duval possesses very different ideas about marital matches for her granddaughter, setting up a contest over Evelina’s future. At the same time, Evelina must try to learn to guide her own future: as Villars advises, ‘You must learn not only to judge but to act for yourself’ (Vol. II, Letter VIII).

London fashion, consumer culture and the dilemma of appearance

In London, Evelina encounters the dizzying world of fashion and consumer culture, where appearance is everything. In the Georgian period, London was an epicentre of trade and had come to rival Paris as a hub for the latest trends, which changed seasonally and even weekly. Being a person of fashion was not just about keeping up appearances; it required being seen at the right events, such as the playhouse and popular pleasure gardens including Ranelagh and Vauxhall. Pleasure gardens were urban oases that featured musical entertainments, dining and actual gardens, as well as a host of other attractions to entice paying guests. There were also auctions, art exhibitions and balls to attend.

Illustration of entertainments at Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens

Illustration of entertainments at Ranelagh pleasure gardens

Ranelagh Gardens attracted a more respectable clientele than Vauxhall.

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Immediately upon arriving in the metropolis, Mrs Mirvan is eager to ‘Londonize’ herself, her daughter and Evelina. This involves shopping for new clothes and visiting the hairdresser, who specialises in the ‘frizzled’ look. As Evelina writes to Mr Villars: ‘You can’t think how oddly my head feels; full of powder and black pins, and a great cushion on the top of it. I believe you would hardly know me, for my face looks quite different to what it did before my hair was dressed’ (Vol. I, Letter X). Contemporary caricatures frequently satirised the high hairstyles of the 1770s, depicting women with hair half the size of their bodies struggling to fit through doorways.

Satirical prints on fashion and hairstyles in the late 18th century

Satirical prints on fashion and hairstyles in the late 18th century

A lady’s ‘preposterous headdress’ adorned with vegetables and feathers, 1776.

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As well as sending up consumer culture, Burney’s novel reveals how fashionable London society held a darker side for those either naïve to its codes or unable to keep up with its monetary demands. Among her elite friends in the West End of the city, the country-raised Evelina finds herself often at sea in the unspoken social rituals that rule the dancefloor. When she returns to London in the company of Mme Duval, she discovers the commercial East End, where her grandmother lodges above a hosier’s shop in High Holborn. Evelina spends time with her Branghton cousins, who despite their London upbringing have little experience of elite urban entertainments and pull Evelina into dangerous situations. The Branghton sisters, for instance, take Evelina to the notorious dark alleys of Vauxhall Gardens, where she is accosted by the sexually aggressive Sir Clement Willoughby who calls her an actress (code for a promiscuous woman). In another episode, Evelina becomes separated from the Branghtons at Marylebone Gardens, where she is forced to rely on the help of two women, whom she soon realises are actual prostitutes. These are sticky situations indeed for a heroine whose legitimacy is already in question.

Harris's List of Covent-Garden Ladies, an 18th-century guide to prostitutes

Harris's List of Covent-Garden Ladies, an 18th century guide to prostitutes

A seamier side of London is revealed in this guide to prostitutes (c. 1788‒93).

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Writing Evelina

Alongside this critique of fashionable society and consumerism, Burney raises serious concerns about a marriage market that monetises young women. She alerts us, in particular, to how the female Bildungsroman is complicit in such fantasies. Evelina, like Burney’s later novels, acknowledges, with almost relentless precision, the truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of good looks and intelligence – but an uncertain inheritance – must be in want of sexual harassment, male stalkers and a husband. To be a young woman of marriageable age in a Burney novel leads to social humiliation, sexual threats and physical violence. Lady Howard first describes Evelina as possessing ‘a certain air of inexperience innocency that is extremely interesting’, combined with ‘a great quickness of parts’ (Vol. I, Letter VI). This combination of innocence and intelligence draws the attention of the suitable Lord Orville, Evelina’s eventual husband, but also the eye of unsavoury aggressors such as Sir Clement Willoughby, Lord Merton and Mr Lovel. Other scenes in the novel, such as the competitive race between two old women and Willoughby’s role playing as a highwayman who attacks Mme Duval, introduce further instances of violence against women.

Evelina by Frances Burney, fourth edition with frontispieces by John Mortimer

Evelina by Frances Burney, fourth edition with frontispieces by John Mortimer

Evelina rescues Mme Duval, after Sir Clement Willoughby attacks her.

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Confronted with social rituals she barely comprehends and widespread masculine sexual aggression, Evelina longs for guidance: ‘I think there ought to be a book, of the laws and customs à-la-mode, presented to all young people, upon their first introduction into public company’(Vol. I, Letter XX). As we find later in the novel, Evelina/Evelina is in fact that book. During the heroine’s return to Berry Hill, where she falls into a depression over a serious misunderstanding with Lord Orville, she catches Mr Villars studying her, calling her ‘a book that afflicts and perplexes me!’ (Vol. II., Letter XV) Evelina is a heroine whose social experiences, and her resulting suffering, raise real questions about the risks of being a young woman in Georgian Britain. As Villars points out, she constitutes a character and a book to be read and interpreted, which is underscored by the novel’s very title. By the novel’s close, these risks appear softened by Evelina’s reunion with her father and her happy marriage to Lord Orville. Despite this, stark uncertainties about women, inheritance and equality linger at the edges of the novel’s conclusion, leaving troubling questions for us as its readers.

Conduct book for women

Conduct book for women

Thomas Gisborne’s Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex (1797) was one of many 18th-century conduct books advising women on how to choose a husband, raise children, or occupy their free time.

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  • Chloe Wigston Smith
  • Dr Chloe Wigston Smith teaches in the Department of English and Related Literature and the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies at the University of York. She is the author of the book Women, Work, and Clothes in the Eighteenth-Century Novel, and has published articles and chapters on women’s writing, material culture, fashion history, and transatlantic fiction. Her current book project studies gender and material artefacts in the eighteenth century British Atlantic world and is supported by Mid- Career Fellowships from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and the British Academy.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.