Frances Burney’s Evelina invites readers into the social landscape of the late-eighteenth century and focuses on the title character’s entrance into a society that is highly reliant on customs, status, and appearance. Through the eyes of a young, naive, socially inept woman, Burney satirizes the customs and expectations of her own society, mocking the weight that people placed on trivial details to determine a person’s character. Throughout the novel, Evelina’s journey is constantly met with moments of confusion as appearance fails to match reality. Through a series of social interactions, Evelina learns that the appearance of status and wealth does not, in reality, indicate superiority, regardless of what society has proclaimed to be true. With Evelina, Burney successfully satirizes society’s reliance on appearance to indicate superiority and urges readers to consider the outdated ideas surrounding social class, gender roles, and a woman’s reputation.
At the beginning of the novel, Evelina is relatively untouched by the ideas and expectations of society, which allows her to observe and read social situations without any preconceived notions. As she is introduced to the exciting London society, Evelina begins to learn that those around her do not share the same ability to remove themselves from societal preconceptions and see a situation or event exactly as it occurs. When Evelina arrives in London, she begins to observe and learn the expectations of society and how she must focus on how things appear rather than how they truly exist, particularly when it comes to her reputation. Although Evelina has no interest in Mr. Lovel and turns him down when he asks for a dance, she is then chastised by her new friends who are well-versed in society’s customs when she accepts Lord Orville’s invitation to dance without hesitation.
Evelina soon learns that a woman’s reputation is reliant on following the “rules” of social interactions and confides in Mr. Villars that she is “unused to the situations in which [she finds herself], and, embarrassed by the slightest difficulties, [she] seldom discover[s], till too late, how [she] ought to act” (Burney 301). Even though Evelina is a polite and amiable young woman, she is constantly fighting against the societal expectations created by her appearance. Through the early interaction between Evelina and Mr. Lovel, Burney satirizes the fact that, regardless of a woman’s opinions or desires, she is expected to place more importance on her reputation than her own happiness. In one of his letters, Mr. Villars says to Evelina, “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” (166). While Evelina comes to learn that reputation is regarded as important for a young woman, she also learns that reputation should be based on actions and character rather than appearance.
In addition to satirizing women’s reputation, Burney challenges the typical roles of men and women throughout the novel. By contrasting characters such as Lord Orville and Mrs. Selwyn with Captain Mirvan and Lady Louisa, readers are shown that adhering to typical gender roles and expectations does not lead to better character. Lord Orville is constantly praised as the most well-mannered, respectable man in the novel, and Burney ensures that her audience knows that his kindness comes from having typical feminine traits such as modesty and thoughtfulness. In one of Mr. Villar’s letters to Evelina, he writes that “though gentleness and modesty are the peculiar attributes of [Evelina’s] sex, yet fortitude and firmness, when occasion demands them, are virtues as noble and as becoming in women as in men: the right line of conduct is the same for both sexes” (218). Lord Orville is contrasted with other male characters in the book who are blatantly rude, selfish, and unkind to women. By showing that a man can be a better person by embracing some feminine qualities, Burney satirizes her society’s expectations of gender roles.
In contrast to Lord Orville’s slightly feminine nature, Burney portrays Mrs. Selwyn as a strong, confident, and masculine woman. Mrs. Selwyn is not afraid to voice her opinions and disagree with men, and she serves as a clear example of the contrast between appearance and reality. Evelina expects Mrs. Selwyn to resemble the other “proper” women that she has met, women who accept their status as inferior to men; instead she finds a sarcastic, bold woman who will gladly oppose a man’s opinion if she disagrees with him. When Lord Merton claims that “a woman wants nothing to recommend her but beauty and good nature; in everything else, she is either impertinent or unnatural,” Mrs. Selwyn retorts by sarcastically saying that “it has always been agreed…that no man ought to be connected with a woman whose understanding is superior to his own,” and goes on to, essentially, call the men “idiots” (361).
Mrs. Selwyn’s display of her own strength of character and disregard for societal expectations shocks and confuses those around her, inciting indignant responses from the men. Mr. Lovel states that “there is something, – in such severity, – that is rather…oddish” about Mrs. Selwyn and questions even referring to her as a lady (362). Mrs. Selwyn’s character serves as a strong female example for both Evelina and Burney’s audience, demonstrating through satire that women do not have to change their personality or opinions to fit in with male expectations of gender roles and femininity.
Eventually, Evelina comes to realize that societal expectations and the “proper” way of existing within a society are a matter of perception. She soon learns that society is not as it appears when she discovers that the upper class people she has associated with can be unkind, cruel, and thoughtless people. After acquainting herself with London society, Evelina has been able to learn much about the way that expectations and appearances contrast with reality. This contrast between appearance and reality becomes abundantly clear when Evelina witnesses Lord Merton and Mr. Coverley racing two elderly women to determine the winner of their bet. When Mr. Coverley loses because the elderly woman injures herself, he is described as “quite brutal; he swore at [the woman] with unmanly rage, and seemed scarce able to refrain even from striking her” (312). Evelina sees these upper class men behaving like animals and mistreating not only women but women who are frail and injured and it becomes clear that even though these men are of the upper class, they are anything but noble. Burney satirizes social class by demonstrating that it is not social standing that defines someone’s character but the way that they actually treat those around them.
Throughout this satirical novel, Burney supports the virtues of self-possession, sensibility, and responsibility, both social and personal. In one of his letters, Mr. Villars says to Evelina, “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” (166). While Evelina comes to learn that reputation is regarded as important, she also learns that reputation should be based on what a person actually does and how he or she acts rather than how they appear to others.
As a result of Burney’s Evelina, women were encouraged to focus more on reality than appearance and to defy the outdated expectations of their patriarchal society. The issues that Evelina encounters during her journey through London society are still relevant today, as women face double standards when it comes to sexuality, reputation, and social behavior. Burney’s novel is ahead of its time in many ways and is an early example of a woman using cleverly written satire as a means to change her world. Burney utilizes Evelina’s series of social interactions and observations to demonstrate the importance of seeing past preconceptions to find the reality of social class, gender roles, and reputation.