Roughly halfway through Frances Burney’s Evelina, the novel’s title character is forcibly relocated from London’s upper-class West side to the unfashionable Holborn district, where she is to spend time with the equally unfashionable Branghton family. Far from satisfied with this social and geographic translation, Evelina pens a letter to her friend Maria Mirvan vigorously lamenting the entire situation. This letter, insofar as it reveals a great deal about Evelina’s developing conceptions of class, nobility, and urban life, deserves close investigation.
After thanking her friend for her family’s past hospitality, Evelina writes “London now seems no longer the same place where I lately enjoyed so much happiness; everything is new and strange to me; even the town itself has not the same aspect…” (Burney 288). Her move, like her initial move from Howard Grove to London, thus produces an alienation that is both physical and social. The shock of the move is only highlighted by her apparent fully-developed sentimental attachment to West London – something particularly striking considering her initial disillusionment with the city just months earlier (“the houses and streets are not quite so superb as I expected”(116)), and her conspicuous struggles to adapt to the urban milieu. After this second move, the disillusionment is intensified by contrasting Holborn to the aristocratic, retail atmosphere of the West:
Indeed to me, London now seems a desart; that gay and busy appearance it so lately wore, is now succeeded by a look of gloom, fatigue, and lassitude; the air seems stagnant, the heat is intense, the dust intolerable, and the inhabitants illiterate and under-bred. At least, such is the face of things in the part of town where I at present reside. (288)
Unlike with the first move, this form of disillusionment is inseparable from Evelina’s descent in socioeconomic prestige. She has grown to internalize the aristocratic values of Westminster, and thus articulates her alienation in negative terms – its population is neither “literate” nor “well-bred”, and the atmosphere is devoid of leisure opportunities. Whereas Westminster is a space of leisure and consumption, Holborn is associated with economic production and capitalization. In Evelina, these two economic poles are respectively typified by spendthrift aristocratic characters like Lovel, and the obsessively frugal Mr. Branghton, whose family lives above his own artisanal shop.
In the above passage, her figuring of Holborn as a “desart” is especially notable, as it suggests a culture gap that borders on the anthropological. While Burney’s extensive use of semicolons makes the syntax difficult to follow precisely, the inclusion of “illiterate and under-bred inhabitants” alongside other desert-evoking descriptions (“stagnant air”, “intense heat”, “intolerable dust”) suggest the inhabitants are part of the over-arching geographical analogy. In this way, Evelina manages to frame the aspiring middling classes, artisans, and merchants of Holborn as non-British “others”. This is only supported by her later description of Lord Orville as belonging to a separate “race and nature as those with whom I at present converse” (288).
Finally, this letter manifests a pattern in Evelina’s thought that dominates the first half of the novel – she constantly frames Lord Orville as benevolent force existing outside of socioeconomic typologies. Here, Orville not only the possesses “high-bred delicacy” and “elegant politeness” that mark aristocracy, but he possesses them to a degree that they “distinguish him above all other men” (288). Rather than serving as a comic stand-in for a depraved aristocratic value system, (as do such characters as Lovel, Merton, and Willoughby), Orville transcends the structure entirely, becoming, in Evelina’s words “an object of ideal perfection” (288).
Burney, Frances. Evelina. Ed. Susan Kubica Howard. Peterborough: Broadview, 2000. Print.