Epistolary novels are unique not only in structure but in the way they allow plot to develop. Some novels thrive in this form thanks in large part to authors that are especially adept at manipulating the letters to deliver information and plot without it appearing to be a story contrived and condensed merely for the written word. Writing an epistolary novel is more difficult today simply because there are more forms of communication. Today when any sort of distance separates people there are myriad ways to close that distance. Now it is rare to even receive a postcard and the only direct written communication are generally email and text messages. I refuse to count Twitter as a tool of legitimate communication. In addition to email and text messages we also have the ability to communicate by video chat or the less and less popular telephone. A modern epistolary novel would require an amalgamation of all written communication between characters in a story, which would be quite difficult. The only one I have read recently was in the form of a journal.
The most frustrating thing about an epistolary novel is the dialogue. In no letter or email or journal do you write extended dialogue that occurred. Not only does it make the narrator unreliable because it would be impossible to remember three pages worth of dialogue accurately but it just looks unrealistic. Thankfully Frances Burney’s epistolary novel Evelina benefits from being written before the advent of the telephone so there is not a dearth of information in each letter due to several contrasting tools of communication. Burney’s characters also wrote actual letters that told stories. A standard novel that is as lacking in dialogue as Evelina would be dry and would likely be hard to distinguish from an essay but because of the novel’s form and the fact that each letter has carries the distinct voice of its author it is not difficult to embrace the story and follow it like any other. Burney does utilize dialogue from time to time but they are generally small and isolated instances that are sunken in among large chunks of narrative voice that tells each story, as one would traditionally expect to read in a letter.
Point of view is extremely important in any novel but never more so than in an epistolary novel. While Burney’s novel is the story of Evelina it is told through various points of view instead of just Evelina in the first person. Establishing the individual voices in the points of view of each letter writer is a very difficult thing to achieve but it is successful nonetheless. Evelina’s voice is always the most distinctive and most present and the people she interacts with on a regular basis offset this. In crafting Evelina, Burney did an excellent job of distinguishing from whom each letter is coming from and who it is going to while still maintaining a focus on Evelina. This is evidence that this unique structure was well handled by Burney.
Innocence and delicacy were considered critical values of woman in the eighteenth century. It was a signifying factor of upper class, elegance and moralistic values. Although Evelina is not raised in a superior society, her character expresses vast moral and sensible values. She witnesses many events and acts on them in ways that later demonstrate her good hearted nature. Burney uses this to highlight Evelina’s moral values. In her continued letter to Mr.Villars she writes about an event that leaves her uneasy, Du Bois planted imprisonment. Evelina feels ashamed and uneasy following this plot and ultimately going along with deceiving Madame Duval. This letter touches on terror and deception in the society of the upper class. Burney here is demonstrating that Evelina is in ways above this society she was brought into. Their apparent delicacy and need for luxuries does not compromise their ill personality and morals. Evelina is able to look beyond and recognize the manipulation of character such as Mr. Captain, which brings to light the idea that Evelina’s upbringing may not have been in an upper class society but was one the prepared for her such society. In my previous post I focused on the idea of elegance lack of elegance of characters while commenting on its similarity to Gossip Girl. This concern of elegance and sensibility in Evelina is similar to that of a character in Gossip Girl.
Through several seasons the series exposes the life of the upper east society of New York. The story also includes a less fortunate family from Brooklyn. Jenny Humphrey is a part of this family. Her father wanting best for his children, sends them off to school in the upper east side. This concept of innocence is primary to Jenny’s character. She is bullied and criticized for her lack of elegance because of where she lives. She is also initiated by the forerunner of the upper east side, Blair Waldorf, whom is known for her ability to deceive and manipulate in order to claim the social ladder in society. Jenny becomes a part of this society and is, much like Evelina, forced to whiteness events that she is aware are unjust and insensitive. Although she is at times affected and influenced by this world she was sucked into, her values on family and fashion continue to surpass her influences. she eventually leaves New York city for good in order to maintain her values and her personality. Through this the writers are able to relate to viewers as well as expose true sensitivity and elegance in a woman, similar to what Burney is displaying within Evelina.
It is interesting to recognize this similarity between the modern world and eighteenth century society. Evelina’s ability to adapt to the apparent class of elegance and pure morals is underlined by manipulation and decrepit. Evelina’s innocence is brought out though instances such as DuBois as Burney’s way of creating a relevant and relatable character who evokes not only the elegance and morals of a superior class but also a character who resonates within a reader.
Evelina a novel by Frances Burney explores the obstacles a girl has to overcome in the upper class society of England. The novel centers around Evelina and her coming into upper class English society and the problems she has to overcome, to gain acceptance. To my surprise I have found this novel to be of great similarity to Amanda Bynes’ movie “What A Girl Wants” 2003. In the movie, Bynes’ character Daphne, an American from New York City, embarks on a mission to the UK to see if she can locate her father, as he was not present in her life. Daphne had never met her father as he disowned Daphne’s mother shortly after her birth because his family did not approve of her mother. As she arrives in England she quickly finds out her father is a Lord running for the House of Commons, and Daphne realizes her father is not an ordinary man, but a member of royalty in England. Daphne soon learns, the world she has lived in New York City, is nothing compared to how she is “obliged” to act in the UK. As the daughter of a Lord, Daphne learns proper English etiquette, the rules of attending a ball, and last but not least, how she should be behaving amidst the royals, which at some points she just could not succeed in doing. Although Daphne was submerged into the upper class society of England and tried to adopt the certain way of life, she felt staying true to her roots, and her “down to earth” life was much more important.
The plot of What A Girl Wants bears great resemblance to the overall plot of Burney’s Evelina. Although not an exact replica of one another, the logistics of a middle class girl, learning the behaviours of upper class society is quite prevalent. An example Evelina and Daphne shared in common is their behaviours and etiquette practices while attending a ball. In the instance of Evelina, she not only was unprepared while attending the ball, but she also did not know proper etiquette of the upper class. This can be seen when she refuses a dance with a gentlemen because he did not meet her standards, but then accepts another dance with another gentlemen, something ladies were never supposed to do. The altercation between Evelina’s first dance partner at which she refused his dance is seen “He begged to know if I was not well? You may easily imagine how much I was confused. I made no answer, but hung my head, like a fool, and looked on my fan. He then, with an air the most respectfully serious, asked if he had been so unhappy as to offend me?” (63) Evelina was thrown into such a society, where etiquette amidst social gatherings plays such a big role in her everyday life, that she was unprepared and yet not knowledgeable enough of all the social etiquettes.
Although Evelina and What a Girl Wants one can argue bear a resemblance, the outcome of both the ladies social upbringings, play a different role in their relation to society. Although Daphne learns the customs of the upper class and the behaviours that comes with being of an upper class lady, she remains the low key New Yorker she has always been. Evelina on the other hand, although reluctant and negligent to observe the behavioural etiquettes of upper class society, she adopts their ways as she matures in this society. The behavior and attitude towards society Evelina possesses after learning the etiquette creates a type of highbrow snobbish persona, which she is not at fault at possessing, because this society she is trying to be accepted in teaches her these values. Although Evelina learns the behavioural etiquette of being a proper lady amongst distinguished guests makes her a women, her behaviour towards other people of lower classes does not display any type of etiquette at all, rather can be seen as snobbish and prudish.
Works Cited: Burney, Frances. Evelina: Or, a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World. N.p.: University of Oxford, n.d. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Ebook, IBooks.
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.
Personally I think that it is interesting that Evelina is written in letter form. The longest letters are the ones Evelina writes to her adoptive father Mr. Villars. Every time a letter is presented not written by Evelina, (e.g. Mr. Villars to Evelina or Sir John Belmont to Lady Howard), they are shorter and more straight forward. On one hand, it can be argued that the novel is supposed to tell Evelina’s life, hence the title: “A Young Lady’s Entrance Into the World”, thus the story needs to be told from Evelina’s perspective herself so the reader can get a glimpse into her mind. On the other hand, the story could also be written through other character’s perspectives (e.g. Lady Howard) without taking away from the story line itself. Furthermore, Burney’s choice to predominantly structure the novel through Evelina’s eyes directly showcases Evelina’s need for more education because she obviously does not know the most important information to recount. In fact, Evelina is self-aware of the little knowledge or education that she has: “Unable as I am to act for myself, or to judge what conduct I ought to pursue, how grateful do I feel myself, that I have such a guide and director to counsel and instruct me as yourself!” (Burney 274). Here she writing back to Mr. Villars right after she hears of the letter her father Sir John Belmont wrote back and she is explaining that she does not know what to do. This is not the only instance that we have seen thus far where her actions do not adhere to the social code. For example, her run ins with Lord Orville never seem to go well and she constantly feels mortified that someone of his rank witnesses her in such situations. All actions have reactions and consequences. In a letter response to Evelina, Mr. Villars says: “you must learn not only to judge but to act for yourself […] nothing is more delicate as the reputation of a woman: it is, at once, the most beautiful and most brittle of all human things” (Burney 279). Throughout this novel is Evelina’s journey to be her own woman and be able to think for herself. Although women are expected to be delicate, just as Mr. Villars explains that a woman’s reputation is, if a woman does not know how to judge and act for herself consequences will come about. These consequences can prevent her from being able to be socially fluid, essentially she may ruin her own reputation that people will always have preconceived notions about her before they meet her. Furthermore, as Mr. Villars explains that a woman’s reputation is “the most beautiful and most brittle of all human things” it directly parallels the way women are looked upon as beings in society itself. Women are seen to be very beautiful, and that is all they are good for (because aesthetics, and social roles, is natural according to Edmund Burke), and they are brittle, delicate, and docile. Although this is a common theme throughout many female narratives, there have been other women writers who push against these stereotypes. A great example is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft. As a result, however, Wollstonecraft was criticized by many for writing what she did, especially because of being female. This therefore just reiterates existing stereotypes.
Evelina is a story about a woman moving from social innocence and naivety, into social experience. Evelina learns about “society”, and it’s social conventions, and how important it is within society to have a legitimate family. Evelina searches for a family, finding many different versions of what a family is, until she finds one suitable to herself.
This theme of family is very interesting in this novel as the treatment of family in the 18th Century is so transferrable from how it is viewed today. Evelina moves from Berry Hill to Howard Grove to London, constantly moving and staying as a houseguest in many different homes. This was because Evelina’s father, Sir John Belmont, abandoned Evelina and her mother Caroline, who later died. Evelina is constantly searching for her rightful place within society and to be recognized as the legitimate daughter of Sir John Belmont, she finds advice and experience from many along this journey and it is clear that Evelina evolves into a more mature woman with a modernized concept for what it means to have a family.
Evelina is constantly moving from various households throughout this novel, which was very common in the mid 18th century into the early 19th century. As it states in the introduction to Evelina, many times social relations often took precedence over blood relations. It is interesting that the idea of a nuclear family was rare during this time, just as it still is presently. Reverend Villars cares for Evelina after her biological father, Sir John Belmont, abandons her. We see that Reverend Villars cares for Evelina through his many letters to her, “If contented with a retired station, I still hope I shall live to see my Evelina the ornament of her neighbourhood, and the pride and delight of her family.” (Evelina, P. 223) Here, Villars writes to Evelina that he hopes to see her settled one day and happy with a family. This is a modernized version of what the definition of family is; Villars is not Evelina’s father, though he fills that role for her.
There were still strict rules of what it meant to be a legitimate child, if you were not, you did not have a legitimate place in society. Evelina demanded to be recognized as the legitimate daughter of Sir John Belmont, so that she could establish her identity within society. With the help of her grandmother Mme. Duval, they intend to gain the recognition of Sir John Belmont, “I waited, without much impatience, to hear what this preface led to; but I was soon awakened to more lively sensations, when she acquainted me, that her intention was to prove my birthright, and to claim, by law, the inheritance of my real family!” (Evelina P. 229)
Reverend Villars assures Evelina that she will be legitimized as Sir Belmont’s daughter based on her appearance alone, “without any other certificate of your birth, that which you carry in your countenance…cannot admit of a doubt.” (Evelina, P. 476) Evelina looks just like her mother Caroline, and Reverend Villars assures her that her looks are as legitimate as a birth certificate.
Evelina also believes she is the legitimate daughter of Sir John Belmont, “The certainty I carried in my countenance, of my real birth, made him…suspect…the imposition.” (Evelina P. 518.) Despite the “step-father” and many family-like friends, Evelina was desperate to just be recognized as his rightful daughter, as it was important within society.
Evelina meets many people along her journey, many of which she considered family. Within Lady Howard’s she called Mrs. Mirvin her “mama” and Maria her “sister”, however they were not blood family. There are many people that cared and loved Evelina like family, but were not accepted in society as actual family, which prevented Evelina from establishing her identity as an eligible woman and not an illegitimate bastard. Evelina was not recognized as a legitimate daughter to Sir Belmont, and even after finally meeting, they would never be able to have a close relationship after how he treated her mother. Regardless, Evelina still needed him to recognize her as his daughter within society and continue with fatherly customs such as giving her away at her wedding, for her to be able to move on comfortably within society.
These social customs are so peculiar, when the idea of family was so transferrable during this time; many did not even live with each other but lived with cousins or distant family and friends. However it was imperative to have a legitimate family to be accepted socially and to be able to marry. Evelina desired her familial benefits, but found new versions of family along her journey.
Following Evelina’s first adventure to London, Burney cleverly shows readers the painful consequences of an uneducated young lady entering into the social world for the first time. Not only are Evelina’s expectations of the London grandeur defied, but she is condemned of impropriety in public. By highlighting Evelina’s ignorance in her first big social encounter, Burney shows the significance of propriety, as well as the derogatory view men hold of women.
From Evelina’s first letter to Mr. Villars, we learn that she is extremely eager to follow Mrs. Mirvan and the rest of the party to London. London, to Evelina, is “full of splendour” and she is so keen to see the different sights that she has “learned all their names” (69), suggesting her intense interest and desire to see them herself. She is “bewitched” (69), implying that her whole mind and heart is in London, as if London has gained control over her senses. It is evident that Evelina holds many favourable impressions of London and her excitement is conveyed in the letter. However, her “extacy” (70) quickly subsides when she makes her first journey to Porland chapel; it “by no means” (71) her expectations, suggesting her great disappointment. She clearly is very dissatisfied with the trip, as she complains that the walk is full of “dirty gravel” (71) and “very uneasy to the feet” (72), indicating her discomfort. Evelina’s expectations are further defied when she states that “nothing is to be seen but houses built of brick” (72), implying that she finds no interest in the architecture, and is not intrigued like she expects herself to be. While she is so eager to be going to London, at the end of the trip she hopes with all her heart to remain to Howard Grove, or even back to Mr. Villars, showing her desperation and the dissipation of all her expectations. Yet, because of these disappointments, Evelina has gained something precious from this experience – she has learnt that there are always both sides in things. With expectations come disappointments, but with disappointments, one comes to appreciate. This resonates nicely with Lady Howard’s letter to Mr. Villars regarding her invitation of Evelina at Howard Grove – she mentions that young people ought to be shown to the world “properly”, that it is “equally shared by pain and pleasure, hope and disappointment” (62). Evelina most certainly learns this lesson shortly after she has begun her journey.
In addition, Burney plays with female gender roles in the society – how young women ought to behave and what the society expects them to be like. Under the social norms they often dress grandly in order to achieve social recognition. Evelina is surprised to see ladies “so much dressed” while only engaging in the mundane act of shopping; she would have guessed that they are “making visits than purchased” (73), suggesting that the ladies put a lot of effort in appearing decent and beautiful in public. One gets the sense that they are presenting a different image to the public, even while shopping. Visits during that time are seen as formal meetings between people, and one ought to dress to respect or impress. The fact that London ladies dress like they are paying visits show how much they care about the image they are conveying to the public.
Furthermore, in Evelina’s first ball in London, women are portrayed as commodities for men. The following passage makes it seem like men were customers shopping for purchases (the women) in a store, as opposed to admiring ladies’ beauty:
“The gentlemen, as they passed and repassed, looked as if they thought we were quite at their disposal, and only waiting for the honour of their commands; and they sauntered about, in a careless indolent manner, as if with a view to keep us in suspense.” (74)
To describe men’s invitations for women to dance as “commands”, Burney shows readers the authority males hold over female; men’s superiority is also conveyed, and women are only expected to follow such “commands”. To be asked to dance is an “honour” for women, again emphasizing their inferiority. Why should it be an honour for a woman when asked by a man, and not the other way round – that it is the man’s honour to ask a woman for dancing? The word “sauntered” suggests that the men are pondering slowly about which woman to choose, just like when one is shopping and has to slow down to make a wise decision about which product to buy. The men are “indolent”, while women are probably sitting there with ants in their pants, worrying others’ opinions of them if they were not asked to dance the whole night. Although anxiety is no doubt bubbling inside the women, they have to sit still and be calm, showing their best side so that they will be chosen by men, like purchases waiting to be made in stores. By showing the gender inequality, Burney hopes to rouse public attention to these problems and the restrictions the society has placed upon women.
Evelina’s ignorance also gives offense to the men. She refuses to dance with Sir Willoughby because he is “foppish” and “very ugly” (74), even though the appropriate behaviour that is expected from a young lady is to accept whoever asks her to dance. Evelina therefore is subjected to ridicule afterwards and is exposed of her folly in front of everyone. Although she is condemned harshly by both Lord Orville and Sir Willoughby, Evelina is not a victim because those men have a right to do so; it is Evelina who is at fault here. It is quite ironic and a bit overwhelming that a young lady ought to be judged so cruelly just because she does not follow the conventional rules. Burney therefore heightens the importance for ladies to act accordingly and show propriety. It is evident that the society places huge pressure upon women and they bear so many expectations upon their shoulders that they are not who they are anymore: they put up masks and faces even when they are engage in trivial behaviour like shopping, because they can still be seen in the public.
Burney, Frances. Evelina. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.