The most beautiful and most brittle of all human things

Dear Frances,

It’s a truth universally acknowledged – or, at least, in the relatively small world of your Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (1778) – that a single woman of marriageable age in possession of physical beauty and good nature but uncertain means must be in want of psychological abuse, social humiliation, male stalkers, and a rich husband.

Our protagonist, Evelina, is the daughter of a fallen woman and a dissipated aristocrat. After her father abandoned them and her mother died during childbirth, our heroine was raised in seclusion in the countryside by a reverend. When she was 17 years old, a series of events led her to London and Bristol, where she was for the first time confronted with her complete ignorance of the rules and conventions of fashionable society.

We follow our poor Evelina, as she makes a (somewhat hilarious) series of faux pas, earns the attention of pretty much all the gentlemen around her,  is taken advantage of and even physically accosted by most of them, bravely saves a suicide man, is attacked by a drunken sailor (only to be then rescued by prostitutes), and finally finds true love (and safe marriage) with the help of a sarcastic (and somewhat ‘masculine’) spinster.

The charm of the novel is the sharp contrast between Evelina’s good nature and naiveté and the depravity of the world she meets with. The more our protagonist feels out of place in society, the more the deep moral deficiencies of such society are made transparent to us: despite the fact that she is clueless about how to behave, Evelina’s innate good sense always leads her to make the correct moral judgment in a given situation; although, because of her mistakes, she may not appear as morally correct to the people around her, we are made to see that she is in fact the only moral person around.

The sheer fact that she is frequently misunderstanding eighteenth-century rules of civility and expectations of women makes clear for us the irrationality of such rules and the oppressive character of such expectations. We cannot help but feel your sharp look at the gender and class contradictions of your time – and, particularly, the irony behind the fact that such a good-natured girl has no place in the society that professed to prize her virtues; a society that, in reality, has less use of them than it does for pretence and lies. Part of Evelina’s bafflement and social dislocation lies in the fact that she never comes to really understand that the good appearances and refinement of the people around her are completely disconnected from true moral value. More than a coming of age journey, Evelina’s story is an adventure to remain virtuous in a world where that seems to be of little use and, sometimes, simply impossible; a world where the appearance of virtue is more important than virtue itself.

I particularly enjoyed the darkly humorous way the book explored the deep contrast between what was socially expected of men and women in eighteenth-century England: not only women are subject to all kinds of abuse and mockery, but also, they often become the main victims of the mistakes made by the men around them. The double moral standard applied to men and women made the latter more vulnerable to be abused and taken advantage of. Evelina is grabbed, verbally attacked, mocked, and teased by most of the men in her life – but she has to be very careful not to complain too explicitly, lest she be taken as bad-natured and, worst of all, unfit for marriage.

It’s no wonder that our heroine is above all, obsessed with her reputation: in her world, a woman’s value rests solely upon her outward appearance, her submissiveness, docility, innocence, and amenability; worse still, in her world, not only women are constantly in danger from male aggression, but also are forced to make little of it. Your novel almost reads like a catalogue of the various ways in which the innocence that society forced women to maintain was manipulated by men; a catalogue, moreover, of the ways female good nature and naiveté were fetishized by men as a powerful means of control.

In our protagonist’s world, men regard women either as commodities (if they are rich and of marriageable age), sexual preys (if they are poor but beautiful), or as objects of derision (once they are past that age). In the words of one of your characters, Lord Merton, “for a woman wants nothing to recommend her but beauty and good-nature; in everything else she is either impertinent or unnatural. For my part, deuce take me if ever I wish to hear a word of sense from a woman as long as I live!”

As most of the male characters accost Evelina in various rather aggressive ways, she is forced to sit and wait and smile and get away from it in the gentlest way, all in the name of decorum – as if it were her responsibility to paint any kind of abuse with an air of civility, so as to avoid to compromise her virtue by making it clear that she is not as innocent as not to be able to recognise an abuse for what it is. In this vein, yours is a novel about a different kind of sentimental education: more than a book about a girl’s moral development, it is the story of a girl who gradually learns to stave off advances and to avoid the worst consequences of harassment and social abuse.

My favourite character is Mrs. Selwyn, the spinster, and her ambivalent role in the novel never ceases to puzzle me. Regarded with discomfort by all as a ‘masculine woman’, she is strong-willed, ironic, quick-witted, defiant, and frequently aggressive: Mrs. Selwyn is the only woman brave enough to mock men and to hold them accountable for their misdeeds.  She is constantly defying the stereotypes associated with her gender, acting outside the prescribed gender roles – and thereby creating great discomfort among all the characters, who – including Evelina –seem to deeply dislike her. We are almost led to regard Mrs. Selwyn as the other characters do – in a negative way; at the same time, however, we cannot help but to warm to her boldness and to the way she tries to protect Evelina, pushing our protagonist into independence and self-awareness. Here, again, you seem to be throwing light into the irony in the fact that those two otherwise very positive features – independence and self-awareness – remain, in Evelina’s world, deeply dangerous to her, as they threaten to undermine a woman’s most prized possession: her innocence (or the appearance thereof), and thereby her reputation.

Your novel is this strange thing: a traditional marriage plot that never overtly questions the woman’s role in the world; and, at the same time, a subtle condemnation of the society in which women are oppressed to fit such a narrow role. Placed at the core of the class and gender contradictions of your time, your Evelina is as unbelievable as the façade her society required women to maintain: she must be both wise enough to recognise and avoid male abuse and naive enough never to take it for what it is.

As much as we are tempted to read the novel as a Bildungsroman, we cannot help but feel that no coming of age is really possible where no innocence loss is allowed. From the beginning, we sense that any truly personal growth on the part of Evelina would mean some degree of loss of innocence and reputation – and, ultimately, it would mean her social downfall. The coming of age, if it happens at all, is ours: while Evelina remains in a perpetual state of innocence (and is thereby rewarded with a good marriage), we as readers cannot help but see, by the end, the sham character of it all.

Yours truly,

J.


Portrait of a Lady as Evelina by John Hoppner, 1780–1789

“Unused to the situations in which I find myself, and embarassed by the slightest difficulties, I seldom discover, till too late, how I ought to act.” ― Frances Burney, Evelina

*

“it is sometimes dangerous to make requests to men, who are too desirous of receiving them.” ― Frances Burney, 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.” ― Fanny Burney, Evelina

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“There is nothing”, answered he, “which requires more immediate notice than impertinence, for it ever encroaches when it is tolerated.” ― Fanny Burney, Evelina

*

“It seldom happens that a man, though extolled as a saint, is really without blemish; or that another, though reviled as a devil, is really without humanity.” ― Fanny Burney, Evelina

*

She is not, indeed, like most modern young ladies; to be known in half an hour; her modest worth, and fearful excellence, require both time and encouragement to shew themselves. She does not, beautiful as she is, seize the soul by surprise, but, with more dangerous fascination, she steals it almost imperceptibly. ― Fanny Burney, Evelina


About the book

  • Oxford University Press, 2008, 405 p. Goodreads
  • Penguin Classics, 1994, 560 p. Goodreads
  • Broadview Press, 2000, 685 p. Goodreads
  • First published in 1778
  • Original title: Evelina, or, The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World
  • My rating: 4 stars
  • I read this book for the projects The Classics Club, Back to the Classics and New-to-me Authors to read in 2019.

One thought on “The most beautiful and most brittle of all human things

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