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Constraints to female expression in Frances Burney’s novel, Evelina (1778)

By Serena Kerrigan-Noble - English Language and Literature Student @ Lincoln College, Oxford


Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World is a novel written by Frances Burney and first published anonymously in 1788. This 3-volume epistolary novel follows the eponymous character Evelina, the unacknowledged but legitimate daughter of a dissipated English aristocrat raised in rural seclusion. The novel recounts the humorous events which befall Evelina upon her entrance into eighteenth-century society in London and Bristol, as she encounters rakes and a distinguished nobleman with whom she later forms a romantic attachment. The novel is an example of the sentimental mode, a precursor to the works of Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth, who are authors similarly concerned with notions of sensibility, romanticism, and the foibles of society.

Edmund Burke saw the French revolution as catalysing a ‘revolution in sentiments, manners, and moral opinions’ which challenged the stabilizing effect of chivalric sentimentality on class and gender hierarchies (Claudia Johnson, 2009: 6). The widespread popularity of the novel form led to fears that its democratising impulse would empower groups like women. Silence is perceived to be concomitant with feminine innocence, which is undermined by theatrical effusions of sentiment. However, the development of the eponymous protagonist becomes an allegory for the emergence of the novel as a medium for an interiorized form of expression, which does not affront prejudices against more exhibitionist forms of female expression. Bodies themselves become texts in the novel, as romantic connections become exercises in sympathetically reading the beloved object. Nevertheless, Burney ultimately highlights the unequal power dynamic implicit in this interaction and suggests that female expression is further constrained by the sympathetic male gaze which seeks to overlay its own interpretations onto the pliable female text.

Frequently, when subjected to the inquiring gaze of others, particularly that of her future suitor, Lord Orville’s, Evelina’s eyes are immediately ‘bent to the ground’ and she is overwhelmed by ‘shame’ (34). At points, Evelina displays a Philomela-like inability to speak which reflects how far she has internalized the societal prohibition to speak, an inability brought into relief by her faculty for recording her experiences in written form. Her broken, hyphenated syntax, ‘I hope not, - I beg that- I would not for the world- I am sure I ought to- to’ (53) highlights the difficulty of articulating herself in a society which requires of her to be ‘silent, uncomfortable, and ashamed. Evelina’s social excursions to the Opera, Ranelagh, Vauxhall and balls all involve elements of spectacle, all ‘entail social performances staged before the public eye’, which is made evident in the similarity between Evelina’s social anxiety at ‘dancing in front of so many people’ (29) at her first ball. The novel appears to caution against a theatrical form of sentimentality which exposes the inexperienced female protagonist to the advances of importunate rakes; it is under the mistaken assumption that Evelina is an ‘actress’ that a group of rakes accost her in Vauxhall gardens.

Even as the ingénue enters the social scene, she seems to ‘come out’ only to remain ‘subject to the contradictory injunction to keep herself modestly concealed. Mr. Villars’ metaphor that ‘the reputation of a at once the most beautiful and most brittle of all human things’ (166) emphasizes how fragile is the power women exercise over men through their beauty, and how easily shattered. The epistolary format of the novel offers an interiorized form of feminine expression articulated within the acceptable limits of the private sphere. By ostensibly only recording events, Evelina’s narrative disclaims any pretensions to ‘playing author in the patriarchal sense’, even as the episodic narrative trajectory reveals her resistance to any ‘plot ready formed for her’ (Joanne Cutting-Gray, 1990: 52). Evelina is able to encode her desires without affronting prohibitions on female expression.

Her consciousness of her own desires, here, corresponds to the eighteenth-century sense of the term ‘sensibility’, according to G. S. Rousseau, to mean ‘self-consciousness and self-awareness’ (1976: 142n10). Writing allows her to acknowledge her feelings even in the process of ostensibly rejecting them: ‘I will not write any longer; for the more I think…the less indifferent…I find myself’ (p.13). whilst Burney illustrates Hume’s contention that the sentiments of women have a civilizing influence on men, she is also aware that this sympathetic communication also involves men imposing readings onto the female text, something which is made evident by the interjections of Mr. Villars’ own letters throughout the narrative. This is exemplified by the literary idiom in which she frames her anguished lament to her father: ‘Oh, Sir...That you could but read my heart!’ (384). Evelina’s surrogate father Mr. Villars, too, views Evelina as ‘a book that afflicts and perplexes me!’, (332). When the importunate rake, Sir Clement Willoughby intercepts Evelina’s letter, his action becomes metonymic for the social order which enforces female emotional and artistic suppression. Lord Orville’s initial assessment of Evelina as a ‘silent’ ‘angel’, (39) whilst initially a term of disapprobation becomes, by the end of the novel, an affirmation of the fact that her silence is the very condition of her remaining an ‘angel’ by the terms of a patriarchal society.

Further reading:

Ahern, Stephen, Affected Sensibilities: Romantic Excess and the Genealogy of the Novel, 1680-1810 (AMS Press: New York, 2007).

Allen, Emily, “Staging Identity: Francis Burney’s Allegory of Genre”, Eighteenth-Century Studies , Summer, 1998, Vol. 31, No. 4, The Mind/Body Problem (Summer, 1998).

Bray, Joe, The Female Reader in the English Novel: From Burney to Austen (Routledge, 2008).

Burney, Frances, Evelina (Penguin: London, 2012).

Johnson, Claudia, Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender and Sentimentality in the 1790s: Radcliffe, Burney, Austen (UCP: Chicago, 2009).

Mullan, John, Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth-century (OUP: 1988)

Rousseau, G. S., “Nerves, Spirits and Fibres: Towards Defining the Origins of Sensibility,” Studies in the Eighteenth-Century 3, ed. R. F. Brissenden and J. E. Eade (Toronto: University Toronto Press, 1976).


Dissipated, adj- Given to or characterised by dissolute, reckless pleasures such as drinking and gambling

Philomela- The daughter of Pandion, king of Athens, turned into a swallow in classical legend, after avenging her rape by her sister’s husband, Tereus

Rake, n- A fashionable or stylish man of dissolute or promiscuous habits

Ingénue- An artless, innocent girl or young woman; also, the representation of such a character on the stage, or the actress who plays the part

Epistolary- relating to letters or letter-writing (a novel composed of letters)

Metonymic, adj – from metonymy: a figure of speech that replaces an object or concept with a word closely related to the original, such as “crown” for “king”


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