Evelina (By Frances Burney) – The Perfection Of Femininity EVELINA: PERFECTION OF FEMININITY When Frances Burney wrote Evelina in the Eighteenth Century, she was able to capture the essence of what it meant to be a female at this time in history. Throughout the novel, the character of Evelina captures the hearts of those around her. Mr. Villars describes Evelina as this artless young creature, with too much beauty to escape notice (19). The character of Evelina encompasses the traits attributed to the description of the female gender. These traits include a focus on the importance of reputation; a lack of passion; and distinct physical attributes.
Above all else, Evelina holds her reputation in highest regards. Eighteenth Century literature focuses on the belief that an individuals external behavior reflected his or her interior belief system. In An Essay on Man, Alexander Pope writes, Know then thyself, presume not God to scan / The proper study of mankind is man (II. 1-2). Eighteenth Century society judges individuals based on their outside appearance. Throughout the novel, Evelina emphasizes her concern with what other people think of her.
When Evelina is in the company of Madame Duval and her Branghton cousins, she oftentimes hides from her acquaintances, embarassed to be seen in such company. Upon being seen by Lord Orville when she is accompanied by prostitutes, Evelina laments, How vainly, how proudly have I wished to avoid meeting him when only with the Branghtons and Madame Duval,-but now, how joyful should I be had he seen me to no greater disadvantage (265). Evelinas fears her reputation can easily be marred, should just one man, such as Lord Orville, hold her in low regard. Lord Orvilles opinion of Evelina plays an important role in her life, because her primary cause for guarding her reputation is its importance in courtship. Mr. Villars wisely reminds Evelina, Remember..nothing is so delicate as the reputation of a woman; it is, at once, the most beautiful and most brittle of human things (184).
The noblemen of the Eighteenth Century sought women with virtuous reputations. Evelina cautiously regards her suitors, chastising Sir Clement for his insolence (221). In several instances, Sir Clement attempts to affront Evelina and he offends her with his sexual aggressiveness. On one occassion, Sir Clement discovers Evelina when she has been seperated from her party. He uses the opportunity to lead her away into the dark alleys and when Evelina is offended, he cries, Good God!-good Heaven!-my dearest life, what is it I have done?-what is it I have said? (221). Evelina refuses to be treated as woman whose virtue could be in question.
For example, after sending a letter of apology Lord Orville for her party using his carriage without permission, Evelina is mortified when Lord Orville sends a response which implies her intention to be impure. Evelinas main concern is that others think highly of her, especially when it comes to her virtue. While Evelina does keep her virtue intact, the most potentially damaging aspect of her character are the circumstances of her birth. Since her father has not claimed her as his legitimate child, Evelina must assume the false name of Anville. Lady Howard writes to Lord Belmont, informing him, To be owned properly by you, is the first wish of her heart (148). It is not until Lord Belmont acknowledges Evelina as his daughter that she is able to achieve true harmony in her life. From this point on, Evelinas life achieves near-perfection.
She marries the man of her dreams, holds a high place in society, and both her reputation and the reputation of her mother is clear. While Evelina exalts in her reunion with her father, she feels uncomfortable expressing the strong emotions she feels on such an occassion. This is due to the fact that the ideal Eighteenth Century female was unable to display passion. Evelina acts passive and agreeable, just as Evelina does in her conversations with the Branghton sisters. After being asked what she thinks of Mr. Brown, Evelina replies, I am no judge,-but I think his person is very-very well (190). Evelinas ambiguous response perplexes the sisters, because she has skirted the issue at hand.
Evelina also manages to remain unsided when the Branghtons ask her to vote on their choice of activities for the evening. Evelina responds, I said, that as I was ignorant what choice was in my power, I must beg to hear their decisions first (214). Evelina never casts a vote and the party remains at home. While Evelina may appear indecisive in these situations, she plays the role of passive female to fit the description of ideal femininity. In actuality, Evelina displays high levels of passion at several points in the novel. Upon meeting her father, Evelina writes, I could restrain myself no longer; I rose and went to him; I did not dare speak, but with pity and concern unutterable, I wept and hung over him (427). Evelina is unable to hide the passion she feels towards her father.
When Evelina finds Mr. Macartney about to kill himself, she writes, I grew stiff with horror: till recollecting that it was yet possible to prevent the fatal deed, all my faculties seemed to return, with the hope of saving him (202). Evelina shows remarkable passion when saving the life of her brother. She also reveals her passion for the city of London when she writes to Mr. Villars to ask for permission to go to there. She writes, I have no happiness or sorrow, no hope or fear, but what your kindness bestows, or your displeasure may cause.
You will not, I am sure, send a refusal without reasons unanswerable, and therefore I shall chearfully acquiesce. Yet I hope-I hope you will be able to permit me to go! (26). In actuality, Evelina desperately wishes to visit London, and while she does not directly express this interest to Mr. Villars, her passion in the matter becomes clear. Essentially, Evelina does feel passions, yet she hides them with her displays of passivity and indecisiveness. While the ideal Eighteenth Century woman did not openly display her passions, she did display certain physical attributes. Throughout the novel, Evelinas suitors praise her for her beauty.
Sir Clement describes Evelina as loveliest of women (221), while Lord Orvilles companion refers to Evelina as the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life (38) and compares her to the infamous Helen of Troy. Evelina accentuates her beauty by assuming good grooming habits along with wearing fine garments, on which the Branghton sisters compliment her. Evelinas beauty is decribed as pale and soft, resembling a delicate work of art. When she becomes lost from her party, a party of men heckles the beautiful girl assuming she is a prostitue, as one exclaims, [She is] the voice of the prettiest little actress I have seen this age (220). Evelinas beauty, while it does cause her troubles, eventually results in her marriage to the man of her dreams.
The novel concludes with Evelina marrying Lord Orville, which also concludes the point in her life which she is considered a vital and important female in society. The ideal woman in the Eighteenth Century, upon marriage, immediately withdrew to domestic life. At formal gatherings in London, married women retired to a seperate room to play cards. Evelina writes, My mamma Mirvan, for she always calls me her child, said she would sit with Maria and me till we were provided with partners, and then join the card-players (31). At the end of the novel, Evelina marries Lord Orville, finishing her reign as the ideal of Eighteenth Century femininity.
When Evelina rides off into the sunset, so to speak, with her Prince Charming at the end of Evelina, the reader exalts in her victory. This is due to the fact that Evelina represents the ideal female of the Eighteenth Century, so her happiness is a necessary conclusion. Throughout the novel, Evelinas gender is contructed in the following characteristics: a focus on the importance of reputation, a lack of passion, and distinct physical attributes. While Evelina may or may not naturally possess these characteristics, she adopts them in order to appear the ideal of femininity. In the end, Evelina achieves the exact results she was looking for.