ENL 6236 Eighteenth Century Women Writers                   Spring 2009

 

March 23         Frances Burney, Evelina, Introduction and Vols. I-II (through page 400)

 

                        Presentations:   Megan Weber on Patricia L. Hamilton’s “Monkey Business: Lord Orville and the Limits of Politeness in Frances Burney’s EvelinaEighteenth-century Fiction 19.4 (Summer 2007): 417-440.

 

***********************

Perhaps the most well-known of the works we are reading this semester, Evelina is the fourth novel on our syllabus.  I ask that you read volumes I and II, which bring Evelina through the London sections (in Spring and Summer) and end just as she arrives in Bristol Hotwells.  Please consult the maps I handed out in class.  Because we will be treating this novel over two weeks, we will begin to develop themes that we can only fully discuss with the conclusion of the novel.  To that end, we will be looking at the novel as an example of the genre, as the work of a late-eighteenth-century female writer, and as a representation of late eighteenth-century culture.

 

***********************

The novel:

 

Much criticism and theory has been written to account for the "rise" of the novel in eighteenth-century England (and this is the subject of another course I teach).  Some consensus has been reached regarding the 1740s as a watershed decade for the developing genre, marked by the exceptional achievements of Richardson's Clarissa and Fielding's Tom Jones.  As Kristina Straub notes in her "Introduction" of the Bedford Cultural edition of Evelina (1997) the energy of the English novel declined by the 1770s, and more conservative histories of the novel declare the period between Smollet's  Humphrey Clinker  (1771) and Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility a literary wasteland.  Compare this with how Barbauld describes the novels of the period (pp. 401-406).  How does Evelina fit into this history?  How does the author herself place the novel in the Preface?  How does the author represent the literary issues at stake?

 

 

Compare the stylistic and structural similarities and differences in the major prose fiction on the syllabus – Oroonoko, History of Betsy Thoughtless and Female Quixote.  How is Evelina distinct?  Can you trace the evolution of a genre in this list?  In terms of generic qualities, which work does Evelina resemble most?  What is the significance of the resemblance?  Discuss this in light of Vivien Jones’ observations on the narrative pattern of the heroine’s fall from innocence (see introduction to Oxford World Classics edition, xiv).

 

Literary Production of Frances Burney

 

In her preface, Burney assumes "the mantle of impenetrable obscurity."  Why? What purpose does this serve?  How is gender a lens through which the novel / novelist is evaluated?

 

Note that the story is told through letters, otherwise known as epistolary.  The epistolary form was common in early novels by women but made most famous by the works of Samuel Richardson.  What are the advantages of writing in letters?  What are some of the disadvantages?  Why might it be an appropriate form for the first novel by a woman?  (Note that each of Burney's later three novels was written in a sophisticated use of third person.)

 

Satire and Humor:  Burney's works are characterized by a broad line of humor (slapstick, violence, caricature) that distinguishes her from many other successful female authors, like Austen for instance.  How does Burney's first-person narration and the character of the ingénue provide the means for her satire on eighteenth-century society?  For how long does the satiric stance of the ingénue continue in the novel?  What does the change signify about Evelina?  What characters carry the force of Burney's humor thereafter?  (E.g. are we to understand Captain Mirvan and Mrs. Selwyn in the last part of the novel as voices for Burney's wit?) 

 

Straub writes that one way the novel offers “critical distance” on the world of feminine education is through humor: “When Evelina attends her first ball, we view the world from her perspective, and it often appears to be an absurd place” (24).

 

Analyze the gendered construction of the comic figures in Burney's work.  Why is it masculine to be witty?  What about the captain's character can be recommended?  What risks does Mrs. Selwyn run for exercising her wit?  How does this compare with the risk Frances Burney runs as the writer of comic/satiric novels? 

 

Note Barbauld’s criticism: “Evelina is a young lady, amiable and inexperienced, who is continually getting into difficulties from not knowing or not observing the established etiquettes of society and from being unluckily connected with a number of vulgar characters, by whom she is involved in a series of adventures both ludicrous and mortifying.  Some of these are certainly carried to a very extravagant excess, particularly the tricks played upon the poor Frenchwoman; but the fondness for humour, and low humour, which Miss Burney discovered in this piece, runs through all her subsequent works, and strongly characterizes, sometimes perhaps blemishes, her genius” (444).

 

Examine the structure of the novel in three parts as it relates to the subtitle of the work: "The History of A Young Lady's Entrance into the World."  What are the "worlds" she is introduced to?  How does her role change from section to section?  Obviously we will deal with the final section next week.

 

A Cultural Document of the Eighteenth Century

 

Burney presents her heroine as "young, artless, and inexperienced . . . the offspring of Nature and of Nature in her simplest attire."  Here she raises a theme to be developed throughout the novel, that of nature versus art or simplicity versus affectation.  Which are we to understand is to be valued?  Why?  What is the difference between natural and polite?  How does this compare with attitudes toward art and human nature in other writers, such as Finch, Wortley Montagu, Leapor, Seward or Barbauld? 

 

Lady Wortley Montagu wrote that "fig-leaves are as necessary for our minds as our bodies, and 'tis as indecent to show all we think, as all we have" (Letter to her daughter, the Countess of Bute, Oct. 20, 1755).  How might this explain the notion of decorum?  How does it complicate the nature/art divide?

 

Some criticism of Evelina praised it for being a precise novel of manners.  How is the work a novel of manners?  What lies at the crux of the novel – manner, mannerism, manners?  What do you learn of eighteenth-century society from the story?

 

Connect this theme – the development of proper manners – to the codes of politeness and gallantry discussed previously.  How does this novel represent gallantry?  Why does Evelina at first FAIL to understand gallant conventions?  What happens as a result?

 

Jones argues that the central question in the novel is about what constitutes good or proper entertainment?  What answers does the novel offer?  How vital is this question?

 

Straub discusses two cultural narratives that inform Burney's representation of a young lady's entrance into the world:  the importance of a youthful feminine innocence and the inevitability of marriage as a woman's fate.  What evidence is there for these two cultural narratives in Evelina?  What perplexities does Evelina's innocence involve her in?  In what ways is Evelina's "passage" from the domestic innocence of Berry Hill to the public exposure of the marriage "market" dangerous?  How does this reflect codes of femininity that Evelina must conform to?  To what extent does she conform?

 

Compare Evelina’s entry into the world with that of our two other main female protagonists:  Betsy Thoughtless and Arabella.  All three are flawed heroines, but in very different ways.  All three learn lessons of a similar nature: why?

 

With so much attention on the manners and morals of Evelina, little has been said about the scrutiny of male conduct that goes on in the novel.  How does Burney's critical edge turn on masculinity? 

 

Villars as educator:  Why is Villars so influential in Evelina’s life?  Compare Evelina’s letters to Villars with his to her.  What does she learn from him?  How important is self-control?  Decorum?

 

When Villars tells Evelina she must go to London with Mme. Duval, he advises her: “You will have occasion, in the course of the month you are to pass with Madame Duval, for all the circumspection and prudence you can call to your aid: she will not, I know, propose any thing to you which she thinks wrong herself; but you must learn not only to judge but to act for yourself” (II.viii. 166).

 

Compare Evelina’s behavior on her very first visit to London (at the private ball, at the Ridotto, upon meeting the Branghton’s) with her behavior on her second trip (with the Branghton’s and Mme Duval, with Macartney, etc.).  What has she learned in the interim?  How has her voice changed?

 

Discuss illegitimacy as an eighteenth-century concept.  How is  Evelina affected by the appearance of illegitimacy?  What is her response to such appearances?

 

While codes of femininity and the inevitability of marriage clearly inform Evelina, the novel is no less structured by the dictates of class.  In what ways are class issues more visible in this novel than the earlier ones?  How is class or status defined in the novel?  What is the connection between class and manners?  What is the connection between morals and class?

 

Vivien Jones comments that Burney deliberately structures her narrative using the divisions of three volumes (which subsequently gets lost in the editorial compression of later editions).  Based on the first two volumes, what structural arguments might you make about the narrative?  How does the narrative progress from one to two?  What features are carried over or changed, and what are their significance?