By Christina Morin
As I was reading Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778), it became pretty clear to me why critics of the developing novel in the mid to late eighteenth century were so concerned about its potential effect on the impressionable minds of young women. Concerned that the imaginative, if not entirely implausible, narratives of the novel as a genre would prompt young female readers to ‘dream impossible dreams’, so to speak, many eighteenth-century critics condemned novels as ‘unsafe’ and ‘unsuitable’ for female consumption. Such anxieties were, in many instances, linked to ideological concerns about patriarchal order and the prescribed private and domestic role of women in society. Novels, it was understood, frequently urged women to consider entering into the public realm, thereby vitally disordering society as a whole. At the very least, novels such as Evelina, it was thought, could prompt women to desire things they shouldn’t want, things that they really had no right desiring in the first place. Take Lord Orville – the impossibly handsome, polite, and gentlemanly hero of Burney’s novel. Had I been, like the novel’s eponymous heroine is supposed to be, a penniless orphan, I feel sure I would’ve dreamt day and night about a rich nobleman falling in love with me and soliciting my hand in marriage, all the while knowing I was simply a genteel country bumpkin with no money, connections, or resources to bring to the match. Of course, I’d probably also fantasise about being revealed as the rightful daughter and heiress to a rich, ex-profligate desirous of repenting for the mistakes of his past (i.e. deserting my mother, burning their marriage certificate, denying they had ever married, and dooming me to a life of poverty and dependence.) These things happen every day, right?!
I don’t know how common stories like Evelina’s were in the eighteenth century (not very, I imagine!), but I do know that they feature quite regularly in novels of the period. Narratives of seemingly impossible love and the revelations that not only restore the hero or heroine to grace and social standing but also sanctify what, at first glance, appear to be unusual, inter-class relationships are almost a requisite in the Gothic novel of this period. And, while such occurrences may not have been very common amongst the readers of the novel, at least they make for page-turning entertainment. Evelina, in particular, recounts, in epistolary style, the adventures of its amazingly beautiful but also incredibly innocent heroine as she enters into the beau monde. Ignorant of many of the customs of London high society, she commits several breaches of etiquette, attracts countless sex-crazed cads for admirers, is beset by her vulgar and terribly offensive relations, discovers both a brother and a half-sister, is united with her real father, Lord Belmont, without ever forgetting her devotion to the man who raised her, Reverend Villars, and overcomes a series of confusions and misunderstandings to finally marry Lord Orville as his social equal. All within the space of a ten months or so. Phew! It’s more than most of us do in a lifetime, but somehow Burney never seems to overreach the limits of possibility or probability or even, indeed, her reader’s patience. Characters like Madame Duval, Captain Mirvan, and the Misses Branghton provide ample comic relief from the more serious narrative concerns of Evelina’s moral and social development and the laboured course of love. A compelling read and a beautifully written novel, Evelina is definitely going in my list of top ten eighteenth-century novels, and I’m already thinking about who they could get to play Lord Orville in the major motion picture….