In Evelina (1778), Frances Burney tells the story of a young woman who is leaving home and moving into society for the first time. In many ways, the novel offers reassurance to its female readers. Although Evelina is often plagued by unwelcome advances and surrounded by unworthy suitors, her story ends happily, with her marriage to a nobleman. At the end of the novel, as a kind of prelude to the marriage, Evelina is also reunited with her estranged father—who is also a nobleman.
The novel also addresses other social issues, reflecting the fears and fantasies of its middle-class audience. Evelina makes two visits to London, where she is repeatedly embarrassed by her ill-mannered relatives. At these moments, we are made to feel that Evelina is being dragged down by friends and family; she seems to belong with finer people, including her future husband. Thus, even as Burney acknowledges her readers’ fears of embarrassment, she also indulges their desire for social recognition and advancement.
Burney’s novels were very popular, winning the admiration of Jane Austen in particular. Eighteen editions of Evelina were published in Burney’s lifetime.
[Courtesy: Professor Timothy Spurgin]