But, really, I think there ought to be a book of the laws and customs à-la-mode, presented to all young people upon their first introduction into public company.
The anxiety of this statement touches on Evelina's central conflict in the novel. In her early letters to Mr. Villars, Evelina writes of her complete ignorance of the rules of fashionable society, lamenting that she wishes she had a rulebook to consult when placed in situations like the assembly. There, she denies a dance request from Mr. Lovel on the basis of his foppish appearance, while accepting one from Lord Orville. At the next assembly, she tries to avoid making a similar mistake by lying to Sir Clement about being engaged, only to have him embarrass her in front of Lord Orville, her phantom dance partner. At the theater, she is further embarrassed by Mr. Lovel, whose insinuations about her low birth rattle her. There are clearly ways to conduct oneself in the midst of such company, but she doesn't know them, and she grows frustrated at her blunders. Indeed, the eighteenth-century world of fashionable society was characterized by a plethora of rules guiding public and private behavior, especially as they pertained to gender. It is not surprising that a young woman with no previous experience in this milieu would be completely flummoxed.
In all ranks and all stations of life, how strangely do characters and manners differ! Lord Orville, with a politeness which knows no intermission, and makes no distinction, is as unassuming and modest as if he had never mixed with the great, and was totally ignorant of every qualification he possesses; this other lord, though lavish of compliments and fine speeches, seems to me an entire stranger to real good-breeding...
Evelina may be young and ignorant of the world, but she is also remarkably intelligent and perceptive when it comes to making judgments about those around her. She praises Lord Orville for his manners, his decorum, his ease of conversation, his morals, his appearance, and his humility. She admires him for all of the right reasons. The other men she encounters, however (which include Mr. Smith, Lord Merton, Mr. Lovel, and Sir Clement Willoughby) are subject to her disapprobation and censure. She mocks Mr. Lovel's foppishness and Mr. Smith's ill manners. She is frightened by Sir Clement's bold sexuality and his disregard for feminine innocence. She is disgusted by Lord Merton's dissipation, and his callous disregard for others. The words and actions of these four men are a virtual catalogue of bad behavior. They tease her, physically accost her, flirt with her even when they are engaged to another, humiliate her, try and destroy her happiness with Lord Orville, and ignore her protestations.
Alas, my child, the artfulness of your nature, and the simplicity of your education, alike unfit you for the thorny paths of the great and busy world.
Mr. Villars is aware of the dangers Evelina has and will face through her foray into fashionable society. He knows she is sweet, guileless, innocent, and delicate. She also has a precarious social standing, given the uncertainty and ill repute of her family history. He describes London as "the general harbour of fraud and folly, of duplicity and impertinence," and as a place where morals may be tested. This "public and dissipated life" disturbs him, as do the people who inhabit it (117). In this letter, he warns her against Sir Clement and criticizes Mr. Lovel. Mr. Villars's warnings are unsurprising given his traditional, religious nature and his role as Evelina's guardian, but he underestimates his young ward, who, although making some social blunders, largely avoids falling prey to vice and altering her sensible, moral attitude. His opinion also falls in line with the general expectation a traditionalist would have of an 18th century woman. Part of Evelina's growth in the novel is in realizing that she can make decisions for herself.
Never can I consent to have this dear and timid girl brought forward to the notice of the world by such a method; a method which will subject her to all the impertinence of curiosity, the sneers of conjecture, and the stings of ridicule.
Mr. Villars is tremendously upset by Madame Duval's plan to sue Sir John Belmont for the money Evelina is owed as his heiress. As he expresses in this statement, Mr. Villars is distressed over the public scrutiny and ridicule Evelina would face in such circumstances. It was considered unseemly for a woman's name or person to be exposed to the public sphere; only men were to conduct business and legal affairs. During the time of the book's publication, a woman was expected to subsume her identity and her assets to her husband; this process, called coverture, signified that a man took care of all public affairs while the woman remained essentially nameless and invisible. Mr. Villars is a caring man, but he reflects here an attitude that limited a woman's identity. In his mind, Madame Duval is not helping the girl - she is threatening Evelina's innocence, delicacy, and above all, her precious reputation.
Remember, my dear Evelina, nothing is so delicate as the reputation of a woman; it is at once the most beautiful and most brittle of all human things.
Mr. Villars continues to worry about Evelina, especially after he learns she is to spend another month in London with her grandmother. This quote, one of the most famous from the novel, exemplifies the nature of gender during the eighteenth century. Young women were required to act in a very specific way: they were to be innocent, unworldly, sweet, beautiful, and above all, moral. Their reputation was of utmost importance, since that was what secured for them a good husband and social standing. A woman of ill repute was censured and shut out. Almost all the conduct-book morality of the time necessitated a loss of reputation for a 'doomed woman,' one who had lost her virtue. Of course, men were not subject to this same scrutiny and obsessiveness. The men, excepting Lord Orville, are licentious and lascivious. It is even remarked of Lord Merton that he has a bad reputation and "among women, he was rarely admitted" (276). This does not, however, preclude him from marrying the wealthy noblewoman Lady Louisa. Mr. Villars's comment may seem obnoxious to modern readers, but his philosophy firmly conforms to its historical context.
It was curious to observe the effect which his embarrassment, added to the freedom with which Madame Duval addressed him, had upon the rest of the company...
This quote describes how Sir Clement was mortified when Madame Duval accosts him in front of the Branghtons for his part in the practical joke in Howard Grove. Until this point, Sir Clement has remained blithely serene both in his persecution of grandmother and in his attempted seduction of granddaughter. He remained confident in his station, his gender, and his charm. His willingness to torture Madame Duval as a means to stay close to Evelina shows how comfortable he was with his power. Madame Duval's comeuppance finally silences this very vocal man. She turns him into an object of amusement for people whom he would normally regard as objects of derision. Madame Duval is laughing at Sir Clement in the way he laughed at her, but it seems somewhat fairer given his earlier behavior and smug self-righteousness. Even Evelina, who does not comment too much on the incident, evinces pleasure at this man's humiliation.
Though gentleness and modesty are the peculiar attributes of your sex, yet fortitude and firmness, when occasion demands them, are virtues as noble and as becoming in women as in men: the right line of conduct is the same for both sexes, though the manner in which it is pursued may somewhat vary, and be accommodated to the strength or weakness of the different travellers.
Mr. Villars's advice is intended to praise Evelina for stopping Mr. Macartney's suicide, but it also offers some insight into Burney's views on the masculine and feminine ideals of the eighteenth century. If we take this statement as reflecting her own sensibility, she seems to deny any significant differences between men and women - Mr. Villars here praises Evelina's "fortitude and firmness," both masculine qualities. It would not be uncommon for a woman in Evelina's situation to faint or try to procure a man's aid under such circumstances (and indeed, Evelina does faint at certain points of the novel). The novel also, however, praises the feminization of the masculine ideal. Evelina writes to Mr. Villars of Lord Orville's delicacy, which stands in contrast to the boldness, brazenness, crassness, aggression, and independence of the other men presented in the novel. This statement reflects the unfortunately strong gender roles of the time, while suggesting that any individual can somewhat transcend those limitations through personal strength of character.
Good God! my dear Sir, does it not seem as if money were of no value or service, since those who possess, squander it away in a manner so infinitely absurd?
Here, Evelina offers a damning analysis of the gross waste and dissipation of the rich Londoners with whom she socializes. This quote refers to the ridiculous and expensive bet between Lord Merton and Mr. Coverley, at the time that they are debating how to decide it. When Mr. Lovel suggests they draw straws, Evelina is indignant about how little money matters to those people who have great amounts of it. They are perfectly willing to waste it on the most useless games and experiments, rather than use it for altruistic or philanthropic ends. Money has perverted their thinking, and made them privy to amoral, affected, and selfish attitudes. The way the contest is eventually decided - through a footrace by two old infirm women used as stand-ins - is a paragon of bad taste and cruelty. In this same vein, Evelina is disgusted over their obsession with food; they are more "gluttons" than "epicures." What is important to remember is that with her inheritance and marriage to Lord Orville, Evelina will be entering this same society, but her letters have made it clear that it is necessary to draw distinctions between wealthy people of character (Lord Orville, Mrs. Selwyn) and those without (Sir Clement, Lord Merton, Mr. Lovel). Money does not make a person bad - but a bad person with money is someone to be judged.
I have just received your letter, - and it has almost broken my heart! - Oh, Sir! the illusion is over indeed! - How vainly have I flattered myself, how miserably deceived myself!
This statement, written by Evelina to Mr. Villars, reflects her embarrassment at realizing that Lord Orville is in love with her, something she was oblivious to until her guardian pointed it out. In her response is a complicated set of emotions that highlight the contradictions of a woman's position in her time. Above all, Evelina is concerned with her reputation - she is worried that she has encouraged such affections by signifying her nubility. She writes of her "unguarded folly," and laments that she ever left Mr. Villars. Her response likely strikes the modern reader as strange for two reasons: first, it seems unlikely that she would not notice how much Lord Orville cares for her; second, the response seems incredibly histrionic, her words indicating a tumult of emotion out of proportion with the event itself. It is possible that she wrote this without time for refection, in a maelstrom of emotion unchecked by contemplation. This seems likely, given how quickly she later neglects her resolution to ignore him. Overall, there is a bit of dramatic irony here - the reader is more realistic about Evelina than she is about herself. It is obvious that she is disturbed because she has sexual feelings for him that terrify her. After all, such lust could result in situations that would ruin her for society. She is pleased by the attention, but simultaneously ashamed that others might view the attention in a way that could tarnish her reputation.
"So would every man in his senses," said Lord Merton, "for a woman wants nothing to recommend her but beauty and good-nature; in everything else she is either impertinent or unnatural. For my part, deuce take me if ever I wish to hear a word of sense from a woman as long as I live!"
Lord Merton gives voice here to some entrenched eighteenth-century views regarding a woman's place in society. He has very traditional views on gender roles, but these views are rooted in cruel misogyny. He observes that a woman's value rests almost solely upon her outward appearance and her "good-nature," which to him no doubt means her submissiveness and amenability. He is completely uninterested in a woman's intellect, opinion, education, and autonomy. He fights with the satirical and masculine Mrs. Selwyn, partly because he finds her to be a gross distortion of a woman. For her part, she can do little to make headway against a man so smugly assured of his own superiority and dominance. Though Lord Merton is certainly an extreme example, these opinions do permeate the novel. Even Lord Orville, who seems to respect a woman's wit and independence, still participates in this heavily stratified world of gender. He falls in love with Evelina first for her beauty and admires her innocence, docility, and morality first and foremost. All of the men in the novel have expectations of women that reflect some degree of Lord Merton's statement.
Evelina Questions and Answers
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Evelina followed the young man upstairs to stop him from committing suicide. She rushed into his room and grabbed his arm, falling down by his side. He was utterly shocked, and Evelina grew embarrassed. She tried to take the pistols, imploring him...
Evelina, or, the History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World study guide contains a biography of Frances Burney, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.