In the 18th century, being called "sensible" was a profound compliment. It referred to forms of intellectual, emotional, or artistic awareness, as well as the relationship between physical and emotional response. It meant having moral perception and quick intellectual feeling. Sensibility was a virtue that the upper class prized, and even though Evelina is not raised in that environment, she demonstrates and is acclaimed for her natural sensibility. In a variety of situations, she reveals her appropriately sensible responses: she is annoyed and vexed by the behavior of the foppish and licentious men around her; she is pleased by the good manners of the admirable Lord Orville; she intervenes to save Macartney; she delights in opera and higher forms of entertainment. Most of the elite characters demonstrate that sensibility is difficult to attain, and Evelina thus proves herself worthy of approbation. Much of her virtue for the reader is meant to derive from the sensibility reflected in her behavior.
Female delicacy / Reputation
In the world of Evelina, a young woman's delicacy (her innocence and fragility) must be protected above all else. A young woman who was not careful with her reputation would encourage unwanted attention, and would ultimately be unable to secure herself a good husband. To guard herself, a young woman was expected to avoid the world's depravity, and any situation that could compromise her virtue. Often, the appearance of delicacy is more important than delicacy itself - therefore, a chaste woman could still suffer a poor reputation if she fraternized with the wrong men.
Evelina, a paragon of innocence, confronts these pressures throughout the novel, and questions of delicacy are raised through those situations. Having never before partaken in fashionable society, she possesses innate sweetness and guilelessness. Mr. Villars thus feels obliged to warn her that she is unfit for the London society scene. Throughout the novel, Evelina endeavors to maintain her innocence by staving off advances, seeking advice and counsel, and extracting herself from dangerous situations. Overall, she is successful, and the end of the novel rewards her with a rich and loving husband for having maintained that reputation. Different women - like Mrs. Selwyn - are viewed in terms of their relative delicacy, and the question of purity and chastity inform much of the male behavior in the novel.
The public sphere
The pleasures and dangers of the public sphere are central to the novel. In the 18th century, women were not supposed to participate in the public sphere for fear that its vices would infect their virtue, thereby ruining their reputation and making them unfit for marriage and motherhood. A married woman was therefore expected to forget her private identity and avoid any public persona. Instead, their husbands spoke for them and carried out their transactions.
Evelina's central conflict is with the public sphere. Though there are elements of it that she loves - the entertainment, the socialization, the sights - she encounters incessant pressure to guard herself against it. Mr. Villars both hates the people she meets and the potential lawsuit that would have put her name out into the world. His fears are validated by the verbal and physical threats that Evelina faces. Where Berry Hill is a safer place for a woman like her, it is likewise less exciting and less likely to draw her full character out than London does.
Gentlemanliness and civility
Lord Orville is admired by Evelina and readers for his exemplification of true gentlemanliness and civility. His particular type of masculinity, also evinced by Mr. Villars, is the type lauded by Burney, who came into contact with many rakes and libertines in her own life. Lord Orville shows himself to be a true gentleman through the way he treats Evelina. He is never forceful or aggressive, he respects her, he rescues her from obnoxious situations, he makes her feel wanted and welcome at Clifton, and he never mocks or teases her. He thus stands in stark contrast to the other men of the novel, who consistently exhibit vice and disrespect. Especially considering the dangers a woman faces in the public sphere, gentlemanly behavior is represented as a prominent virtue in the novel.
Violence to Women
Women are treated very poorly in this novel. This is not surprising, given the pervasiveness of traditional gender roles in the 18th century. Two of the worst incidents - the Captain's torture of Madame Duval, and the footrace between the two sick and elderly women - are shocking in their blatant physicality. A woman's body is represented as something meant to be abused and mocked, especially when those women do not exhibit the 'appropriate' degree of delicacy.
Though Evelina does not go through anything so torturous, she does have to suffer much physical and psychological violence. She is grabbed on several occasions while walking alone. Most of the violence is verbal, however, as she is mocked and teased by her many seducers. Overall, the novel presents women as something of a commodity to the 18th century world, to be considered solely in terms of their marriageability or sexuality. When the first is not at issue, then men are free to pursue them as sexual objects with whatever degree of violence they see fit.
Mrs. Selwyn is an embodiment of nature; she uses her quick wit and ironic nature to prod, provoke and draw attention to social realities. The flipside of this quality is that her satire is often accompanied by truly bad (and hilarious) manners. Overall, Burney seems to suggest that satire may have moral and entertainment value. Though she upsets people with her irony (including Evelina), Mrs. Selwny does holds Lord Merton accountable for his misogyny, cruelty, licentiousness, and dissolution. Her satire also proves a kindness by provoking Evelina to pursue her own happy ending. It is also interesting that Mrs. Selwyn is allowed to be so forward partially because she is a woman. A man would likely be challenged to a duel for speaking so bluntly to the aristocrats, and could never be so forward with women. Of course, this works against her 'delicacy,' but reveals a value in being a masculine woman.
The novel is infused with snobbery of all kinds. The most obvious is the class snobbery of the aristocratic circle, who view women in terms of their social worth and judge others for lack of wealth and social grace. However, even Evelina shows a snobbery despite her rustic upbringing. Her personal taste for opera establishes her as more highbrow, and she views people partially in terms of how they affect her appearance at such events. She is disdainful of being seen with her ill-bred relatives, and her attitudes towards them are very haughty. She is obsessively concerned with her reputation, becoming easily embarrassed when she is around Captain Mirvan, Madame Duval, and the Branghtons. However, the Macartney episode stands as one example of how Evelina is able to set aside her snobbishness to openly engage with a member of the lower sorts; her concern for Macartney is unadulterated by any class awareness. Her snobbishness is perhaps less about money, and more about social appearance and behavior.
Evelina Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Evelina is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
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.