Social Critique through Comedy - Frances Burney’s "Evelina" and Jane Austen’s "Pride and Prejudice"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

19 Pages, Grade: 1,7




1. Introduction

2. Narrative Techniques

3. Stereotypes as means of social critique

4. Tricksters as means of social critique

5. Mouthpieces for the heroine

6. Conclusion

1. Introduction

During the 18th and 19th century, women, especially middle class women, had a hard life to lead. Always a man’s property with no right for themselves, they were supposed to be the “Angel in the House”, the Victorian image of the ideal woman, who is devoted and submissive to her husband and family.1 However, a strong development concerning the role of the female within literature can be seen. From, speaking literary, the English Restoration onwards, many literates, especially female writers such as Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, and George Eliot expounded the problems of the women’s status in their work through the centuries. Although the term “feminism” did not yet exist, certain polemics, plays, and also novels show features of what we today would call ‘feminist traits’. A few authoresses even attempted to combine the contradictory topics of ‘woman’s status’ and ‘comedy’ in novels in order to highlight their concern2, which was a highly difficult issue, as female writers had a very bad status during that time. It caused many female authors to publish their works either anonymously, or, as for example in George Eliot’s case, under a male pseudonym. Furthermore, most of the critique was done subliminal. The two novels focused on in this study were written during that time. One of them, Frances Burney’s Evelina; or the History of a Young Lady ’ s Entrance into the World, was first published anonymously in 1778. At that time, so-called conduct books were very popular. They were young girls’ guide to “good behaviour, concerned with morality, deportment, manners and religion”3 Evelina was thus published as such a guide. The plot matches the genre perfectly: A young girl of 16, Evelina, leaves her sheltered home to get introduced into society. She learns the rules and etiquette of society by her mistakes, but stays her virtuous self and is thus able to marry a wealthy man of high rank.

The other novel this study focuses on is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Written between 1796 and 1799, the novel was first published in 1813. Not sold as a conduct book, but as a love story, and considered as far more modern than Evelina, the novel tells the story of the Bennet-family, which consists of the parents and their five daughters. Not at all wealthy, but still belonging to the gentry, the Bennets take part in social events and the main focus (especially for Mrs. Bennet) lies on the commotions of socializing and the marriage of the daughters: marriage and patriarchy are strong themes in both of the novels.

This essay is intended to compare both novels regarding their attempt to criticize patriarchy and conducts of the time by sometimes more and sometimes less obvious means of comedy. It shall be discussed, how both writers gain the attention of the audience towards social critique through their narrative techniques as well as through means of characterization. It is to find that although the narrative styles, as well as the stories, seem different, there are certain features which appear similar or create a similar effect and are used in order to call attention to the civilian inequality between men and women.

2. Narrative Techniques

The two novels provide two completely different styles of narration, but for the reader they have a similar effect: we feel with the heroine and seem to be guided towards her opinion. Frances Burney chose the epistolary method for her novel. Adapted from authors such as Samuel Richardson, this at the time quite popular style of narration in some way legitimized the marketing strategy as a conduct book, and the motivation of writing itself, as letter writing was a female activity and thus licensed.4 Furthermore, the first-person narrator allows deep insights into the protagonist’s feelings and opinions, characters are described by explicit as well as implicit means, which in turn, allows an implicit self-characterization. The epistolary form places the heroine in an extremely real appearing social context, and also provides means to obtain oppositional voices.5 The view of the narrator seems objective to the reader because the protagonist Evelina is “new to the world”6 and does not yet know the follies of society. So one might assume that her view must be quite neutral towards everything she experiences, but actually, the view of the narrator is very subjective because one gets drawn very much into her emotions and beliefs. When she cites dialogues between the characters, she adapts their socially influenced style of conversation - when she makes the acquaintance of the Branghton family, for example, the narrator introduces them as “extremely quarrelsome”7 and the “questions […] well-bred”8 read as follows:

This apron’s your own work, I suppose, Miss? But these sprigs a’n’t in fashion now. Pray, if it is not impertinent, what might give a yard for this lutestring? […]9

Here Miss Branghton shows a low register as well as a not at all civil behaviour. This adaption of style is a clever device of depicting the characters she is surrounded by. Naïve-and polite-seeming but actually quite satirical adjuncts such as “questions equally interesting and well-bred” to the questions cited above, round up the drawing-in characterization of the narrator. Evelina’s writing style, however, also changes according to whom she is writing. When corresponding to her foster-father, Mr. Villars, she gives very reserved accounts of her feelings and the style itself aims at rationality and appropriate register, which is shared by Mr. Villars himself and Lady Howard. When Mr. Villars dissuades Evelina from her crush Lord Orville and she gets into a personal conflict, however, the correspondence with her friend, Maria Mirvan begins and one can see an entirely different style of writing:

And yet, when we arrived at Berry Hill, - when the chaise stopped at this place, - how did my heart throb with joy! And when, through the window, I beheld the dearest, the most venerable of men, with uplifted hands, returning, as I doubt not, thanks for my safe arrival, - Good God! I thought it would have burst my bosom!10

The language is marked by exclamations and unstructured trains of thoughts. The freedom she has as a narrator is not transferred to the protagonist Evelina, however: she is able to remain a chaste, conformed girl on the plot level because the part of satirizing passes on to the narrator Evelina11.

Jane Austen, on the other hand, is famous for her usage of the so-called free indirect style. The story is told by an omniscient narrator who combines third-person reports with first-person direct speech. The dialogues read very fluently because disrupting additions such as “he said” are omitted widely. This part of the style is called free indirect speech12 . It causes the reader to feel as if he or she took part in the conversations and actions. Free indirect speech is used to identify (minor) characters of the novel by their exterior linguistic behaviour. Here the characters’ voices do not match with the narrator’s voice.


1 Cf. Erna Hellerstein, Victorian Woman. A documentary account of women ’ s lives in nineteenth-century England France, and the United States. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995) 134-140.

2 Cf. Audrey Bilger: Laughing Feminism. Subversive Comedy in Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002).

3 J.A. Cuddon, Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1991)173.

4 Cf. Julia Epstein, The Iron Pen. Frances Burney and the Politics of Women ’ s Writing (Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989) 95-96.

5 Cf. Sabine Augustin, Eighteenth Century Female Voices. Education and the Novel (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2005) 91.

6 Frances Burney: Evelina: or the History of a Young Lady ’ s Entrance into the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) 306.

7 Ibid. 70.

8 Ibid. 71.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid. 255.

11 Cf. Silvia Mergenthal, Erziehung zur Tugend: Frauenrollen im englischen Roman um 1800 (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1997) 278.

12 All information on free indirect speech and free indirect thought taken from

Wolfgang G. Müller, Der freie indirekte Stil bei Jane Austen als Mittel der Rede - und Gedankenwiedergabe, in Poetica 16 (1984), p.206-236.And Norman Page, The language of Jane Austen, Oxford: Blackwell.1972.

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Social Critique through Comedy - Frances Burney’s "Evelina" and Jane Austen’s "Pride and Prejudice"
University of Heidelberg
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Jane Austen, Burney, satire, Frauenroman, Conduct book
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Anonymous, 2009, Social Critique through Comedy - Frances Burney’s "Evelina" and Jane Austen’s "Pride and Prejudice", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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