Gender Relations in Frances Burney's "Evelina". The Emergence of 'Modern' Standards of Masculinity and Femininity

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016

12 Pages


Table of Contents


Main Part




The eighteenth century is an interesting era, because it can be considered a transition period between the Renaissance, when gender relations were slowly beginning to change, and the nineteenth century, when laws improved women's situation (Barker and Chalus 15). The focus on the seventeenth and nineteenth century literature among literary scholars has left the eighteenth century a bit underrepresented. Although many things changed or had already changed in the eighteenth century, we can still trace patriarchal structures and ways of thinking going back until antiquity. Evelina was first published in 1778, in the late eighteenth century.

Barker and Chalus remind us that, although clearly defined gender roles still secured the social stability, we find “changes in manner and behaviour that blurred and diminished the differences between the sexes” in the eighteenth century (1). Women still held a “subordinate status” and were supposed to be “modest, chaste, pious, and passively domestic” (2). However, we can detect a growth of individualism as well (18). According to Barker and Chalus, we can observe the “emergence of 'modern' standards of male and female gender identity in a rapidly developing urban culture” in early eighteenth century (33).

We also find a “widespread interest in female education” in urban as well as in rural areas (Barker and Chalus 101) and teaching even became the fifth most common occupation for women (103). Although it was generally considered that “an occupation [was] taken up only by women who had failed to marry and secure a living through their husbands” (117). Women were widely restricted from (formal) education, except for the nuns at the monasteries, until the Renaissance era and the emergence of humanism. Children of the middle classes also had a greater access to education than they used to have before. Roulston claims that the bourgeoisie became dominant in the eighteenth century (xii) and Maurer argues that the merchant elite challenged the idea that “life and occupation were fixed at birth” (78). She even states that for the people “gentility resides in behaviour rather than blood” at the time (16).

The traditional autocratic patriarchal father was replaced by a “sentimental husband whose supposedly tender rule over wife and children revealed a new form of gender dominance” (Maurer 204) and mutuality between the sexes became more common (209). According to Laqueur, the two-sex model was established around 1800, and a “gender revolution” took place (Wilson 22). The antique one-sex model put a strong emphasis on the inferiority of women as an imperfect version of men. But Staves even traces an “eighteenth-century desire to feminize the masculine ideal” (372). Nevertheless, Maurer reminds us that “a belief in women's inferiority – on physical, emotional, and particularly moral terms – established in an earlier period did not, as many would like us to believe, suddenly dissipate” (28). For Fung, Burney's “novels both ridicule absurd manners and expose the serious contemporary problems facing women in her patriarchal society” (937). As Campbell writes, it was not a matter of course for Burney to publish novels at all. Publishing was considered immodest (559), especially for women and “Since women were excluded from formal education, they should, according to the reviewers notion, also be excluded from publishing.” (558).

Main Part

I want to focus my examination on the two protagonists Evelina and Lord Orville, but will also take a look at Mr. Villars, Captain Mirvan, Sir Clement, Madam Duval and Mrs. Selwyn. The aim of this essay is to show that the gender relations depicted in the novel are not as unbalanced as one might think at first sight. Although we still find mechanisms of female subjugation in the eighteenth century, it is quite clear that Evelina becomes more emancipated towards the end of the novel. As Park writes, Evelina is in the transition period between childhood and adult life (23) and she unquestioningly begins as a rather insecure and inexperienced character and developes towrads a more mature one. We find different models of masculinity and femininity and not all women, as Mrs. Selwyn or Evelina at times, are subordinated to men in general.

In the preface of Evelina Burney calls her protagonist “young, artless, and inexperienced” and “Nature in her simplest attire” (10). Evelina might seem a bit naïve and insecure, but she observes and reports on the events happening around her in great detail and shows a keen perception. She also protects herself against Sir Clement, when he tries to “kidnap and rape” her. Evelina describes herself as foolish, ill-bred, and shy (Burney 34, 37, 40) and thanks Mr. Villars for his “generous protection” (14). Mr. Villars writes that she is “a little rustic, and knows nothing of the world” (21), “innocent as an angel, and artless as purity itself” (22). He also asks “how will you bear the change?” (57), knowing that Evelina gets to know a completely different life in London.

Campbell argues that Evelina “resembles conduct literature in its emphasis on propriety” (557), and I think she is right, since Evelina was probably read by many girls and young women at the time it was published. But we should not make the mistake to take the didactic literature of the time as a “generally valid reality”, because we are still talking about individuals, and a sense of individuality developed in the eighteenth century in particular. Mr. Villars advises and warns Evelina directly at some points of the novel. For example when he writes: “the slightest carelessness on your part, will be taken advantage of” (Burney 163), “gentleness and modesty are the peculiar attributes of your sex” (218) or “innocence, the first, best gift of Heaven, should of all others, be the blindest of its dangers” (307). Tucker even talks about “Villar's enclosure” (426) and “his moral, emotional, and financial possession of Evelina” (429). Evelina says that her “wish is to remain quiet and unnoticed” (Burney 174), which does not seem to be too emancipated but definitely also offers her some protection in a patriarchal world order, because she can hardly be attacked opnely as long as she sticks to the rules. As Campbell writes: “If women are to be innocent, men must be protective” (564). And we can trace a strong urge in Evelina to avoid any faux pas.

As Staves reminds us, “the controversy over Evelina's legitimacy serves to force and to justify her contact with a much wider society,” i.e. it actually allows her more freedom. For example the contact with Lord Orville, who stands for the “élite gentlemanliness” (Barker and Chalus 39) and finally marries Evelina. She is immediately attracted to him, but hesitates to allow any intimacy, because of her much lower status and her social insecurity resulting from her uncertain status and young age. She writes about his “elegant politeness, that flattering attention, that high-bred delicacy, which so much distinguished him above all other men” (Burney 174) and even says that she regards “him as being superior to his race” (262). Lord Orville calls her “all sweetness” (280) and the “most amiable, the most perfect of women!” (351). Evelina is very sure about the social imbalance of their relationship, when she says “you little know what an outcast you have honoured with your choice!” (367) and “I feel the inequality too painfully” (368). Evelina is a highly dependent character, first dependent on Mr. Villars and later dependent on her friends, but manages to emancipate herself more and more throughout the novel. Dependency on others and men in particular was considered absolutely normal for a woman at that time. She is an outsider to the polite London upper class she is introduced to, but maybe her “naturalness” makes it easier for her to read the characters she encounters. Ironically Evelina and Lord Orville misread each other at several points, although they are the two outstanding characters when it comes to analysing others.

As Barker and Chalus argue, the eighteenth century was a “period of social refinement,” i.e. politeness (48), and “refinement was deemed an essential requirement of eighteenth-century masculinity” (51). Evelina obviously feels most comfortable in the company of Lord Orville, since he is very protective and represents a strong contrast to the “fop” or “beau,” whom she obviously disfavours, as I will later discuss. Furthermore, “polite society provided women with more status” (Barker and Chalus 23). Hamilton calls Lord Orville Burney's “own paragon of masculine behaviour” (416) and claims that “The notion that society needed a widespread reformation of male manners – particularly among the aristocracy – arose in part as a reaction against the corruption of Restoration court-life and an aristocratic ideal of masculine honour that was deemed outmoded.” (418). Although it should be mentioned that this “movement” influenced the middle class as well. The rise of politeness reflected a desire for stability, unity, and order at a time of upheaval (417). Nevertheless, politeness as an instrument of social reform was limited (417), as the novel clearly shows not everybody felt obliged to the new code of politeness.

New moral standards covering all aspects of life developed especially in London where it was about “seeing and being seen” (418). The aim was to establish a regard of “the feelings of others and to work to preserve the harmony of the entire group” (431). A trait we certainly do not find with all of the characters in the novel. Although politeness needed self-discipline as well, it was considered “a learned behaviour” (428). The conduct literature published after 1660 put a strong emphasis on gender construction (423), and as Hamilton argues Burney's novel reveals that the system of polite behaviour was under stress “particularly with regard to the construction of masculinity” (417). Whereas manliness was connected to “tenacity, courage, and resolution along with restraint and self-control”, effeminacy stood for “softness, weakness, loss of self-control, and enslavement to one's passions” (432). As I already mentioned, some critics claim for a feminization of the masculine ideal in the eighteenth century. Lord Orville might also be interpreted as too passive to represent a role model of masculinity (436). In the twentieth century he was often described as “notoriously wooden” or “to good to be true” (416). However, it is quite obvious that he resembles the “perfect gentleman” for Evelina and Frances Burney consequently.

The “double standard”, the focus on self-control and discipline on the one hand and an escape into hedonism and debauchery resulting from it for some parts of the male upper class, developed as a counter-reaction around that time (Hamilton 420). Sentimental masculinity saw women as “pleasing objects,” a kind of “prey” (Maurer 97), a fact Evelina openly criticizes in her letters. For Maurer, “Women must rely on men to rescue them from other, less controlled men” (93) and “men's ability to dominate and govern the female sex remained a central element in masculine gender identity” (96). Evelina's protectors, Mr. Villars and Lord Orville, also exercise authority and to some extent even dominance over her. It becomes clear that the gender hierarchies are still valid and working in many areas in the eighteenth century.

Lord Orville most likely has true romantic feelings for Evelina, who is described as astonishingly beautiful, and Pino even assumes that “Evelina's outward beauty is a manifestation of her inner virtue” as well (292). But we should also remember that “man's familial role was central to his public identity” (Maurer 20). Although the pressure to marry was most likely even higher for women, a respected gentleman could hardly have stayed single either. Newton reminds us that a middle-class woman without a dowry, like Evelina (or Burney herself), had to marry (48) and she even calls men a “buyer in a buyer's market” (50), putting men in a superior situation again. It is quite obvious that Lord Orville would have many other options for a future wife besides Evelina, and she is in turn surprised that he choses her, which underlines his romantic feelings towards her.

Wilson writes that “the British and their progenitors were held to have been particularly advanced in the good treatment of women” (24) and that a “new masculinity, combining expertise, humanitarianism and compassion in equal matter” developed around that time (19). Campbell even argues that by kneeling in front of Evelina and by calling her his “better half,” Lord Orville is reversing the power-structure (579), i.e. the assumed superiority of men, which can be considered quite “progressive” in the eighteenth century. Lord Orville is an idealized version of the perfect gentleman, but we also find other “versions of masculinity” in the novel.

For example, Sir Clement and Captain Mirvan represent a stark contrast to Lord Orville's politeness. Evelina calls the Captain “surly, vulgar, and disagreeable” (Burney 40). In her introduction to the Oxford edition of Evelina Jones assumes “misogynist insults” (xxii) connected to the Captain. Evelina complains about Captain Mirvan couple of times, she considers his behaviour inappropriate, embarrassing, and unacceptable. The Captain has been away from home for seven years, spending most of his time with other sailors; his manner is definitely not very representative but rather particular. He shows racist tendencies, especially towards Madam Duval, and seems to be convinced of the superiority of the English nation. Wilson reminds us that most people in the eighteenth century held “confident assertions about the superiority of English culture and political institutions” though (6). Captain Mirvan does not fit into a polite society, also because he often attacks fops as Mr. Lovel or other people in public; he is often criticized for his behaviour in turn. He seems to be very honest, but in a way that is not too much appreciated. Staves reminds us that “eighteenth-century readers tended to single out the Captain as the one unacceptable coarse note in an otherwise satisfactory novel” (378). Many critics have recognized that Burney's novels are partly satirical, as Glock puts it a “comic satire on bourgeois vulgarity and conceit” (129). Without a doubt Captain Mirvan is quite vulgar at times and might amuse a (modern) reader.

Sir Clement is a “friend” of Lord Orville and also interested in Evelina romantically. Jones describes him as having an “'old-fashion', and ultimately more dangerous attitude to women which lurks beneath his suave exterior.” (xxvii). Evelina complains about his “excess of vanity” and the “provoking, and ridiculous conduct of this Sir Clement” (Burney 50). In Letter XXI Evelina describes the situation, when she “is taken home” by Sir Clement in his coach, but the coach goes the wrong way.

And so saying, he passionately kissed my hand. Never in my whole life, have I been so terrified. I broke forcibly from him, and, putting my head out of the window, called aloud to the man to stop. Where we then were I know not, but I saw not a human being, or I should have called for help. Sir Clement, with great earnestness, endeavoured to appease and compose me; 'If you do not intend to murder me;' cried I, 'for mercy's, for pity's sake, let me get out.

(Burney 100)

Sir Clement's behaviour is far from acceptable at this point, but the situation turns out well, because Evelina is protecting herself and her honour successfully. Sir Clement also tries to let Evelina appear in a bad light in the eyes of Lord Orville, for example, when he says, she is “a girl of obscure birth, whose only dowry is her beauty” (Burney 347). As Campbell notices, he connects Evelina with indecency so that Lord Orville loses interest in her temporarily (575). Barker and Chalus remind us that the fop was a common sight among the upper classes in eighteenth century England. They were extrovert, vain, ignorant, irresponsible, proud, superficial, and foolish and had a “desire to show off” (34-42). According to Roulston, people of the eighteenth century became aware of the fact that outward title and inner virtue were not automatically connected and that many gentleman were only “wearing a mask” (xiii). For Fung, “Burney warns her readers against the arrogance and misogyny of the upper classes” (942). Cutting Gray suggests that Evelina perceives the male behaviour as provoking, because it assumes a superiority (46). An assumption we can probably approve with, taking a look at Evelina's letters. Staves writes that “The disingenous Sir Clement knows perfectly well that Evelina doubts his honor, but he also calculates that she will be too embarrassed and too terrified to admit it.” (371). At one point Evelina compares Lord Orville and Sir Clement directly:

In all ranks and 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; whoever strikes his fancy, engrosses his whole attention. He is forward and bold, has an air of haughtiness towards men, and a look of libertinism towards women, and his conscious quality seems to have given him a freedom in his way of speaking to either sex, that is very little short of rudeness.


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Gender Relations in Frances Burney's "Evelina". The Emergence of 'Modern' Standards of Masculinity and Femininity
Humboldt-University of Berlin
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Frances Burney, Evelina, Eighteenth Century, Gender Relations
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Martin Boddenberg (Author), 2016, Gender Relations in Frances Burney's "Evelina". The Emergence of 'Modern' Standards of Masculinity and Femininity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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