Ethical Concepts and their Realisation in Fanny Burney's Evelina

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

30 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1 Introduction

2 Background to 18th century literature and general definitions
2.1 The concept of ethics
2.2 The rise of the novel
2.3 Mothers of the novel or female writing

3 Ethical concepts and their realisation in Evelina
3.1 Fanny Burney’s moral values and understanding
3.2 Philosophical influences in Evelina
3.3 Realisation of ethical concepts in a novel of initiation
3.3.1 The influence of conduct books
3.3.2 The concept of virtue
3.3.3 The concept of prudence

4 Interactivity of narrative technique and moral intention
4.1 Narrative perspective
4.2 Narrative structure

5 Conclusion

Works cited

Erklärung zum Thema „Plagiate“

I am new to the world, and unused to acting for myself, -

my intentions are never wilfully blameable, yet I err perpetually!

Evelina, Vol. III, Letter V

1 Introduction

Literary works can hardly ever be separated from the ethical concepts of the time. This is even more the case for the 18th century novel, which as a genre appeared at the beginning of that century.[1] The social-historic and economic changes, the consequently following rise of the middle class and radical alteration of the patronage system can be held responsible for the prevailing conditions of a more realistic approach to prose works.[2] While Clive T. Probyn calls the time after the epoch of the “big four”[3] the “novelistic vacuum”[4] Joyce Tompkins even goes so far as to say that whereas the quantity of the output rose the quality decreased.[5] But although many critics make disparaging remarks about the authors of the period between the fathers of the novel and the generation of Austen, Scott and others - to neglect the last quarter of the 18th century and its writers would be a terrible mistake. There were writers, called the “transitional novelists”[6] by Lilian D. and Edward Bloom whose main goals were to imitate their idols, to mix the existing types of novels and integrate other (also foreign) influences.[7] These authors included among others Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth, who were and are recognised for not only imitating but also for having invented a new type.[8]

Generally speaking the authors of 18th century novels knew that they, more than merely entertaining their readership, had to invent heroes and heroines who were supposed to offer an ethical and moral pattern.[9] In this paper, after having established a common ground of the fundamental concepts of the 18th century, these aspects will be examined in Fanny Burney’s Evelina. First of all it has to be shown what kind of process of education the heroine goes through and why. But equally important it will be in which way the novel masters its didactic task towards educating the 18th century reader. In the following these two features will be discussed with the help of references to Fanny Burney’s life as well as examples from the novel itself.

2 Background to 18th century literature and general definitions

2.1 The concept of ethics

The concept of ethics, as a discipline coined by Aristoteles,[10] was a major topic of 17th to 18th century moral philosophers. Donald Greene argues that:

[…] in the dominant religious teaching and the dominant philosophy of eighteenth-century Britain there are important common and mutually reinforcing elements which together form a kind of unformulated “ethic”.[11]

Concerning the discussion on men’s nature this age was deeply influenced by the works of Rousseau and Shaftesbury,[12] whose essay “Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinion, Times” can be considered of high importance. According to these philosophers the human being was supposed to be good by nature and equipped with social qualities. Shaftesbury was of the opinion that virtue depended on the insight into good and bad as well as on the use of reason. But it was rather interpersonal humanity, as found in empathy and sympathy, as well as emotions which governed human behaviour:[13]

The chief ground and support therefore of this opinion of happiness in virtue must arise from the powerful feeling of this generous moral affection, and the knowledge of its power and strength.[14]

Moral sentiment (more than reason) was to be regarded as the norm and therefore determine what was right and wrong. Furthermore, the concept of virtue as regarded by Hume was not influenced by reward, but rather by the “standard of sentiments”[15]. As an enlightened humanist he believed in the “individual’s moral conscience and moral responsibility […], to be directed by […] education”[16]. The emphasis was on feelings rather than reason and on gaining knowledge through observation and experience.[17]

These new ideas were opposed to the theories of the selfish system of morals by Locke and Hobbes[18] or the self-interest by Mandeville[19] (who had a very low estimate of human nature). Differently from Shaftesbury, Dr. Johnson[20] assessed the natural goodness of human beings.[21] He rather thought men to be “naturally malevolent, and that all the benevolence we see in the few who are good, is acquired by reason and religion.”[22]

Not only was moral philosophy to be found and widely read in non-fictional essays and expository prose[23] but also in real life. Relationships at that time were governed by politeness: a well-ordered system of behaviour, which was based on strict moral foundations (code of manners[24] ). In this respect morals can be defined as “the lesson to be learnt from […] any work which purports to teach anything either directly or obliquely [and] the point in any didactic work.”[25]. The uppermost goal was to please others and become a well respected member of “all good” society. This realisation of the concept of ethics was then included in the novels as a prevailing system of values and norms which, furthermore, was the point of reference and means of evaluation in works like non-fictional essays, conduct books as well as in the contemporary discussion.[26] In the following it will be shown how the different streams of philosophical concepts of ethics found their way into the fiction of the 18th century and especially into Fanny Burney’s Evelina.

2.2 The rise of the novel

As mentioned above the 18th century saw the invention of a new genre, in a society in which forms of fact and fiction were not seen to be opposites, but rather two ends of a continuum. Due to an ongoing and mostly discrediting discussion about the value of this genre the authors of the time avoided the term novel and shifted towards designations like history, life or journal.[27] As a result term novel itself was not yet fully established in England until the end of the 18th century.[28] It is related to this that Dr. Johnson warned the reader of not being able to differentiate between fiction and reality. The realistic elements of the new genre endangered the reader to take it to literally, a problem which would have never occurred while reading a romance. This major change was certainly a subject of discussion in conduct books as well as in fiction.[29] A good reader (in comparison to a bad one) would be able to use the fiction as an example for their own lives.[30] Fanny Burney herself made quite clear what she thought about romances and how her works differed in the detailed prefaces to her novels:

Let me, therefore, prepare for disappointment those who, in the perusal of these sheets, entertain the gentle expectation of being transported to the fantastic regions of Romance, where Fiction is coloured by all the gay tints of luxurious Imagination, where Reason is an outcast, and where the sublimity of the Marvellous rejects all aid from sober Probability.[31]

Although the 18th century novel still contained traits of its forerunner the romance their distinction can furthermore be stated by the difference in characters (rather of civil than aristocratic origin), the realistic events and language of everyday-life as well as the depiction of a well-known world of the former. In this the realistic novel was a “full and authentic report of human experience” and its formal realism “allow[ed] a more immediate imitation of individual experience”.[32]

2.3 Mothers of the novel or female writing

Among the numerous subgenres of the novel the female novel and particularly the female novel of education or initiation developed. Regarding its topics and moral and didactic intention it was closely linked to the above mentioned non-fictional discussion in conduct books, etc. These works have long been left out in the traditional way of depicting the rise of the novel as supported by Ian Watt. But the canon was revised in later years concerning the origins of the genre as well as the inclusion of female authors.[33]

These mothers of the novel[34] explored new areas of subject: the domestic life and discovery of the female subjectivity, which existed in the tension between the didactic plot and the dominance of female reality.[35] Although the plot, as many critics claim, often degraded the female characters and especially the heroine to naive and sentimental members of the story, the significance of female influences rose above the simplistic plot because of its narrative function and the role as narrator of the story. According to the ethical concepts the ending of the 18th century novels were for the most part rewarding the virtuous and punishing the villains in order to educate its readers. According to Butler women novelists of the time were:

[…] concerned to influence the conduct of their young, impressionable female readers, stressed the importance of submitting to the guidance of a wise elderly mentor rather than to the example of books, or, worst of all, to the dictates of passion.[36]

In the following this significant genre of female writing will be examined concerning the influences of ethical concepts on the basis of Fanny Burney’s first novel Evelina.


[1] Donald Greene. The Age of Exuberance: Backgrounds to Eighteenth-Century English Literature. New York 1970, pp. 90-92 and Vera and Ansgar Nünning. Englische Literatur des 18. Jahrhunderts. Stuttgart, Düsseldorf, Leipzig 1998, p. 10.

[2] For a detailed discussion of the causes of the rise of the novel see chapter II. “The reading public and the rise of the novel” in Ian Watt’s The rise of the novel. Ian Watt. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. London 1974, pp. 35-59 and Vera and Ansgar Nünning. Englische Literatur des 18. Jahrhunderts, pp. 12-14.

[3] I.e. Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Smollet. Silvia Mergenthal. Erziehung zur Tugend. Frauenrollen und der Englische Roman um 1800. Tübingen 1997, p. 79.

[4] Clive T. Probyn. English Fiction of the Eighteenth Century. 1700-1789. Burnt Mill, Harlow 1987, p. 149.

[5] Silvia Mergenthal. Erziehung zur Tugend, p. 82.

[6] Ibid., p. 81.

[7] Erwin Wolff. Der Englische Roman im 18. Jahrhundert. Göttingen 1980, p. 124.

[8] Joyce Marjorie Sanxter Tompkins. The Popular Novel in England. 1770-1800. Lincoln 1961 (repr. Westport 1976), p. 56.

[9] Marilyn Butler. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford 1975, p. 28.

[10] Joachim Ritter. “Ethik“ In: Ritter, Joachim (ed.). Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie. Vol. II: D-F, Basel, Stuttgart 1972, col. 759.

[11] Donald Greene. The Age of Exuberance, p. 108.

[12] Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713). Vera and Ansgar Nünning. Englische Literatur des 18. Jahrhunderts, p. 38.

[13] Joachim Ritter. “Ethik“, col. 774.

[14] Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury. An Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit. Ruska, Julius (ed.), Heidelberg 1904, p. 66.

[15] David Hume (1711-1776). Joachim Ritter. “Ethik“, cols. 775-776.

[16] Mascha Gemmeke. Frances Burney and the Female Bildungsroman: An interpretation of The Wanderer: or, Female Difficulties. Frankfurt am Main 2004, pp. 34-35.

[17] Donald Greene. The Age of Exuberance, pp. 106-107.

[18] John Locke (1632-1704) and Thomas Hobbes (1555-1678). Joachim Ritter. “Ethik“, col. 776. Locke agreed with Hume only on the subject of gaining knowledge through experience.

[19] Bernard de Mandeville (1670–1733) was especially famous for its “Fable of the Bees”, which promoted that self-interest instead of altruistic behaviour supported the welfare of the general public. Vera and Ansgar Nünning. Englische Literatur des 18. Jahrhunderts, p. 39 and David D. Devlin. The Novels and Journals of Fanny Burney. Houndsmill, Basingstoke, Hampshire, London 1987, p. 69.

[20] Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) is called one of the “great English idols of the late eighteenth century” by J.H. Plumb. J.H Plumb. “Reason and Unreason in the Eighteenth Century: The English Experience” In: Some Aspects of Eighteenth-Century England. Los Angeles 1971, p. 21.

[21] Howard D. Weinbrot. “Hearts of Darkness: Swift, Johnson und die Narrative Konfrontation mit dem Bösen” In: Borsò, Vittoria and Kann, Christoph (eds.). Geschichtsdarstellung. Medien – Methoden – Strategien. Köln, Weimar, Wien 2004, p. 171.

[22] James Boswell. Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Birkbeck Hill, George (ed.), Vol. V, Oxford 1964, p. 211.

[23] Vera and Ansgar Nünning. Englische Literatur des 18. Jahrhunderts, p. 37.

[24] Silvia Mergenthal. Erziehung zur Tugend, p. 96.

[25] Definition of the term moral. J.A. Cudden. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, London 1998, p. 519.

[26] Vera and Ansgar Nünning. Englische Literatur des 18. Jahrhunderts, pp. 21+149.

[27] Vera and Ansgar Nünning. Englische Literatur des 18. Jahrhunderts, p. 118.

[28] Ian Watt. The rise of the novel, p. 10.

[29] E.g. in Hester Mulso Chapone’s Letters on the improvement of the mind and the heroine Arbabella in Charlotte Lennox’es The female Quixote.

[30] Silvia Mergenthal. Erziehung zur Tugend, p. 112.

[31] Preface. Burney, Frances. Evelina, or The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World. Bloom, Edward A. (ed.), Oxford World’s Classic, Oxford 2002, p. 10.

[32] Both quotations in: Ian Watt. The rise of the novel, p. 32.

[33] Vera and Ansgar Nünning. Englische Literatur des 18. Jahrhunderts, p. 8.

[34] Therese Fischer-Seidel stresses the importance of the “mothers of the English novel” for the founding of a new genre and gives a selection of female writers to be included into the canon. Therese Fischer-Seidel. „Einleitung: Frauenforschung vs. feministische Literaturwissenschaft?“ In: Fischer-Seidel, Therese (ed.). Frauen und Frauendarstellung in der Englischen und Amerikanischen Literatur. Tübingen 1991, p. 3.

[35] Vera and Ansgar Nünning. Englische Literatur des 18. Jahrhunderts, pp. 147-149.

[36] Marilyn Butler. Jane Austen, p. 95.

Excerpt out of 30 pages


Ethical Concepts and their Realisation in Fanny Burney's Evelina
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"  (Anglistisches Institut IV)
Female Initiation from the 18th century to the Present
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ISBN (eBook)
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Ethical, Concepts, Realisation, Fanny, Burney, Evelina, Female, Initiation, Present
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Diplom-Kauffrau Katja Kremendahl (Author), 2006, Ethical Concepts and their Realisation in Fanny Burney's Evelina, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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