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The societal structure of eighteenth century London was grounded in rigid class hierarchies. In Burney’s novel Evelina, the title character is born as an illegitimate child without a name because her father refuses to accept her. This situates Evelina at a particularly difficult intersection of London’s social structure. Evelina has little knowledge of the extent of social conduct in London and has no name or claimed inheritance to offer as dowry. In the context of eighteenth century London, this is a poor situation for a young unmarried woman to find herself in. Yet, Burney uses Evelina’s illegitimate status to reveal both the arbitrary nature of London’s societal expectations and the hypocritical members of society who enforce but don’t adhere to them. Despite Evelina’s naivety, she is arguably established as the best suited individual to navigate the complexities of social manners and rituals. With this in mind, it is important to critically question whether Burney challenges class hierarchies, class hypocrisy, or both.
Burney unpacks eighteenth century class structures and societal behaviors in a two-fold way: she presents Evelina as unlearned but capable. Despite Evelina’s upbringing in the country before her trip to London, she possesses a self-awareness that the majority of the novel’s characters lack. Upon first arriving in London, Evelina finds herself overwhelmed by the foreign behaviors she realizes she must conform to. Often, Evelina is stuck in tricky situations with no Barron 2 knowledge of how to proceed. This is shown when she attends a dance for the first time, and must traverse expected gender dynamics that she has no experience with. At these assemblies, it was considered impolite to refuse one man and then accept the hand of another. Without this knowledge, however, Evelina understandably refuses the hand of the first man who offers to dance, Mr. Lovel, who offends her in his forwardness and over-confidence. Evelina describes, “Not long after, a young man, who had for some time looked at us with a kind of negligent impertinence, advanced on tiptoe towards me; he had a set smile on his face, and his dress was so foppish, that I really believed he even wished to be stared at; and yet he was very ugly” (Evelina 21). Here Burney demonstrates a nuance in Evelina’s characterization. Evelina has little reference for behavior to base her judgments on Mr. Lovel, and yet she recognizes the displeasing aura he has. By situating Mr. Lovel, an unattractive character with excessive behaviors, as the individual that is experienced in London manners, Burney accentuates the hypocrisy within the culture’s framework. Further, by showing Evelina’s awareness of this displeasing nature, Burney suggests that there are appropriate manners that should be recognized: being genuine, respectful, and not condescending. Evelina recognizes and follows these behaviors with no knowledge of London formalities. In addition, Evelina’s characterization as well-mannered against the backdrop of said formalities reveals their arbitrary nature.
The fact that Burney criticizes London society but commends characters like Evelina and Lord Orville’s sensibility, or their awareness of the emotions and behaviors of others, suggests a complex perspective. Burney doesn’t mean to reject societal values of respect and politeness, but rejects arbitrary customs and criticizes hypocritical individuals. Many characters within Evelina, even Mr. Lovel and Sir Clement Willoughby, could be said to adhere to London’s expectations Barron 3 of class behaviors. This suggests that Burney is criticizing London’s class hierarchies themselves. But this assumption is made complicated when we consider that Evelina and Lord Orville end up marrying in a way that follows eighteenth century behavioral expectations swimmingly. So what is the character of Burney’s criticism? Going back to characters like Mr. Lovel and Sir Willoughby, it can be recognized that they lack what Burney values more, sensibility and respect. Therefore, Burney doesn’t necessarily challenge the entirety of London class hierarchies, but the apparent fact that few actually adhere to and follow them properly. Again, Burney’s characterization of Evelina does reject aspects of London society. The criticisms Burney does reveal typically follow a feminist line of thought: Evelina wants to be able to choose who she dances with freely, and to be safe from violent harassment from lecherous men. The bottom line is that, were characters like Mr. Lovel and Willoughby actually following London’s expectations, they would not behave towards Evelina in the manner they demonstrate. Thinking again of Evelina’s near picturesque happy ending, Lord Orville’s continuously textbook chivalry, and Evelina’s judgments of other characters as unseemly orients Burney’s argument in a slightly different light. Burney argues not against societal roles as a whole, but argues for an actual adherence to respectfulness and sensibility. Burney may reject eighteenth century arbitrary formalities, especially those that threaten women’s autonomy, but as a whole she implies that rules of conduct are necessary for living a respectful life. The object of Burney’s criticism does not lie solely in London hierarchies, but in the fact that these hierarchies function without the necessary sentiments of genuine respect at their core.
The ending of Evelina reveals a well-intentioned but somewhat insidious attitude towards eighteenth century London’s society of manners. As discussed, Burney challenges expected Barron 4 societal roles when they undermine women’s authority. However, her depiction of Lord Orville, especially in regards to his behavior towards Evelina, suggests that Burney ascribes to a standard of gender relations that is not necessarily at odds with London’s social expectations. Burney’s characterization of Evelina and Orville’s relationship implies that London’s hierarchies can be traversed properly if they are traversed by worthy and proper people. In this way, Burney shows that Evelina overcomes her illegitimacy and class standing simply by adhering to these expectations of respectability and sensibility. Burney argues that Evelina, though without classification on the social hierarchy, was able to assimilate because she possessed the attitudes toward social interactions that other characters did not. Evelina secured her happy ending by behaving in the actual ideal of London manners, not the hypocritical ideal that her counterparts display. This conclusion falls short of accounting for the very real class restrictions that prohibit people from comfortably assimilating. While Evelina was able to navigate London’s hierarchies, being well-mannered is typically not enough to overcome the reality of rigid class distinctions and subsequent discrimination.
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