Feminism and Its perspective on Frances Burney’s Evelina

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This page focuses on feminism and the feminist study of Evelina, Frances Burney’s best-known work. It describes a young country girl’s introduction to London society. Burney depicts a magnificent image of 18th-century London veiled in both alluring splendour and pervasive brutality.

Explaining Feminism

Feminism is an interdisciplinary approach to questions of gender, gender expression, gender identity, sex, and sexuality, as interpreted via social theories and political activity. Feminism has historically shifted from the imbalance between the sexes to a more nuanced emphasis on the social and performative constructions of gender and sexuality.

Read more : Can we all be feminists?

Feminists endeavour to affect change in places where these intersectionalities produce power disparities. The intellectual and academic study of these inequalities enables our students to enter the world conscious of injustices and prepared to act to alter any unhealthy power imbalances.

Feminist political activists advocate for reproductive rights, domestic violence, fairness, social justice, and employment concerns like family medical leave, equal pay, sexual harassment and discrimination.

Feminism stands against every instance of women oppression.

Every instance of stereotyping, objectification, violations of human rights, or intersectional oppression is a feminist concern.

Reading Evelina from the perspective of feminism

Like most women authors of the time, Frances Burney wrote her works under a pen name since it was thought inappropriate for women to write fiction. Those who refused to consent to social conventions and dared to challenge men’s monopoly on the writing profession were viewed as macho, subversive, and immoral.

Following in the footsteps of Jane Austen, Burney anonymously released her works. She continued the tradition of epistolary novels established by Richardson and released Evelina in 1778. Literary luminaries like  Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and Hester Thrale were full of praise for Fanny’s brilliance after the triumph of Evelina.

Evelina is told by letters. It is the story of a young and innocent girl named Evelina, whose father refuses to acknowledge her as his legal child and forces her to live with her guardian, the priest Mr. Villars. The story recounts Evelina’s travels in London as she explores the city’s culture, meets new people, and reconciles with her biological father.

Evelina is the narrative of a young woman coming of age in London as she overcomes her social and emotional concerns. Evelina is oblivious to the refined manners and lifestyle that the metropolis requires. She contends with dangerous suitors and seducers, sees prostitutes in public, attends sophisticated balls, and finds the ideal partner in Lord Orville.

Women issues in Evelina

Even while Evelina is not a feminist novel in the strictest sense, it addresses several difficulties that women faced during the period. Burney depicts women’s difficulties such as male harassment, gender hierarchy, and patriarchy.

 Predating lower-class women were prevalent. In the bustling city of London, women’s harassment mainly went unchecked, as seen by the scene in which Evelina and her cousins are tormented by a bunch of psychopaths who attempt to touch their bodies. Evelina confronts hazardous seducers like Sir Clement, who attempts to abduct and molest her.

Can poor girls find suitable suitors?

Class distinction is another topic that Burney brings to the forefront in her novel. It was extremely unlikely for women from lower economic classes to get a wealthy boyfriend. Even though they were instructed to find wealthy men, the likelihood of their success was remote.

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This is the only reason Evelina hesitates to reveal her affections to Lord Orville, despite being infatuated with him. According to her, “She considers him superior to her race.” She has fallen head over heels for him, but her precarious financial situation prevents her from approaching him.

Due to their supposed physical, emotional, and intellectual inferiority, women were believed to require the close supervision of their enlightened male counterparts. This dependence of women on men is portrayed in Evelina’s character, who is a very reliant young woman, first on Mr. Villars and subsequently on her companions.

Evelina transforms herself from being an introvert to an extrovert towards the end of the novel

At the novel’s conclusion, she transforms as she gradually gains independence. At the story’s beginning, she is an outsider to the affluent London society, but towards the conclusion, she has gradually assimilated.

Sir Clement and Captain Mirvan exemplify the conventional masculinity of their period. According to Evelina, the captain is “surly, vulgar, and disagreeable” He is a misogynist who feels that men are superior to women. He is quite derogatory and has racial tendencies against Madame Duval. As he attempts to kidnap and rape Evelina, Sir Clement demonstrates a potentially deadly attitude toward women. He further degrades Evelina by referring to her as a girl of unclear origin.

Such misogynistic inclinations were prevalent at the time due to the firmly ingrained patriarchal beliefs in English culture.

Not all men are sexists

Burney has not painted every male character with the same brush in her story. Not all members of the society were sexist or male chauvinist. Lord Orville’s personality is diametrically opposed to that of Sir Clement and the captain. He exemplifies his period’s evolving masculinity and gender relations by being kind and respectful to women. Evelina said,

“Orville’s discourse was intelligent and lively; his air and address were open and noble, and his manners were compassionate and attentive.”

He deals with people with tremendous respect and decency and refuses to use his social rank as a weapon against the disadvantaged.

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