Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Secondary Lit Post: Female Difficulties in Evelina

For my secondary lit post, I read Susan Staves' "Evelina; or, Female Difficulties." Staves takes on the arguments of other critics like Hazlitt, who claim that the book's focus on "feminine difficulties" renders it superficial and, despite well-written humor and intriguing characters, a primarily feminine novel. Staves rebuts that, "Hazlitt was undoubtedly right to feel that contemporary women were likely to be sensitive to social decorum because of the restraints on their own behavior, and right to say that the difficulties in which Fanny Burney involves her heroines are 'female difficulties' [...] We may, though, disagree that such difficulties are created 'out of nothing' and find it worthwhile to analyze exactly what they are." (Staves, 14).
Staves goes on to point out that the majority of the difficulties Evelina encounters, while behaviorally feminine, are ultimately caused by men. Evelina's naiveté and beauty open her up to a host of improprieties from the rabid men around her. As Staves puts it, "Evelina's progress through the public places of London is about as tranquil as the progress of a fair-haired girl through modern Naples." (Staves, 15). She is constantly badgered by all kinds of men, those of rank and random drunks in the street. Her social snafus, like her appearance with the prostitutes in Marybone gardens, are usually caused by an attempt to evade these promiscuous attempts.

After discussing the legitimacy of Evelina's "feminine difficulties," Staves switches gears and discusses the use of satire and humor in the novel. She seems to feel that Burney's witty and satirical observations fall flat, primarily because she avoids responsibility for them. "Fanny Burney sometimes uses Mrs. Selwyn as a satiric spokeswoman, but preserves Evelina's respectability and her own by criticizing her freedom." (Staves, 27). It seems that Staves finds Burney actually less respectable for this, and ends an otherwise defensive and positive essay on the following note: "As good as the descriptions of manners are, as precisely as she catches the obnoxious Branghtons and the enervated Lady Louisa, Fanny Burney's exploration of Evelina's own embarrassments and anxieries is still more vivid and more valuable. Yet she could not finally deny the self-abnegation society required of ladies, and so, in rejecting the laughter, the irony, the satire, and the spirit of criticism, which seem to have been her natural gifts, she ultimately weakened her art." (Staves, 30).
For the most part, I found Staves analysis very insightful. Her rebuttal to the claims that Evelina's were only "female difficulties" was especially shrewd. Her analysis helped me notice that Evelina was not simply a frightened squealing girl, but a young woman whose problems were brought on primarily by predatory men. She also points out that the novel's focus on delicacy is not exclusively feminine either; Evelina admires Lord Orville's delicate handling of her embarrassing situations as well (his encounter with her and the prostitutes in Marybone, his offering her his carriage and servants when she gets separated from her group, as opposed to Sir Clement's insistence on riding with her in his own carriage). Staves does a great job of pointing out that just because the novel's difficulties are directed at a female protagonist does not make them exclusively female difficulties.
What I want to know from the class is this: Do you all think that Staves is making a valid point, or do you find Evelina's to be a story made by women, for women, about women only? Does the focus on delicacy and decorum make male readers feel out of the loop? In short, how do you, as readers, understand Burney's intended audience, and do you find her focus on seemingly trivial social mannerisms superficial or insightful and relevant to readers of the 18th century?

Works Cited

Staves, Susan. "Evelina; or, Female Difficulties." Modern Critical Interpretations: Evelina. Ed. Harold Boom.
New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988. Pages 13-30. Print.


  1. Hi, Brittany! I’m a little confused. Is Staves arguing that Evelina’s feminine difficulties pertain just to women, or is she stating that the predatory men Evelina encounters renders this as critique of not just a woman’s problem, but also a man’s problem/responsibility? You state, that just because the “novel’s difficulties are directed at a female protagonist, this does not make them exclusively female difficulties.” I would agree to this as a 21C reader, however I wonder if in the 18C reader would have read this in the same light. When Evelina and her cousins are accosted in the Dark Alleys, Tom Branghton even states that it is the girls’ fault for entering those alleyways and that they deserve whatever shall befall them. Based on what we’ve been told about 18C, for example how chambermaids are assumed to be fair game for wealthy men, perhaps if you were in those alleys, people just assumed that you would be open to not only unsolicited advances, but molestation by our standards. Pretty much, if you walk into that area, you are inviting male attention from verbal inquiries to rape.

    A few things perplex me about Evelina (which I hope will be resolved by Volume III, but we’ll see!) First off, this seems almost to be critiquing the whole class distinction/prejudice going on in the 18C. We see how Evelina, although raised in the country without a name has more virtue and modesty, more natural respectfulness than almost any character, including the noblemen. If she does ascend to a higher marriage, which I have no doubt that she will, she is crossing class boundaries. On the other hand, it is important to remember that she is part nobility. Her father is Lord Belmont, and by this, it is her birthright to move up. Therefore, doesn’t this show that there has not been any inter-class movement, but rather a deserving girl being RETURNED to her rightful class? If anything, going back to the Staves article, the story of Macartney proves that the problems faced by Evelina and this dejected poet is much on the shoulders of men in power. We read of how Macartney’s mother and Lady Belmont had been abandoned by their lovers. This has caused the problems and grieves of both Evelina and Macartney. We later are shown that if Evelina had not been shrewd enough to detect Lord Orville’s forward letter, she might have become either a kept woman, or ended up like the sad women before her. Macartney is a talented young man and Evelina, the perfect young girl, noble in every way but name. Both individuals deserve to be in the upper class and are denied since their fathers had deserted their mothers and children… Any ideas??? Anyone?

  2. Firstly, I think that this novel is kind of a guidebook in a way for both male and female readers of the 18th Century. Eveline, like Pamela, is a virtuous young girl who can easily serve as an example for all young girls. Through her trial and error, one can learn proper decorum in London society. Furthermore, men, as an audience, can learn proper social decorum. The only male character that Evelina likes is Lord Orville suggesting that male readers should emulate his mannerisms. All other forms of masculinity is rejected by Evelina.

    I agree with Kristen, this novel does suggest does seem to suggest a patriarchal critique of male power. The most deserving and likable characters are the the female ones. Evelina is denied her class title by a cruel man. I find, like Staves remarks, we are shown more and more undeserving men of higher classes suggesting the Burney was intent on showing that not all (as some readers might think) men deserve their stations. Class does not necessarily indicate actions or moral superiority in this novel.

  3. Staves seems to have hit the mark, by and large. For all of her mistakes in the novel so far, my impression of Evelina is mostly one of ignorance taking its natural toll, rather than having undertones of worldly guile and manipulation as Pamela had.

    Put another way, her beginning inexperience with the particulars of London society hold her back a bit from her true potential as a Lady, but she doesn't know any better at the time. Her proper upbringing and inclinations serve her as well as they can by and large, and she quite emphatically displays the proper mindset etc. to be a model aristocratic Lady, much as Rev. Villars and Lord Orville show the correct inclinations, judgement, and sense of propriety and decorum of model aristocratic Gentlemen, for the most part.

    The important part of the above sentiments is that these characters serve as the best examples of how aristocrats should behave, whereas many of the other characters, particularly all of the overly lustful men, should and do know better given their rank, but they still fall short of the expectations of behavior that their rank would indicate. The Branghtons not only don't know any better, they wouldn't even understand the concepts if explained to them.

    The takeaway to my understanding is that few nobles and no commoners are beyond self improvement or reproach. Rank is a standard of behavior and morality to be striven for by those with means, and highlights the irredeemable nature of the boorish lower classes, an ever present reminder of who the nobility are and why they are needed by society. Delicacy and decorum separate the deserving aristocrats from their undeserving peers and social inferiors. They don't detract from masculinity, they define Gentlemen.