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The Conduct of Upper Class in Evelina

Updated on January 31, 2016

Women throughout the eighteenth century were heavily reliant upon their individual social statuses. Their etiquette, knowledge of the arts, monetary worth, talents, and manners laid base for future suitors and overall public acknowledgement. Specifically, Frances Burney creates her female characters of status as those who follow the conduct manuals, however within their society, these women are either conniving or unhappy with their situations. In Evelina, social pressures from other women allow her, as an outsider, to gain an opinion of how to properly act, regardless of conduct book expectations.

Evelina altogether is a blank slate of types in terms of societal upbringings and mannerisms. Constantly referred to as someone who has no knowledge of proper conduct, her moral teachings prove to be more successful in the social and romantic worlds that revolve around her life. Admittedly, her character is quite naïve at times, and overwhelmed by the abrupt thrusting into a “high class” environment, surrounded by operas, balls, social outings, and suitors. However, the reader cannot judge her for her anxiety, considering she was raised in a small and isolated part of England, free of conduct books and washed of exposure towards large gatherings of people. Her life growing up was taught to be modest, by her guardian and father-like figure, Mr. Villars. He naturally cares about this girl a great deal, however admits that lack of exposure to the big-city life will most likely hinder her in the future in terms of social acknowledgement as well as gaining a potential husband. Thus, Evelina is thrown into a whirlwind of experiences and introduced to people who, although living in upper class settlements, express the mannerisms of barbaric creatures; whether verbal or physical attacks, these individuals are out more for self entertainment and gain than expanding social ties.

The reader is introduced to a blood relative of Evelina, as expressed through a friend of Mr. Villars. Madame Duval, Evelina’s mother, is an ex-patriot of England who resides in France. She is described as a disgraceful type of person who “is totally at a loss in what manner to behave; she seems desirous to repair the wrongs she has done, yet wises the world to believe her blameless” (13).

A person such as Madame Duval is open to gain attentions in any matter possible, regardless of the repercussions to follow, because her flaunt of status and acclaimed French knowledge grants to her self-absorbed nature a flare of originality and an excuse to be noticed. The true motives behind Madame Villars contacting her granddaughter are not to reunite with long lost blood, however. Her intentions, rather, are to prove Evelina to her biological father, since “he infamously burnt the certificate of their marriage, and denied that they [Evelina’s mother] have ever been united” (17). By doing so, Duval will “prove [Evelina’s] birthright, and to claim, by law, the inheritance of [her] real family” (122).

From the very beginning, Evelina is forced to oblige with her grandmother under threats of being dragged back to France, with which England is incredibly indignant towards. Duval sees Evelina as an object capable of being molded into whatever she likes, trying to convince her to “despise everything and every body” (122), because if she abides with the plans of Duval, they will all be rich. Gaining status is Madame Duval’s goal, and during the eighteenth century, much of that status relied on wealth. The more windows someone could afford, the more silks they donned, the more operas they attended were all factors as how powerful of a person the individual must be. While Duval is incapable of attaining monetary holdings, she still attempts to pull the wool over her public’s eyes by wearing far too much make-up, age-inappropriate clothing, and she goes to the lengths of having a French escort follow her around, doing her bidding. Duval, however, cannot fool certain characters, especially the head of the house in which Evelina resides, Captain Mirvan.

Mirvan is a naval captain who fought against the French and despises them in all respects. His extreme lack of conduct, regardless of his military captain, causes him to have absolutely no deference of Madame Duval, regardless of her status, gender, or age, and he spares her no insult upon her. His distaste of the French only leads to his unabashed judgment of Evelina and his own daughter. He claims that these girls don’t “‘know their own minds…they are a set of parrots, and speak by rote, for they all say the same things.’” He warns his daughter, Moll, that she should “‘never again be so impertinent as to have a taste of [her] own before [his] face’” (110). This type of man would never approve of women doing anything, especially writing, and it is specifically why Frances Burney put such a character in her novel.

Burney strategically created individuals who, from the outside, appear to be successful, wealthy, and respectable. However, as the reader continues on, a very different picture is painted of these characters, whose conduct reflects the mannerisms of a peasant, or someone who was raised with little moral fiber and respect for his or her peers. Captain Mirvan exemplifies the personality and actions of a drunk, always arguing and fighting with his surrounding peers. He is never impressed by anything, and is very closed-minded.

As a dense individual, Captain Mirvan is incapable of seeing the error of his own ways, and ultimately assumes that everyone surrounding him is liable for his actions. The captain even goes as far as to stage a robbery on Madame Duval, just because he thinks it will be funny. However, his actions upon this woman not only personify his immense hatred of France, but also show his utter disrespect for all women. Madame Duval’s feet “were tied together with a strong rope, which was fastened to the upper branch of a tree, even with an hedge that ran along the ditch where she sat” (149). Also,

her head-dress had fallen off; her linen was torn; her negligee had not a pin left in it; her petticoats she was obliged to hold on; and her shoes were perpetually slipping off. She was covered in dirt, weeds, and filth, and her face was really horrible…(150)

This disrespectful behavior would not be tolerated in eighteenth century England, no less in the society of today. The captain had assistance from Sir Clement Willoughby, yet another despicable excuse for a male who Burney created, and shares similar ideologies as the captain himself. Willoughby’s character is notorious for shrouding Evelina from a moment’s peace, and forcibly plants himself into any situation she engages in, in hopes that Evelina will ultimately settle for him. This inescapable character that Burney created mocks the courting processes of the eighteenth century. Evelina at one point is subjected to ride alone in a carriage with Willoughby, rather than accepting a personal carriage from Lord Orville. Willoughby takes advantage of her lack of conduct knowledge, aware that she is naïve in such situations, and will accept the escort simply because she is incapable of rejecting an offer of hospitality.

Evelina’s lack of social backbone throughout most of the novel is a frustrating obstacle for even the reader, because he or she even knows that such individuals should not take advantage of this poor girl. Evelina, however, uses her knowledge of conduct as to not “give offense to Others…”(Haywood 186), because she is kind in nature and unexposed to the terrors such as Sir Clement Willoughby. Evelina’s personality makes her “too apt to mistake what is most becoming in [her], and by aiming to please too much, makes [herself] incapable of pleasing at all”(Haywood 232).

Mr. Villars never exposed Evelina to the possible evils of society, and she was always taught to be respectful towards others. In turn, Evelina’s perception of others is skewed, until she completely learns what kind of person they are. Unfortunately, this chain reaction of trying to please everyone and not judging too soon comes from the fact that Evelina was never versed in the conduct books of her time, and her first experience where she needs the educational factor ends horribly, at her first ball.

Unknowing of the conduct at a ball, which is if the lady is unengaged, she should not turn a man down for a dance, Evelina claimed to be “already engaged” (41) with a dance partner in order to avoid a fop of a man. This type of evading may have worked, if this man did not pursue her on this type of individual. In a panic, Evelina persisted it was Lord Orville, and once he became aware of the situation, Evelina swirled into a panic and “burst into tears”(49). This confusing and overwhelming behavior is taxing on the reader, and Frances Burney wrote this scene to make a specific point of the separation of class knowledge and the stressed importance of conduct books during the time. If a person did not have knowledge of conduct books and was thrown into a situation similar to Evelina’s, the outcome could be catastrophic towards the individual and his or her perception among the public eye.

After this stressful encounter, Evelina becomes noticeably cautious of her conduct around others in the hopes that she will not repeat what happened to her at the ball. The mortification that ensued from trying to make her own decision by not dancing with the fop proved emotionally painful to such a sensitive individual. With all of this embarrassment, however, Evelina is graced by Lord Orville, whose “politeness relieved” (49) her. Frances Burney uses this ball scene to show that even though there are people who exist such as the fop, Willoughby, others have the proper conduct and respect towards naïve girls such as Evelina.

Orville is essentially the foil of the captain, showing care for a distressed girl, rather than ostracizing her for panicking in a social setting. His differing personality and mannerisms are what Evelina attracts herself to, because he is not as forward as the other male characters; Orville does not view Evelina as an object of trained conduct manuals, but rather as a young girl full of potential and simply needs to adjust to the expectations of her new, social, upper class residence. Evelina thinks “his honour” so steady and “so feminine his delicacy, and so amiable his nature”(262). She is not objectified by Orville, nor does she have expectations coming from him, making for a more comfortable match.

One thing that fares worse for Evelina is when her expectations of the lives of others in London is not as glamorous as she would hope for it to be, and it is especially reflected in the social standing and conduct of her own reunited family members. As a group, Evelina, the Branghtons, and Madame Duval attend the opera. Mr. Branghton is claiming that the pay to attend such a show is ridiculous. He “protested that he would submit to no such imposition”(92) of five shillings to sit in the pit, and rather pays for the entire clan to be seated in the higher seats.

The Branghtons, to Evelina, is “a party so very disagreeable” and she openly expresses her “vexation at having being forced into” such a group, that she is completely appalled at the Branghtons’ conduct and manners within the opera. She “should have forgotten every thing unpleasant, and felt nothing but delight, in hearing the sweet voice of Signor Millico, the first singer; but they tormented [her] with continual talking”(93). Evelina has a great appreciation and respect for the performers and their abilities and talents, because she is aware of how to act within an opera; even though she was not formally taught how to conduct herself within a playhouse, Evelina still bears an air of responsibility and acknowledgment for the hard work of others. Her family members, however, claim the performers to be “unnatural,” because they are less civilized regardless of where they live, even if it is the great city of London.

The social settings that Burney places are important, especially for the character building of Evelina, who “requires the experience that will bring her taste in line with a universal understanding of excellence, an innate capacity that all humanity shares” (Pino). Evelina ensures Mr. Villars that she is not arrogant in her company,

I fear you will think this London journey has made me grow very proud, but indeed this family is so low-bred and vulgar, that I should be equally ashamed of such a [connection] in the country, or anywhere. And really I had already been so much chagrined that Sir Clement had been a witness of Madame Duval’s power over me, that I could not bear to be exposed to any further mortification. (95)

This statement made by Evelina is curious, however, because when forced to interact with such embarrassing individuals like the Branghtons, she gladly chooses to associate with Sir Clement Willoughby and even depart the opera house with him, at the danger of being viewed with the other group any further. She completely goes against the wishes of Madame Duval, even when threatened, because she would rather choose the seeming lesser of two evils in order to present herself more socially acceptable to any potential onlookers.

Frances Burney is very strategic in being able to portray how difficult of a game social stratification is within an upper class eighteenth century society. She places obstacles for the heroine of this novel, while emphasizing that this young girl is capable of maintaining her innocence throughout every battle. The stigmas that are thrown into an individual’s life, as he or she tries to assimilate into a new society at an older age, prove to be time consuming, and make the individual self conscious of his or her every move, at the risk of not gaining a desired position within society.

Evelina is a very complicated novel, because it gives the characters as well as the reader numerous possibilities of social outcomes, based on manners and networking capabilities, among other things. This “novel’s messages about taste, beauty, and sublimity, are mixed and many, but those messages are not actually in conflict with one another,”(Pino) however. Although Evelina is exposed to most of these messages and expectations, she is in a constant reminder from Mr. Villars of how to be morally proper, and continue on her own path.

An example of Evelina’s independence, especially amongst the male population is when Mr. Smith heckles her over a game of cards in regards to her first ball. She states “Mr. Smith teased [her]” until she “was weary of resistance…” However, rather than submitting to continuous accusations of her moral character, Evelina speaks up and “told [her] persecutor, that it was impossible [she] dance with him…as [she] had refused several persons in his absence” (224-5). She lacks the fear of confrontations with men, which gives Evelina a leg up in this novel as a person.

The complexity of Evelina’s character is her stand alone as a differing individual from the other female portrayals within Burney’s novel. She is three-dimensional and emotional, understanding what is right and wrong without being a product of a conduct manual. As a whole, “Burney emphasizes the parallels between a woman’s social reception and a work’s critical reception”(Campbell 559). She exposes herself and her own multi-dimensional capabilities not only as a writer but also as a woman. Doing this portrayal through a novel that is published backs up Frances Burney as an individual and gives her the much-desired recognition of women in the eighteenth century.

An unfortunate fact of women during this era is that they all had a cookie cutter type of expectation. No woman was courted for an exceptional sense of humor or an uncanny talent in writing or music. She had great expectations that greatly diminished her personality and own personal viewpoints, in order to gain recognition and also a husband. She was viewed as an object of sorts or a machine specified to learn and play out required tasks, and

In the social arena of the eighteenth-century novel of manners, a woman’s reputation is established through the reader and/or decoding of her deportment by the doyens of “society,” whose guidelines are defined and codified in conduct literature…and they constitute women as texts. (559-60)

Gina Campbell emphasizes the importance of women to be perceived as walking conduct books, whose mannerisms and social competence will only get them as far as their capabilities of understanding the overall expectations of their society, complete with social stigmas and pressures. For the upper class, their social conduct was taught, however in disagreement with Campbell, many of these women did not confront society with the proper manners that would have been presented to them in a conduct book growing up. This cutthroat back scene of women, and even men, in Evelina, expose the not-so-glorious side of being an upper class individual within the London society.

It is learned through France Burney that the expectations of the upper class society within Evelina – and outside of it as well – only go so far as to show proof of conduct knowledge, rather than act it out in surrounding company as well. Evelina’s character, although raised away from the large city life, expresses a greater air of proper moral conduct, and has the mannerisms and personality of an individual who is not only caring of others, but also aware of herself. At times she is naïve, but Evelina is capable of pulling herself from potentially damaging situations, both physically and mentally, in order to protect her character and reputation in London.


Campbell, Gina. "How to Read Like a Gentleman: Burney's Instructions to Her Critics in Evelina." ELH. 3rd ed. Vol. 57. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1990. 557-83. Print.

Haywood, Eliza, and Patricia Ann Meyer Spacks. Selections from "The Female Spectator" New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.

Pino, Melissa. "Burney's Evelina and Aesthetics in Action." Modern Philology. 2nd ed. Vol. 108. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2010. Print.

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