Type: Discussion | Title: Evelina (in Context) | Author: Fanny Burney

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The title for the first edition, January 1778, was Evelina, or, A Young Lady's Entrance in the World.  The second edition, 1779, and subsequent editions changed the subtitle to The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World. 

Though Frances Burney was born 1752 in King’s Lynn, the family returned to London in 1760, so the city Evelina discovers in the mid-1770s is the familiar London of Burney’s youth and young womanhood.  The novel is striking for the immediacy with which it portrays the society that makes up the London season and its overflow to spas like Bristol and Bath, a world of fashionable extravagance that flourished in the peace after the Treaty of Paris 1763.  This affluent display would peak around the mid-1770s, then wane under the cloud of the American war, an effect evident even as early as 1778 when the novel appeared.  But the novel set in the mid-70s captures this peacetime exuberance at its height.  

Burney brilliantly exploits the novel’s moment in a comedy of encounter that runs the scale from farce to its higher registers.  The comic occasion grows out of the fluidity of Evelina’s identity, a tenuous naming contingent for its resolution on the actions of others. The narrative carries on this sense that identity may be unfixed through the interrogative vein with which characters like Captain Mirvan and Madame Duval are introduced, as well as through others who are sketched out well before their characters take on names: for instance, the fop, the “very gay-looking man,” the “staring” gentleman, the “pretty, but affected young lady,” named later, sometimes much later, as Mr. Lovel, Sir Clement Willoughby, Lord Merton, and Lady Louisa Larpent.  This device, suspended naming, is telling in a society where a name with its attendant titles does so much to locate one within the social hierarchy.  Ordinarily any uncertainty would be resolved at first meeting through an introduction, in effect an formal acknowledgement of the other and an exchange of names, a resolution that in Evelina is often deferred.   

Fluidity carries over to the social structure.  Vulnerable in regard to naming and excruciatingly sensitive to how this bears on one’s situation, Evelina brings to the fore the cracks and fault lines within the social structure that lay open comic possibilities. So many of the public venues Evelina visits like pleasure gardens and assemblies exhibit the accelerated social mixing characteristic of the period and thus provide the arena for comic encounter.  The Marylebone episode (Volume II, Letter XXI) exemplifies this with a spectrum that runs from Lord Orville through characters of the “middling sort” like the Branghton party to the prostitutes. 

As the anthropologist Mary Douglas observes, “If there is no joke in the social structure, no other joking can appear.” 1 Here the structural joke is the unstable social strata, fixed on the face of it but in fact more permeable, creating an surprisingly open field for pretense, misunderstanding, and confusion.  Much of the comedy in the novel derives from the play along the boundaries between persons or social strata: for instance, a Captain Mirvan in the beau monde, Captain Mirvan and Madame Duval, the Branghtons at the opera, even the Branghtons almost anywhere, Mr. Smith at the assembly, Evelina in Holborn.   And Lord Orville’s struggle to unravel Evelina’s contexts, so “peculiarly situated” among relatives and companions, in encounters with the Branghtons, the harlots at Marylebone, or Macartney at Bristol.

One sign of this uneasiness may be the promulgation of rules, prescriptions for behavior such as those lists typically posted at public assemblies on how to conduct oneself or the Bath code for bathing wear, and figures like the masters of ceremonies who served as gatekeepers and facilitators.   Written rules are not foregrounded in Evelina but their rationale, anxiety over missteps, is internalized by Evelina and evident as she learns to negotiate the social intricacies. Early on in the novel her inexperience often leads to embarrassment but by Bristol Hotwells Evelina has become masterful in working through the web of transactions and obligations that she encounters.  

In this society the art of polite behavior is a sorting mechanism, distinguishing the truly genteel from the their pretenders.  But the stakes are higher. This formal surface of etiquette or “good manners” has an underlying gravity evident in the Rev. Villars’ response to Evelina’s anxiety that her seizing Macartney’s pistols may have been unfeminine: he declares “the right line of conduct is the same for both sexes.”  The balance is significant. Evelina's “social” education has much to do with taking the measure of female assertiveness, for example Madame Duval and later Mrs. Selwyn. But Villars' standard points equally to a measure for male assertiveness, one that Captain Mirvan transgresses with his bullying and Sir Clement Willoughby with his rakish badgering.  These characters are joined by others, often lower in standing, in displays of misconduct that remind us what is at stake, how precarious “the right line of conduct” can be, especially for a young lady, “peculiarly situated,” making her entrance into the world. 


  Biographical note

 Frances Burney was born into an artistic family, in her early years best known for their music: father Charles Burney, musician, composer, and music historian, older sister Esther a musician, married to a cousin also a musician.  Later, through Charles’s four volume music history, Fanny’s Evelina  and her subsequent novels, distinction would accrue in letters with half-sister Sarah, also a novelist, and brothers Charles, studies in Greek literature, and James, a history of British naval exploration. 

 Born June 13, 1752 in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, Fanny was the third child and second daughter of Charles Burney and Esther Sleepe.  When in 1760 the Burneys returned to London to take up residence at Queen’s Square, there were five surviving siblings, a sixth born in 1761.  Their mother died in 1762.  Five years later, Charles remarried, his second wife Elizabeth Allen, a widow with three children ranging in age from six to sixteen.  Two other children were born in the first five years of this second marriage.  

 Fanny began writing at around age ten though none of her early writings survive; she burned her manuscripts when she was fifteen.  The fire consumed her first novel, The History of Caroline Evelyn, though it provides the backstory for Evelina as related by Rev. Villars.  The reasons for the destruction remain obscure but Margaret Doody speculates on Fanny’s displeasure at the remarriage and a possible fatherly admonition that “unladylike and unsociable scribbling would vex Mrs. Allen.” 2 This would not be the last time that Charles Burney’s influence would prove dampening.  

 Fanny kept her writing of Evelina a secret from her father and with her younger brother Charles’s help was able to secure its publication without its authorship revealed.   The novel appeared January 1778 and was soon widely admired; it was June before her father learned Fanny was the author.  By then he was proud to introduce his accomplished daughter to his friends and she was welcomed by Henry and Hester Thrale to their manor, Streatham Place, and the circle of writers who gathered there, including Samuel Johnson and Richard Sheridan.   Hester Thrale remained a close friend for the next five years, including three years of widowhood after Henry died in 1781. During these years, Burney enjoyed extended stays at Streatham.  When not at Streatham Fanny often visited an old family friend, Samuel Crisp at his home, Chessington; both houses offered her a retreat from the Burney household for writing. 

 In the wake of Evelina’s success and with the encouragement of her father and Crisp, as well as Mrs. Thrale,  Dr. Johnson, and Sheridan, Burney wrote The Witlings, a comedy of manners. Charles Burney and Samuel Crisp’s first readings of the manuscript were positive but they soon turned.   The two apparently feared that the comedy was too transparent a send-up of contemporary figures, particularly the bluestocking Elizabeth Montagu, satirizing as intellectually pretentious Lady Smatter and the women around her.  By the end of summer 1779, Burney had put aside the play.  A comment in a letter to sister Susanna a few months later, though bearing on responses to her Captain Mirvan, may well have been informed by her experience with The Witlings: “I quite rejoice I showed the book to no one ere printed, lest I should have been prevailed upon to soften his character.”3

 Burney’s second novel Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress was published in 1782.  In a twist on Evelina’s quest for a name, Cecilia is encumbered by a name, having inherited a fortune with the stipulation that a husband take her patrilineal name at marriage.  Her love for a gentleman whose mother is equally adamant about retaining their family name sets up a complication Cecilia must resolve.  Beside the patrilineal burden of the name, Cecilia also struggles with the three male executors who administer her fortune and will oversee its transfer to a male heir should she fail to meet the will’s provision. 

 Much of the writing for Cecilia was done at Crisp’s Chessington but Burney gained significant support from Hester Thrale as well.  Though the novel was successful, the two years following its publication saw a dwindling of the company she had come to enjoy through the success of Evelina.  Samuel Crisp, lately so instrumental for good and ill to Fanny’s writing career, died in 1783.  Following Henry Thrale’s death in 1781, Hester fell in love with the musician Gabriel Piozzi, a match deplored by the Thrale circle.  Fanny’s friendship with Hester, her closest with another woman of letters, was irretrievably broken when Thrale remarried.  Dr. Johnson had become a great friend to Burney during the Streatham years, and he died December 13, 1784. 

 Thus 1785 found Fanny at thirty-two bereft of key friends and supporters.  Retreats from the Burney household like Streatham Park and Chessington were no longer available to her.  Though Cecilia had earned £250 she was still largely dependent on her father for financial support. In addition, a relationship with promise of a proposal had gone nowhere.  A rescue of sorts took shape through a friendship Fanny had made with the elderly and aristocratic Mary Delany.  The widow had friends at court and her royal connections secured Burney an offer to become a deputy keeper of the robes, a lady-in-waiting to the queen with a stipend of £200 a year.  

 The court appointment was in effect a servant’s post though at a very high level rather than a writer’s residency.  Burney had little time for fiction though ever the compulsive scribbler she did keep journals.  In the long run her journals and letters from the period have proved to be historically significant as the sole account by an outsider of life in the Georgian court.  After five years, an ill and dispirited Burney was able to secure a release from her post with a small annual pension £100.  

In 1792 Burney became acquainted with a circle of French émigrés, aristocratic refugees from the revolution, who had settled at Mickleham near Fanny’s sister Susanna Phillips and her friends William and Frederica Locke.  Soon Fanny developed an attachment with the exiled General Alexandre d’Arblay, former adjutant to Lafayette.  The two married in late July 1793 first in a Protestant ceremony, then two days later in a Roman Catholic ceremony.  Their son Alexander was born in December 1794. 

 Burney published her third novel Camilla; or, A Picture of Youth in 1796 with a contract that secured sufficient funds, £2000, for the d’Arblays to build Camilla Cottage near the Locke’s Norbury Park. Camilla extends the education question from Evelina both through the heroine’s experiences and the efforts of her lover, ill-advised by a misogynist tutor, to test Camilla as a prospective wife. Edgar Mandelbert’s quest to take the measure of Camilla amplifies Lord Orville’s sleuthing in the earlier novel into a more total and obstructive absorption. 

 Burney’s fourth and last novel The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties was informed by the French revolution and its aftermath. In 1802 during the Peace of Amiens Burney and her son followed d’Arblay to France where he had returned to claim rights and property lost in exile.  When France declared war on England, she was forced to remain in France for the decade of the Napoleanic wars.  The drafting of The Wanderer begun around 1800, continued during these expatriate years. Through her heroine, an émigré, first unnamed, then known as L.S. or Miss Ellis, then Juliet, and finally Juliet Granville, Burney explores familiar problems of identity and inheritance now exacerbated by the displacement revolution had brought about.  

 The novel came out early in 1814.  The reviews were generally negative with a misogynist bias against the airing of “Female Difficulties,” and views that echoed Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays.  In addition, the novel appeared just after Napolean’s abdication and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy.   Its liberal appeal for social justice and women’s rights struck a dissonant note in the prevailing atmosphere of right wing, royalist triumph.  And though it sold well, The Wanderer never enjoyed the popular reception and acclaim of Burney’s earlier novels.  

 The major literary project of her remaining years centered on the stewardship of her father’s reputation, Charles Burney having passed away in 1814.  This labor culminated with the publishing of The Memoirs of Dr. Burney in 1832.  Like many who enjoy a long life, she suffered the passing of most of those close to her: her husband died in 1818, her son in 1837, of her siblings Charles in 1817, James in 1821, Esther in 1832, and Charlotte in 1838.  Burney died in London January 6, 1840.  She is buried in Bath at Wolcot Church with her husband and son. 

 This biographical account is limited to Frances Burney’s writing life as a novelist.  She also kept diaries and journals throughout her long life, and like her court journals, these have become increasingly significant for their reflection on contemporary persons and times.  Though Boswell’s journals are the more well known, Burney’s journals rival Boswell’s mimicry through her skill in capturing contemporary voices and exhibit as well her unique comic sensibility. Beside The Witlings, Burney wrote three verse tragedies, Edwy and Elgiva, Hubert de Vere, The Siege of Pevensey, and the fragment Elberta during her five years at the royal court.  Of all her plays, only Edwy and Elgiva was performed (1795), and then only one night at Drury Lane.  She wrote three other comedies, Love and Fashion, The Woman Hater, and A Busy Day, from 1799 to 180l.  Unpublished for two centuries, her plays have only recently become available thanks to the increased interest in Burney’s work that the feminist reassessment has generated.  


1 Mary Douglas, “Jokes,” Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology (London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975), p. 98.

 2 Margaret Anne Doody, Frances Burney: The Life in the Works (New Brunswick, N.J. : Rutgers University Press, 1988), p. 36.

 3 Betty Rizzo, ed.,Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney: Volume IV, The Streatham years: part II, 1780-81 (Kingston,Ont.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003), p. 120. 




Doody, Margaret Anne, Frances Burney: The Life in the Works (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1988).

 Hemlow, Joycc, The History of Fanny Burney (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958).

 Thaddeus, Janice Farrar, Frances Burney: A Literary Life (London: Macmillan, 2000).


Critical Studies

 Cutting-Gray, Joanne, Woman as ‘Nobody’ and the Novels of Fanny Burney (Gainesville, Fla.:University Press of Florida, 1992). 

 Epstein, Julia L., The Iron Pen: Frances Burney and the Politics of Women’s Writing (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989).  

 Sabor, Peter, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Frances Burney (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

 Straub, Kristina, Divided Fictions: Fanny Burney and Feminine Strategy (Lexington, Ky.: University of Kentucky Press, 1988).


Note:  A print image included with an annotation is cited courtesy of the print collection that is its source. Images not cited for source are in the public domain.    















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