Evelina isn’t herself?

Whenever a law court let alone a tabloid newspaper takes an undue interest in a rape victim’s mores, we hear an echo down the ages of Evelina’s trial by novel.

Rosemary Bechler
23 April 2020, 9.57am
Evelina book ornament, 1794.
Wikicommons/ Fleuron.Public domain.

“I ran hastily up to two ladies, and cried ‘For Heaven’s sake, dear ladies, afford me some protection!’ They heard me with a loud laugh, but very readily said ‘Ay, let her walk between us;’ and each of them took hold of an arm…
They asked me a thousand questions… My answers were very incoherent, – but what, good Heaven! were my emotions, when, a few moments afterwards, I perceived advancing our way – Lord Orville! Never shall I forget what I felt at that instant …
At last without looking at me, in a low voice and hesitating manner, he said, ‘Were those ladies with whom I saw you last night, ever in your company before?’ "

Evelina in Marybone-gardens for the fireworks. (Volume 2, Letter XXI.)
From Evelina, or, a Young Woman’s Entrance into the World by Fanny Burney, (1778).

It was a rather gloomy International Women’s Day this year, with unsurprising attention to the failure to tackle domestic violence across the world, a concern now deepened by the self-isolating necessities of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the UK run-up, Woman’s Hour had the bright idea of asking if we could turn to eighteenth century novels to find sexual violence treated in a way that was neither too titillating nor too frightening? Professor Bullard chose a slightly earlier passage from Evelina than the one above (Volume 2. Letter XV), where the heroine is again lost, this time in Vauxhall Gardens, and physically trapped by two successive groups of jeering profligates before she is delivered by the rake of this novel, Sir Clement Willoughby, who promptly takes her even deeper down the alleyways, into potentially more trouble. Bullard applauded the 24-year old authoress for summoning up the courage to go public with these “everyday experiences”, and for not objectifying the victim anew, but describing her assaults from Evelina’s point of view. Still, she added, appreciative students found it “a bit depressing” how little had changed since such indignant writers described the unacceptable 300 years ago.

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But there is a richer harvest for the #MeToo generation, if they notice what is odd rather than familiar in this novel of manners. To begin with, Evelina Anville, our orphan heroine, is not exactly herself. The clue is in the Adam and Eve name and the question posed early on by her guardian, Reverend Villars. Will her ‘entrance into the world’ expose her as destined to remain trapped in the world of original sin strongly suggested by her ancestry – which regrettably includes a French waiting-girl in a tavern, and a fake runaway marriage with an evil English aristocrat – or will ‘Honourable love’ in the form of Lord Orville, chasten, preserve and reward her desire to go to London?

By his sheer capacity to recognise his heroine’s worth despite all appearances to the contrary, Orville translates the Reverend’s admirable qualities into a secular Enlightenment triumph, proving that despite her vulgar relations, Evelina may successfully step from the world of original sin into the world of benevolence. The novel achieves this by the dreamwork trick of resolving a contradiction – Evelina’s dual potential – with a paradox, when she falls ill from the evils of the world, thereby chastening her desire, and recovers into a new world and her just deserts.

Certainly Fanny Burney, who first published the novel anonymously, “wrapped in a mantle of impenetrable obscurity”, identified strongly with her heroine – but as the vulnerable symbol and weakest link of an aspiring middle class: “I have an exceedingly odd sensation when I consider that… a work that was so lately lodged, in all privacy in my bureau, may now be seen by every butcher, cobbler and tinker, throughout the three Kingdoms, for the small tribute of three pence.” Success of course brought new horizons. Nothing in the book itself, Fanny remarks in the Memoirs of her father, could be closer to romance than his proposal to tell the socialite Mrs.Thrale who had written it.

Nor was this intense interest in testing the ‘manners’ of aspiring young women in countless contrasting scenes like the two above, at all confined to women. Samuel Richardson kicked it off, and to read James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women (1765), you would have thought that his UK audience was packed with Richardsonian heroines: “I have often thought that, in some respects, there is not any creature so forlorn or so exposed, as a young woman, beautiful, inexperienced, single, almost wholly friendless, bred to affluence, left in dependence, perhaps in an indigence of which some wretch curst with wealth is willing to avail himself for the vilest ends…”.

This kind of prurience made Mary Wollstonecraft feel sick, and I have described elsewhere how Jane Austen revolutionised the novel rather than allow her heroines to sink into its stifling paranoia. But are we free of it yet? Every time a law court let alone a tabloid newspaper takes an undue interest in a rape victim’s mores, every time a woman is beaten up for reminding us of our own regrettable weakness within, don’t we hear the authentic echo of Evelina’s trial by novel?

A contemporary reviewer had another complaint: “We could wish her husband had not been a lord… the hero and heroine of every novel hardly ever fail, sooner or later, to turn out a lady or a lord.” Three hundred years later we may be better attuned to the happy endings that can be furnished by “every butcher, cobbler and tinker”, except in the field of governance, where we might legitimately enquire whether we don’t still depend too much on the Bullingdon boys of our time for rescue?

This piece was originally published in the April edition of Splinters.

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