Evelina can say no — and lots of other things, too

For “a late developer where reading and writing were concerned,” Frances Burney certainly made up for lost time in her subsequent career as a writer (perhaps due to her skill at mimicking others, including their language). Throughout the novel, the editor’s notes have Burney consistently making new use of words and phrases. She is, in a word, a pioneer. Just a few of the words she reinvents with new meanings that would soon come into common use: Londonize (27), a shopping (31), school-girl (31), embarrassment (34), genius (38), seeing sights (39), broke down (65), and take-in (93).

Not only can Burney, through Evelina, use all these new and fashionable words — she can also say “go away, you’re bugging me” instead of “oh please just let a poor wretch be, good sir — all I have is my virtue! I’m not worthy!!” (as perhaps in Richardson’s Pamela). Burney initially seems to use Evelina’s relative ignorance of class and the manners of polite/high society (she is rather “rustick,” after all) as a reason to allow her the power say no to the advances of several undesirable suitors. At her first ridotto, when Sir Clement corners her for the first time, she flat out tells him: “You have tormented me to death; you have forced me from my friends, and intruded yourself up on me, against my will, for a partner,” and then, “If I have offended you … you have but to leave me — and O how I wish you would!” (46).

Evelina is empowered. Not only does she have the rhetorical agency of Pamela in that she authors the majority of the novel through her letters to her guardian, but she eschews the idea that a young woman going into the city for the first time will inevitably become a syphilis-laden prostitute with a baby and no husband (as Hogarth and Haywood might have us think). Instead of being a victim of the sexual advances of potential suitors (like Clement and Lovel), she refuses — and she learns. She adapts. She escapes potentially bad situations without much pomp and circumstance. She is also far more human and realistic in her thoughts and emotions than the character of Pamela ever was, and she has more agency. Even the salty sea captain confirms it when he says: “‘That lady, Sir,’ said the Captain coldly, ‘is her own mistress'” (44).

As the child of a well-respected but likely not rich musician, Burney had the opportunity to absorb all the “cultural capital” (as Jones calls it) that is normally reserved for the very-well-to-do, but from the point of view of an outsider. Her mimicry here is not just of society but perhaps even of herself in the character Evelina, with whom she is perhaps more alike than not.

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