The ‘female intellectual’ in 18C print culture

When Frances Burney first published Evelina, she did so anonymously, according to Vivien Jones in her chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Frances Burney, “to  identify herself at the start of her career with a male rather than a female novel tradition, with Fielding, Richardson and Smollett rather than Lennox, Griffith and Brooke: in other words, with the writers widely accepted as setting the standard for contemporary fiction” (111-12). As a result, once her identity was finally revealed, she enjoyed “respect as a female intellectual on the basis of works of fiction, a recognition which led, in turn, to her taking her place in late eighteenth century’s pantheon of major novelists, alongside the male writers of the mid-century” (112).

But image, especially as a female author without a side job or other literary hobbies to help establish her career, was as important as it was precarious. Burney not only had to be a brilliant and pioneering author — she also had to be a female intellectual. She had to be well-mannered, witty, apolitical, and feminine in every way, which included her modesty and timidity (which were, according to Jones, characteristics inherent to Burney’s personality). After Evelina received critical acclaim, and after she was outed as its female author, she was still able to hang on to her status as a female intellectual and groundbreaking novelist partly because she had all the aforementioned acceptable qualities.

Interestingly, if we remove any one of these elements — manners, wit, apoliticism, and femininity — we no longer have a female intellectual. This is akin to our discussion last week in class, where the four elements of a gentleman — manners, status, taste and wealth — are all present in Lord Orville but in nobody else (save for, perhaps, Mr. Villars, though he may not qualify as “wealthy,” per se).

The Female Intellectual.png

This is evident in Burney’s character of Mrs. Selwyn, Mr. Villars’ friend who is present at the end of Vol. II and throughout Vol. III of Evelina. Evelina describes her as

“very kind and attentive to me. She is extremely clever; her understanding, indeed, may be called masculine; but, unfortunately, her manners deserve the same epithet; for, in studying to acquire the knowledge of the other sex, she has lost all the softness of her own” (269).

Mrs. Selwyn lacks a gentleness, “a virtue which, nevertheless, seems so essential a part of the female character, that I find myself more awkward, and less at ease, with a woman who wants it, than I do with a man” (269). She is highly intelligent, witty, and educated; she has manners (aside from not possessing female gentleness) that are acceptable in high society; and she has some wealth, judging by the fact that she can afford to travel the countryside and is friends with Mr. Villars, Mrs. Beaumont, Lord Orville, Lord Mertin, etc. The absence of femininity in Mrs. Selwyn, however, keeps her from being a female intellectual, much like how Sir Lovell’s lack of taste and Sir Clement’s lack of manners kept them from being true gentlemen.

Luckily, Burney seems to possess the four qualities of the intellectual female and can, therefore, enjoy the success of her novels as well as the distinction of being the first female novelist who has not had to diversify in order to sustain her career and notoriety.

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