Thursday, November 6, 2014

Is Frances Burney a Feminist Writer?

Frances Burney (1752-1840), like Jane Austen, published her novels anonymously because a woman novelist was considered somewhat disreputable socially and such activities could have compromised her public standing. Such concessions to modesty were, above all, a means of self-preservation in a time in which any woman who wrote for publication risked her moral status. For as the guardian of Burney's heroine Evelina quite rightly says, "nothing is so delicate as the reputation of a woman: it is, at once, the most beautiful and the most brittle of all human things." Thus, any women writers, until well into the nineteenth century, were transgressive figures, and could be considered proto-feminists by virtue of having committed the simple act of lifting a pen. That being said, this transgressive behavior didn't necessarily translate to transgressive content within the novels produced. She was certainly the most significant female English novelist of her time, but can we consider her novels feminist?

In Evelina, her first novel, published in 1778, Burney acknowledged her debts to such popular authors of the day as Richardson, whose sentimental tomes Pamela and Clarissa inspired both mawkish tears and blistering satire, and Fielding, whose jaunty comic style is very much in tune with Burney's slightly more elegant sarcasm. By explicitly aligning herself with the half dozen or so most popular male novelists of the time, Burney made a bid to break into their ranks, an act the full implication of which remained obscure until the revelation that the author was an authoress.

The epistolary novel follows sheltered beauty Evelina as she journeys to London for the first time, enjoys its many diversions, encounters many breeds of the male variety, from the coarsest to the most genteel, and discovers the true history of her parentage. Evelina is a young innocent, ignorant of the finer niceties of London style and manners, but with a natural sensibility that allows her to distinguish higher culture and class from lower. Like Richardson's heroines, Evelina is beset by the dangers posed to her by the many potential seducers she meets in the popular social haunts of London. Her guardian, Mr. Villars, exhorts her to "learn not only to judge but to act for yourself: if any schemes are started, any engagements made, which your understanding represents to you as improper, exert yourself resolutely to avoid them, and do not, by a too passive facility, risk the censure of the world, or your own future regret." Mr. Villars neatly sums up the inherent contradiction in his exhortation on proper behavior for a woman, though he himself fails to see the contradiction. Though a woman's virtues - modesty, sweetness of temperament, malleability, docility, and so on - of the time demanded passivity, the protection of her "virtue," i.e. her virginity, required, more often than not in the relative freedom (for men) of 1774 London, an active resistance.

This conflict, between female virtuousness and the preservation of one's virginity in the face of constant harassment and assaults, was a major theme of novels of the time, most notably in Richardson's wildly successful novels. Burney's treatment of the subject, surprisingly given her generally bright style, considers this danger with the gravity it deserves, recognizing the genuine threats faced by her heroine. (It's worth remarking, however, that preying upon women of a lower class or those that are simply more vulgar than Evelina is not treated with quite the same seriousness.)

Though Evelina makes numerous social gaffes, she does understand intuitively that indebtedness leaves her vulnerable and thus insists on paying her own coach fare, rather than allow her vulgar and undesirable relations to pay, thereby accruing a more potent power of persuasion than mere familial duty. In general her instincts, the product of her much-remarked-upon natural sensibility, lead her to moral high ground; the majority of her faux pas are the result of lack of familiarity with strict social rules. For instance, she accepts a dance partner after refusing another at her first assembly, an easily made mistake that is interpreted as discourtesy due to an assumption that assembly rules (surprisingly stringent) were known to all attendees. Such minor mistakes cause Evelina profound mortification, especially since they often result in unwanted social obligations; in the case of the assembly debacle, Evelina bears the sarcastic insults of a particularly loathsome male specimen.

Class, beyond any other subject, is the driving force of both the plot and the satire of Evelina, but it is not dealt with in a way likely to appeal to modern readers, feminist or otherwise. Although aristocratic men, with all their genteel manners, are as potentially dangerous as lower class suitors, an implicit belief in breeding and social hierarchies pervades the novel. Burney, far from chafing under the constraints of her class, rather criticizes the mixing of classes. At assemblies and at Vauxhall (a popular social destination with gravel walks, gardens, and booths where one could order refreshments) where classes mingled fairly freely, Evelina is always bound for disaster, almost invariably as a result of an un-wished-for association with people of a lower class. Repeatedly, the bad manners of her sexually avaricious grandmother, Madame Duval, and her greedy, indelicate cousins are the root of Evelina's troubles, while Evelina's delicacy, forbearance, and sense of duty compel her to keep promises made by others and expose herself to ridicule. Burney's critique of class does nothing to overturn the then common understanding that those of the higher classes, being "well-bred," were born with an innate sense of propriety, while those of the lower classes were vulgar by nature.

More disappointing than Burney's treatment of class is her treatment of the character of Mrs. Selwyn, described thus by Evelina: "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." In the entire novel, no other phrase argues more forcefully against the feminism of the text. Evelina associates masculinity with grossness and therefore any woman who seeks to acquire masculine qualities is in her eyes gross. Disturbingly, knowledge and education are the masculine qualities in this instance and there is nothing so damaging to female emancipation as a rejection of knowledge and education.

Though Burney certainly did not produce a feminist heroine in Evelina, the novel retains certain transgressive qualities that are bound to pique feminist interest. Burney's sympathetic portrayal of the harassment suffered by women at the hands of more powerful men is chillingly as relevant today as in 1774. In one instance, Evelina and her cousins are surrounded by a group of men in the dark walks at Marylebone (a pleasure garden similar to Vauxhall); the men link hands and toss them against each other, taking the opportunity to paw at their bodies. I know women to whom the precise same thing has happened. At the very least, Evelina guides the modern reader through the Georgian world through the eyes of a young woman, and particularly since female historians were few and far between until fairly recently, it is an invaluable record of female experience.

No comments:

Post a Comment