The Beauty & the Delicacy of a Woman’s Reputation
In Evelina, Burney uses certain characters to demonstrate how a woman can be measured by her reputation. This is the insight which helps transform Evelina from a simple girl, into a respectable and recognizable young woman. Mr. Villars said at the beginning of the novel that he wanted Evelina to be “all innocence” (Burney Evelina Letter V, 27) but he later tells her, “Nothing is so delicate as the reputation of a woman; it is at once the most beautiful and most brittle of all human things” (264), which brings up a very mature and difficult concept for this time: a woman’s reputation. The idea of a woman caring for her reputation is very important to Burney, for as a woman, she had to be aware of her fragile reputation. Burney originally published her novel anonymously, for that reason, so as to not tarnish her innocent reputation. Similarly, Evelina must ensure she does not act or feel out of line, because she needs to present a respectable character. Evelina’s changing appreciation for her reputation is a crucial indicator of her changing character, from a girl into a woman. In this society, a woman had to first and foremost ensure her reputation was intact, and although Evelina does not care for this at the beginning, the more she grows into a woman and is immersed with other characters in the novel who cherish reputation, the more it becomes her number one priority.
The importance of reputation is first emphasized by Burney through the description of Evelina’s mother, Lady Belmont. Because of Sir John’s act of ripping up his marriage certificate and invalidating his marriage, the reputation of Lady Belmont was tarnished, even after her death, and in turn, the reputation of Evelina was distorted as well. Reputation is first brought up in Letter I when Lady Howard questions how Madame Duval could abandon her daughter, leaving her without protection of her reputation. “Her letter has excited in my daughter, Mirvan, a strong desire to be informed of the motives which induced Madame Duval to abandon the unfortunate Lady Belmont, at a time when a mother’s protection was peculiarly necessary for her peace and her reputation“(Letter I, 15). Lady Howard’s curiosity shows how keeping ones reputation intact is the job of a woman, even if it takes a Mother’s aid, which Madame Duval did not do. Later, Burney does an interesting play on words when Villars describes the miseries Lady Belmont goes through, he juxtaposes her life with her reputation saying, “She had no sooner quitted it herself, than she was plunged into a gulph of misery, that swallowed up her peace, reputation, and life” (Letter XXVIII, 204). The reputation of Lady Belmont also affects Evelina, because she is either seen as an orphan who was conceived out of wedlock, or she is pitied by those who know how the reputation of her Mother was tarnished. Villars is constantly trying to repair that reputation, and Burney uses his character to reinforce how important reputation is using Villars’ passion for the subject. He says, “Her spotless character shall be justified to the world – her marriage shall be acknowledged, and her child shall bear the name to which she is lawfully entitled” (Letter LXXIII, 537). He feels very strongly that Evelina and her Mother should be allowed to have the clean and respectable reputation that they are entitled.
Villars is not the only male character in the novel that finds reputation to be very important, for it is depicted by Lord Orville and Sir Clement as well. At the first ball Evelina attends, Sir Clement tells Lord Orville that he believes Evelina to be of ill-breeding, stating “ill-breeding is apt to provoke a man”, and later asserts himself by saying “I am not totally despicable as a judge of good or ill-manners” (Letter XII, 53). This demonstrates how men judge the women they fancy by their character as well as their breeding. Lord Orville also states that Evelina “must be a country parson’s daughter”. Lord Orville is fairly judgmental in this scene as he criticizes Evelina based on such a short encounter with her. About his conversation with her, Orville says “I have really fatigued myself with fruitless endeavors to entertain her, with the most immovable gravity” (Letter XII, 54). This first impression could have been very damaging to her and she stresses a lot over it that day. However, Lord Orville changes his opinion of her and eventually blames her odd behavior on her naivety and new entrance into the world.
The importance of reputation is also seen through the character of Madame Duval, Evelina’s French grand-mother. In contrast to Evelina, Madame Duval embodies how a woman should not act, in the time of Burney’s writing this novel. Her reputation is completely tarnished by her exuberant behavior, and Captain is constantly trying to ruin it even more. When he attacks her in the carriage, he strips everything womanly from her and embarrasses her to the point that everyone was laughing at her pain. “Her head-dress had fallen off, her linen was torn, her negligee had not a pin left in it, her petticoats she was obliged to hold on, and her shoes were perpetually slipping off… she hardly looked human” (Letter XXXIII, 240). For Madame Duval, this is a horrible experience and although she is the victim, it will still effect her reputation and her character in the future. In addition, her aggressive and violent behavior towards Captain, further tarnishes her character in society. For example, in an incident with the Captain, “…she dashed the candle out of his hand, stamping upon the floor, and, at last, spat in his face” (Letter XVI, 107). In addition, despite her bad manners, she still has a strong opinion on the ill-breeding of Captain, when the next day “…she began to inveigh against the barbarous brutality of that fellow the Captain, and the horrible ill-breeding of the English in general, declaring, she would make her escape with all expedition from so beastly a nation” (XVII, 109). She is the epitome of what Burney illustrates to be the opposite of a pleasant and respectful woman.
Alongside these characters, Evelina begins to see the importance in her reputation as she grows and is welcomed into the world. She begins to become snobby, and does not want to be seen with her lower class, rude family members. This is very important to her, as she does not want to be seen in public with people she sees as beneath herself, although she is really just a small town girl being introduced to the big world. She explains to Villars, “I fear you will think this London journey has made me grow very proud; but indeed this family is so low-bred and vulgar, that I should be equally ashamed of such a connection in the country, or anywhere” (Letter XXI, 154). She later says, again very snobbishly, “I would not, for the world, be seen by any acquaintance of Mrs. Mirvan” (Letter XL, 276). Her desire to have a perfect appearance increases when she is attempting to impress Lord Orville. She is constantly trying to avoid being seen by him while she is with a party she is not particularly proud of. “…I perceived, walking with a party of ladies at some distance, Lord Orville! I instantly retreated behind Miss Branghton, and kept out of sight till we had passed him; for I dreaded being seen by him again in a public walk with a party of which I was ashamed” (Letter LIV, 392). Because of her infatuation for him, she is constantly worrying about what he thinks about her character. This shows that a crucial part of her growing into a woman is ensuring that her reputation is intact in order not to make a fool of herself in front of men who may be interested in her, like Sir Clement or Lord Orville. Even if she does not hold Clement on high regard, she does not want her reputation to be tarnished by any man, because at this time it could affect her courtship with anyone.
Burney uses the characters in her novel to show how important reputation was in society at this period, and how women must always ensure their character is reputable. By means of the male characters, Sir Clement, Lord Orville and Villars, Burney emphasizes how men are judging women based on their reputations. By contrasting a nearly ideal feminine character in Evelina, with a disgraceful character like Mme Duval, Burney is demonstrating how ones character can also distinguish their status in society. Similarly, the Branghtons are examples of people who are trying to succeed in society but cannot because of their rude and ill-bred dispositions, which give them a bad reputation. They also show how Evelina becomes more of a snob as the novel progresses and as she gets more accustomed to the social world. Ultimately, it is evident that Evelina effectively demonstrated the correlation between a woman’s reputation and their station in life, at the time of Burney’s writing.