Then courts of kings were held in high renown, Ere made the common brothels of the town. There, virgins honourable vows received, But chaste as maids in monasteries lived. The king himself, to nuptial ties a slave, No bad example to his poets gave: And they, not bad, but in a vicious age, Had not, to please the prince, debauch’d the stage.
John Dryden, “The Wife of Bath her Tale”

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Anger management in ‘Evelina’

Or rather, Evelina.  But apparently post titles cannot handle italics. 

This is the first draft of a paper I’m preparing for our local English grad conference, on Frances Burney’s first novel, Evelina: or, the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World.  I think it needs trimming – not so much in length (it’s currently 10 pages, 12 pt double-spaced, so doable) as in extra ideas. It has too many, and it’s probably rather too distracting for an aural format.


In the course of Frances Burney’s first novel, Evelina falls under the care of three older women in turn. Each provides the protagonist with a foil and potential model, complementing and commenting on her behaviour. The most intriguing parallels, however, are in relation to the most vividly painted and repellent of the three, Madame Duval. Both the young woman and the older enter the London social scene as outsiders, conscious themselves of the difference and making it apparent to others by (usually) small transgressions of local codes of behaviour. In a series of paired incidents, Burney suggests that the difference between the two women in this regard is not the type of error, but their reactions to it. While both women are faced with comparable impertinences – sometimes provoked by their own errors – the extent to which these incidents disrupt the smooth, unruffled pool of social interaction is largely determined by their experience and expression of potentially the most transgressive of all emotions, anger. Evelina’s mastery of social forms is synonymous with her mastery of her own feelings, and her ability to eliminate anger from even her internal vocabulary is what fits her finally for civilised society.

From the very first letter in the novel, Burney establishes anger as both socially disruptive and a signal of alterity. It is Madame Duval’s inappropriate rage that immediately and irrevocably casts her as ‘other’ in Lady Howard’s letter. The “violent, sometimes abusive” letter to which Lady Howard responds (13), being an extravagantly negative behavioural model and a threat to orderly social interaction, initiates the action of the novel. An external force disrupting the orderly, enclosed, retired life at Berry Hill, Madame Duval’s anger creates the possibility for novelistic narration – just as, years earlier, her “wrath and violence” and “inexorable rancour” were the direct cause of the ruin of Miss Anville’s life (18). This alterity is emphasised when we meet Madame Duval by her affected foreignness and abrasive manners, making her in writing and person an effective external threat to the smooth running of orderly society. Her altercations with Captain Mirvan repeatedly cause uncomfortable and troublesome situations for the rest of the company. They even create real physical danger for Evelina, as those quarrels more than once leave her stranded with Sir Clement Willoughby without a protector (78-79, 182-84). Perhaps more seriously, they provide a model of behaviour for Evelina that she cannot possibly emulate. Evelina’s grandmother thus becomes a means for Burney to explore the over-expression of resentments that her protagonist cannot admit to feeling, never mind express, if her story is to end happily.

The relationship between Evelina and Sir Clement Willoughby, like that between Madame Duval and Captain Mirvan, is built around a series of provocations and responses. The essential elements of the pattern all appear with the first meeting of each pair. At the ridotto in London, Evelina is addressed by “a very fashionable, gay-looking man” (48) who requests the honour of a dance. She informs him that she is previously engaged, but, her artifice being unequal to the lie, her unwelcome new acquaintance sees through her. Blithely setting aside unspoken social limits in retaliation, Sir Clement Willoughby attaches himself to her side and proceeds to torment her with a steady stream of provocations too eloquent and smooth to be repulsed, yet jarring enough to ordinary patterns of social interaction to cause Evelina severe consternation. The very next day (and in the very next letter) her grandmother makes an acquaintance similarly outrageous, according to her own terms. Reacting first against Madame Duval’s foreignness, then against her manners, Captain Mirvan launches into an attack which recalls that of Sir Clement Willoughby’s in its persistence, its affront to regular patterns of acquaintance and familiarity, and its clear intention to drive his target beyond anger into helplessness.

The similarities are too marked to consider either scene in isolation. While Sir Clement Willoughby lays sly insinuations against Evelina’s origin and manners - “why where could you be educated?” (54) - Captain Mirvan abruptly insults Madame Duval’s - “then go to the devil together, for that’s the fittest voyage for the French and the quality” (62). Both men are determined to persist in their behaviour despite attempts by both Mrs Mirvan and Evelina to change the subject, overriding the mildness of good manners with the force of bad. Most importantly, although we observe the second scene more dispassionately as outsiders, the emotional core is the same. Sir Clement Willoughby’s goading and Captain Mirvan’s persistence equally create a sense of helpless frustration, which only grows with each woman’s increasingly desperate attempts to deflect her opponent.

The primary difference between the first scene and its mirror is in the violence of the second. Here is no pretence of civil masks. Madame Duval’s open resentment of the Captain’s impertinences contrasts with Evelina’s useless attempts at retreat. Where Evelina chooses silences and ‘Sir’s for her responses, her grandmother raises her voice and hurls a new synonym for ‘unmannered’ at the Captain in almost every utterance. As a result the scene escalates much faster. Sir Clement Willoughby goads Evelina for five pages before she is driven to agree to a dance, and a further five before she bursts into tears. Within two pages of their first exchange, the violence of the older pair becomes physical, as he “seiz[es] both her wrists” to emphasise his threats (63). On their next encounter, both go further: Madame Duval “dash[es] the candle out of his hand, stamp[s] upon the floor, and, at last, sp[its] in his face”. This triggers a violent response in the Captain, as his amusement is “converted into resentment” and he shakes her “violent[ly]”, in turn begetting further “passion” (81-2). Their behaviour traps both characters in an escalating cycle of violence from which neither can (or is willing to) escape, regardless of the harmful effects of their quarrelling on the remainder of the company.

Madame Duval, in her “grossness” (64), not only articulates but seems to embody the frustration implicit in Evelina’s experience at the ridotto and elsewhere. Nowhere in her confrontation does Evelina admit to feeling anger herself, aloud or in writing – even, it seems, in her own head. The anger of Madame Duval and Captain Mirvan is described without hesitation, in vivid, non-euphemistic terms that remain associated with displays of anger throughout the novel, not one of which is applied to Evelina in the preceding scene. Captain Mirvan addresses Madame Duval “surlily” and is bent on “quarrelling” (61); they speak with “vehemence”, “swearing” in “fury”, both too governed by “passion” to respond to cool reason (62-3)[1]. But Evelina has no language in which to articulate her own negative emotional response to Sir Clement Willoughby’s provocation. It seems not to exist – our only proofs of it, despite the first-person narrative, are its external manifestations: inarticulateness, blushing, confusion, tears. Whatever it is that she feels, the parallel with Madame Duval suggests an analogy with anger, but not an equation: Evelina’s experience of her own emotion appears to be completely different.

This reticence on the part of author or narrator in providing terms for discussion of Evelina’s hypothetical anger also has its parallels in the continued development of the two stories throughout the first volume. Madame Duval’s responses to Captain Mirvan continue to function as a comment on Evelina’s to Sir Clement, and the exaggerated emotional displays in which the older woman indulges as a potential (and dangerous) model for her granddaughter’s imitation. They also serve, however, to highlight a crucial difference in focus between the battlegrounds on which each pair contests.

Just as Madame Duval’s emotions are performed and labelled, given unambiguous exterior form, so is her conflict with Captain Mirvan centred on her outward appearance and the means she uses to effect it. He tips her into the mud and laughs at her appearance, mocks the ruin of her “new Lyons silk” (77-8), and targets her clothes, head-dress and rouge both in tipping her into the ditch and in mocking her for it later (186). But Captain Mirvan is not alone in his blindness to all but the external[2]. Madame Duval’s first concern, on emerging from the mud puddle, is also “to save [her silks] from being stained by the wet” (77), and she continues to resent the Captain primarily for the ruin of her silks and wigs.

This is of a piece with her usual priorities: as even Evelina cannot help but notice, “the labour of the toilette seems to be the chief business of her life” (195). Her decision to abandon mourning when she came to England, with her husband “but three months” dead, is on the grounds that “nobody here could tell how long she had been a widow” (66), a justification that calls attention to her inability to draw a connection between outward appearance and interior feeling or motivation. So far as Madame Duval is concerned, the only reason to remain in mourning is social censure, against which is set the (equally external) siren song of fashion. Her preferred – or only – mode of self-construction is visible, public, and repeatedly emphasised as incongruous: characters from Evelina to Captain Mirvan all comment on the grotesque extravagance of her dress and manners.

Evelina, by contrast, constructs herself almost entirely internally throughout the first volume. She is close to inarticulate in public, spends little time at her toilette (and wastes next to no ink writing about it) and is intensely uncomfortable under the gaze of strangers[3]. She is initially so unsuccessful in creating a public image that even Lord Orville – later her truest reader – receives a first impression of her as simply “a poor weak girl” (42). Left to herself, however, Evelina shapes herself with increasing skill in the civilised, private form of the letter. Appropriately, then, where Captain Mirvan targets Madame Duval’s external accoutrements, Sir Clement Willoughby’s assaults on Evelina aim both towards disruption of her outer calm (and thus exposure or alteration of her inner self), and towards the physical intrusion of rape.

There is a (possibly tongue-in-cheek) echo of this distinction in Burney’s use of the repeated coach motif: Captain Mirvan repeatedly tries to eject Madame Duval from coaches, while Sir Clement Willoughby repeatedly traps Evelina inside them. At their first meeting, Captain Mirvan is reluctant to allow Madame Duval into his coach, then threatens to throw her out into the mud (61, 63); on departing for Howard Grove he hauls Monsieur Du Bois forcibly out of the carriage to spite her (147); in their “highwaymen” trick, he pulls her out of the carriage and tumbles her into a ditch in disarray (182-83). Madame Duval values control of the coach’s social functions – its movement, toward places of social power (Howard Grove, Justice Fielding), and its theatrical value (especially when it belongs to a lord). For Evelina, however, the power game is turned on its head, as the space itself becomes a trap with Sir Clement Willoughby controlling the reins. Thus, Evelina and the baronet struggle for possession of the inner space, while Madame Duval’s concern is for the appearance of the carriage from the outside.

This is not to say that Evelina’s social persona does not concern her or does not constitute an element in her perception of her own identity. She is excruciatingly aware at the ridotto of the appearance her awkward manners make, and how they make her seem, but at the same time her language emphasises the disjuncture between appearance and reality. She hangs her head “like a fool” (37), accidentally assumes “seeming airs” (38) though conscious of the “ridiculous part [she] had [her]self played” (39) and makes a determined effort to rally herself and “appear less a fool” (41) (emphases mine). Never once does she make a direct causative correlation between her appearance and her inner self. Rather, the reverse is true, or should be: her inner qualities ought to affect her outward show, and her challenge throughout the book is to bring each into closer alignment with the other. Her conversation with Lord Orville at the ridotto – or rather, Lord Orville’s gallant attempt to draw out more than monosyllables – is far from the last occasion on which Evelina will find her voice unequal to the task she would wish on it. But this works in both directions: not only must she learn to express herself rather than dwelling wholly inwardly, she must also learn to moderate what she feels and thinks, even to herself, according to the modest show of ideal femininity on the outside. If she must learn to say what she feels, it is also necessary to feel no more than she may say, or she risks becoming her grandmother.

Patricia L. Hamilton observes that “according to early-century conceptions of politeness, external behaviour should spring from and be congruent with inner moral virtue” (419). Lord Orville, she argues, is the epitome of this ideal. His manners, decorum and generosity – Hamilton’s three main components of male politeness – all spring from internal qualities. In my terms, Orville has eliminated the disjuncture between inner and outer virtue, and in this he provides Evelina with an alternative to her grandmother, allowing her to develop qualities and inclinations already evident in her from the beginning. Evelina is naturally disposed, or disposed by her upbringing, to constrain her emotions to the socially acceptable. Her internal self-censure is so automatic that, as we have seen, even so early as the scene at the ridotto, her own account shows little emotion but confusion. Only the subsequent sight of her grandmother’s rage suggests that true anger was an option in Evelina’s case: her own experience did not seem to involve it, to the extent that she avoids naming what she does feel even to herself.

Madame Duval’s complete disjuncture of inner and outer is not the model Evelina chooses: instead, she follows Lord Orville. I mentioned earlier that Captain Mirvan is a fitting partner for Madame Duval, as the similarities between them indicate that they occupy analogous places in Burney’s moral map. Sir Clement Willoughby, self-evidently, is not Evelina’s twin in the same way. Rather, he is a complement to the Duval/Mirvan type. His manners and dress are smooth, socially acceptable, even attractive, yet he also lacks the ability to balance internal with external. He offers Evelina a third choice: the appearance of virtue without its substance. In Sir Clement Willoughby, the possession of only the external appearance of goodness is more dangerous than Lord Merton’s lack of both. Sir Clement Willoughby thus prevents the situation from becoming a simple dilemma between presence and absence of polite manners: he proves that they must arise from real goodness inside rather than from a simple hypocritical veneer[4]. Evelina cannot simply smooth-talk negative internal qualities away in public – she must deny them in private, even to herself, until they cease to be a reality.

Evelina’s language thus models her and Orville’s ideal society: it eliminates anger altogether. Her reticence in providing terms for discussion of civilised anger suggests that it does not, in fact, exist in a civilised form – that it must be twisted around into something else, just as “hypocrisy” may be re-termed “politeness” or “tact”. If properly experienced, anger is unspeakable. It is not named, not acknowledged even to one’s self, except with wordless tears. For Evelina, anger is only permissible if it is not experienced.

As a warning, Madame Duval does not disappear when she passes out of the plot. She is a type, and there are plenty more of her out there under different guises. Captain Mirvan himself appoints her successor in their little war, and his election lights on Mr Lovel. A man who does not exist unless he is seen at the theatre, who “stud[ies] for an hour what [he] should put on” (504) and whose first reaction to humiliation is to bemoan the ruin of his “new riding-suit” (ibid), is a fitting heir to Madame Duval’s role. Although his manners are more fashionable, by casting him in the same position opposite Captain Mirvan, Burney suggests that they are intrinsically no better. And indeed the appearance of the monkey, “full dressed, and extravagantly à-la-mode” (501), is a fitting dénouement to this sub-plot. Captain Mirvan is correct in identifying Mr Lovel as Madame Duval’s successor, and the monkey as Mr Lovel’s relation. Unwittingly, however, he implicates himself. In Burney’s terms, the extravagant exteriority of Captain Mirvan, Madame Duval and Mr Lovel is bestial: they have nothing but the outward show of humanity, and the irrational, defensive aggression of the monkey on being struck echoes that of Lovel in striking it, of Madame Duval in spitting at the Captain or slapping Evelina, of the Captain in shaking Madame Duval or threatening to knock Mr Lovel’s teeth down his throat. All three – and they are not alone – are as much ‘creatures’ as the monkey[5], created by the exterior show they share with it. Violence and social disruption, it seems, is the inevitable result of anger. No matter how it is expressed, it cannot be fully assimilated into civilised society.

Lord Orville and Evelina, smoothing out the violent ‘passions’ within themselves, remain the standard for emulation – but their power is limited. As Hamilton points out (439-40), Lord Orville can throw the monkey out of the room, but he cannot do the same to the man who brought it in. Instead, he changes the subject and suggests a stroll. One’s own emotions may be named away, but the anger of others cannot be so eliminated. The only possible response to it is to turn aside, to ignore it, to avoid acknowledging it in language: to change the conversation.



[1] “Violence” is also one of the most common terms associated in Evelina with anger. Though not used in this brief scene, its effect is certainly felt, and Evelina’s comment near the end of the same letter that Mrs Mirvan does her best to “heal... those wounds which her husband inflicts” (66) also serves to emphasise the analogy of angry words as a physical assault, by comparison with the medicinal effect of politeness.

[2] This is not the only parallel between the combatants – Captain Mirvan is also her equal in the art of assaulting the company’s ears with over-loud, tactless exclamations, in a language that ostentatiously and rather vulgarly parades its origins outside polite society.

[3] For a more detailed discussion of Evelina’s scopophobia and its implications for self-fashioning, see Emily Allen’s “Staging Identity”. Allen also treats Madame Duval as a foil and potential behavioural model for Evelina.

[4] See Jenny Davidson for a length treatment of eighteenth-century politeness and its relations (tact, gallantry, manners, self-control) through the glass of their extreme – hypocrisy. Establishing hypocrisy first as a morally neutral term, Davidson examines the way arguments (political and literary) refract around it, particularly with an eye to gender roles and the position of servants. In passing, she mentions that Burney shares with Johnson and Burke “a sincere wish to show that politeness and virtue are wholly compatible” (8): I would amend that to potentially compatible, given the myriad examples of characters who fail to achieve that compatibility.

[5] Mr Lovel takes the word to himself in facing the monkey – 'as I’m a living creature, I would not touch him for a thousand worlds' (502) – unaware that he echoes Evelina's application of it to him earlier at both the ridotto and Love for Love, when she states explicitly that her use of the term is due to his poor behaviour and affectations (40, 103).


Works Cited.

Burney, Frances. Evelina: or, the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World. Ed. Frank D. Mackinnon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930.


Allen, Emily. “Staging Identity: Frances Burney’s Allegory of Genre.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 31.4 (1998): 433-451.

Davidson, Jenny. Hypocrisy and the Politics of Politeness: Manners and Morals from Locke to Austen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Hamilton, Patricia L. “Monkey Business: Lord Orville and the Limits of Politeness in Frances Burney’s Evelina.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 19.4 (2007): 415-440.

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