Prompted in large part by @GeorgiannaGossip‘s fabulous group read of Frances Burney’s epistolary novel Evelina, the Bookish Miss is revisiting one of her favorite novels and looking at it in a new way.
Evelina is an often overlooked landmark work. It was one of the first recognizably modern novels, written by a woman, immensely popular in its own time and precedes Jane Austen’s novels by decades.
It’s also a very good read. Even the eighteenth century grammar and rhetoric are easy to adjust to, and its epistolary format makes it good for reading in small bites.
One thing I find fascinating is that, throughout the story, money and culture are constantly in conflict. History reminds us that for a member of the upper class (often called the “ton”) to concern her or himself with money was a serious social faux pas; so was the allocation of a “use value” to any object or idea considered cultured. Burney knew this, she understood this. However, a great deal of her novel deals with incidents where her characters, willingly or not, have to deal with money or the idea that something can have a quantifiable value. This violation of unspoken rules and etiquette, the “social determinants of taste,” often contributes to social confusion for Evelina.
What’s most fascinating is that while Burney exposes the utter hypocrisy of the ton, they gobbled up her book. Of course, there are just as many characters for the ton to ridicule as there are upper class fools for the middling classes to revile. Taken in its entirety, Evelina demonstrates the ambiguous and ambivalent relationship that eighteenth century Britons had with actual money.
One of the interesting things I noticed in my umpteeth reread of Evelina is that there seems to be a “buffer zone” between the ton and the rest of society. It appears to be an unspoken idea that there are areas money should not intrude on. This zone keeps people safe; no one but you and your accountant knows how much money you actually have. Anyone could spend lavishly during a season in London, but as to how they lived afterwards … well, that’s their business. Accordingly, when money matters do intrude it causes great embarrassment amongst the characters.
Take the opera scene. Branghton Sr. pays for the opera passes, but complains of the price and even goes as far as to haggle with the doorkeeper. When his daughters remark on his ignorance in the matter, the prices having been listed in the newspaper, he responds by telling them “the price of stocks is enough for me to see after; and I took it for granted it was the same thing here as at the playhouse.” As a businessman, he automatically looks for the usefulness of whatever he pays for. Indeed, he compares the opera to the plays he and his family regularly attend at Drury Lane and comes away from the experience upset, believing he has been “tricked out of his money with so little trouble.”
The reader comes away from this scene feeling sympathy for the embarrassed heroine, who has to put up with someone so “uncultured” he cannot grasp the concept of art for art’s sake. However, the scene not only shows how a member of the elite is mortified at the lack of appreciation for the opera, but how a middling class merchant is upset that the culture he helps finance does not give him his money’s worth.
The “buffer zone” is also crossed when the issue of debts and IOUs are broached. Because finances are not mentioned by polite society the very idea of commenting on one’s “arrangements” is considered vulgar and uncouth. Thus when Evelina first encounters Mr. Macartney she is somewhat shocked to hear her cousins, the Branghtons, openly discussing him and his finances. He is referred to by Miss Branghton as a “poor Scotch poet … [who will] never pay for his lodging.” Her comments are much less nationalistic prejudice as they are economic. A poet can be considered a writer and, as a writer, a producer. For the Branghtons, Mr. Macartney being a poet is not the problem, nor is it his nationality (although that surely plays into their stereotypes). The problem with Mr. Macartney, from the point of view of the Branghtons, is that he does not make money as a poet. Evelina and the ton see poetry for its aesthetic qualities and recognize that it as a product of social consciousness, but members of the middling classes realize that art, especially literature, is an industry. This is epitomized by Branghton Sr., who sees poetry and literature as something produced by writers and publishers and sold for profit.
Unfortunately for Macartney, he has no publisher and so makes no profit. Evelina, who pities his plight and is charmed by the aesthetics of his work, lends him money. Later, when he repays his debt (after using her as the subject of a poem without her prior knowledge), he causes something of a stir. That he chooses to conduct the transaction at an unsuitable time, in a public and inconvenient place, leaves Evelina open to public scrutiny.
However, even the unwritten rules of social expectation and conduct have exceptions. Bad news about monetary situations often got around, legitimately or not, but eighteenth century Britain’s greatest exception to their unwritten rules of monetary conduct was the marriage market. Commenting on the size (or lack thereof) of a young woman’s dowry was considered perfectly acceptable. What would appear to be an instance where the buffer zone is crossed turns out to be normal and a topic for conversation, even in polite circles. Indeed, when all of Evelina’s troubles are resolved and her marriage to Lord Orville is arranged, Mrs. Selwyn quite easily and unapologetically tells her that her father has given her a dowry in the amount of L30,000. This news is not so much shocking to the heroine as it perplexing; the causal mention of finances in everyday, if occasional, conversation goes unnoticed.
This double standard is very confusing and somewhat hypocritical, but can be understood. Evelina inhabits a world almost completely ruled by the elite of society — they create the rules and boundaries, including buffer zone between themselves and the middling and working classes whose work supports them. Burney’s genius is in satirizing her society by subtly (and not-so-subtly) pointing out its faults, vices and hypocrisies. The buffer zone, while a source of constant attack and embarrassment for the characters, allows the reader to see the fascinating dichotomies of eighteenth-century Britain.
All quotes taken from the 1992 Penguin Books edition of Evelina.