“What other name may I claim?”: Being Nobody in Frances Burney’s Evelina

evelinaWhile Jane Austen is endearing and always worth reading time and again, Frances Burney puts a smile on my face because she isn’t as well-known, because her books seem to reflect, to an extent, her emotions while writing them, and because she wrote them despite pressure to stop.

Evelina has been a nine-year love affair, and it shows. There is nothing more satisfying than the worn down corners of a book from being shoved into purses and overstuffed backpacks, or the thumb-print sized grease stain that dots the page because you only had enough time to open a small bag of potato chips for dinner. It’s these little things that mark novels as precious to their owner, the signs of wear and tear. My copies of Evelina and Burney’s other novels have these characteristics, and I hope that one day someone else will find them as enjoyable as I do.

** As I cracked open my copy to write this, the smell of the pages carried me away to memories of cobblestone streets, dim coffee shops, and the clanking of spoons against ceramic mugs. I really miss Scotland. **

In some ways, I would suggest that Burney does more for arguing against women’s oppression than, say, Mary Wollstonecraft. Even though she might not have shouted it on the rooftops nor written scathing essays, she still felt it and spoke against it in her own way. I told you that she burned some of her writing because it was impressed upon her from a young age that this was not a field suitable for women, and that feeling continues in her writing. Her female characters are all oppressed in some way or another by the mere fact that they’re women. Granted, you could read anything through any lens you choose. For the sake of this post, let’s imagine we’re reading Evelina from the perspective of an oppressed woman in the 18th century.

Evelina, our heroine, has no name. Her father refused to acknowledge her when she was born and her mother died shortly after. Without a name, she lives a quiet life with her guardian, a man, who, though he wants what’s best for her, still contributes to her silence. She must remain silent, unmoving, so that no one will find out her sad story. It’s not appropriate while the father still refuses to acknowledge her. By some miracle, Mr. Villars (her guardian) agrees to let her stay with a friend in London, where she meets a multitude of people who question her. Who is she? Who is her family? Why does she not know the proper etiquette for dances and social calls in general? Why doesn’t she speak?

She and Mr. Villars keep up a steady correspondence throughout the book, which is how we track Evelina’s progress in society. In signing off one of her first letters to him, she writes, “I am, with the utmost affection, gratitude and duty, Your Evelina—, I cannot to you sign Anville, and what other name may I claim?”Anville is the name they chose for her to use, but it is not her name. It is almost a rearrangement of the letters in her first name. It is nobody in particular. She cannot claim her rightful name, so who is she?

On her first trip to a ball, she made several mistakes that ended up with her saying she was already engaged to dance with a man she had never actually met. Luckily, Lord Orville was gracious enough to pretend it was true. While they were dancing, Orville attempted to make conversation with her, asking her questions about how she liked the country, how she enjoyed London etc. Evelina remarks to Mr. Villars, “I fancied, he has been inquiring who I was. This again disconcerted me […].” Burney, putting emphasis on “who I was,” brings up the necessity of silence on this subject. Evelina is disconcerted by the questions, becoming quiet once again. He probed too far.

Another character remarks to Lord Orville only two pages later, “[…] but really, for a person who is nobody, to give herself such airs,—I own I could not command my passions. For, my Lord, though I have made diligent enquiry—I cannot learn who she is.” A man she just met is already calling her a nobody. While he is referring to her social status, Burney is hinting at something more. She is more than someone without a social status. She is without a name, effectively nobody. This could also refer to how Burney herself felt. She wrote her early journals to “Nobody.” She said:

“To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal! since to Nobody can I be wholly unreserved —to Nobody can I reveal every confidence, every wish of my Heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity to the end of my Life! No secret can I conceal from No-body…From Nobody I have nothing to fear.”

Burney wrote her journal knowing no one but herself would read it. “To Nobody can I be wholly unreserved,” that “Nobody” is Burney. However, she continues on to say, “No secret can I conceal from No-body.” Notice how “Nobody” is now “No-body.” Could she be referring to other people then? If so, you could argue that she means her secrets are not safe. As a woman, it was hard to be a writer and to keep your life private. Jane Austen left a squeak in a door so she would know if someone was coming in order to hide her work. Frances Burney might have felt that same invasion of privacy. For more on Burney’s use of “Nobody,” I cannot recommend Margaret Anne Doody’s Frances Burney: The Life in the Works enough.

Evelina meets her grandmother, a vulgar woman that embarrasses her to no end. A third of the way through the novel, her grandmother makes a proposal to Evelina—to claim her rightful name. She announces at a dinner party that “she had it in her head to make something of [Evelina], and that they should soon call [her] by another name than that of Anville, and yet that she was not going to have the child married, neither.” Evelina is terrified at this news. Claiming her real name from a man who didn’t want to acknowledge it in the first place causes her “great consternation.” She has to excuse herself. Madame Duval wants to improve Evelina’s status in society, to declare what is rightfully hers, turn her from a Nobody into a Somebody. The only way to do this is to give her her real name.

Evelina’s identity relies on a name. She doesn’t have one, at least not one that’s hers for the taking. It won’t be hers until her father lets her have it. She can claim nothing, so she remains silent about herself and her past. Does she claim her real identity? Does she take another instead? You’ll have to read the book to find out. My lips are sealed. I can’t help it. I firmly believe everyone should read Evelina. I’m a huge advocate for 18th-century British literature, especially women writers, so maybe I’m a little biased.

You’re welcome for finally getting around to posting this review! Too bad it took 10 months.

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