In Francis Burney’s Evelina, good education, one provided to Evelina by a generous and virtuous clergyman, allows for passage into prestigious social circles, and eventually, a title that establishes a part within such a social circle. Evelina has a natural capacity for “gentility” that has been nurtured and cultivated by Reverend Villar’s guidance. Still, she is portrayed as an artless and innocent country-girl who is not only unaware of how to respond to the attention she receives by noblemen such as Lord Orville but is also unwilling to acknowledge the affection she has for him. There is some tension in the story between her desires and her inhibitions to display them. Though she does not want to acknowledge feelings of love for Lord Orville, she is consistently virtuous, and it is this quality, that permits her to consolidate the identity of a lady worth pursuing. We cannot, however, give Evelina all the credit for achieving high status, as Reverend Villars ultimate tactful advice also pushes Lord Orville to propose to her. Thus, with the persistent guidance of a good education, one can gain legitimate access to noble society.
Evelina receives her title, the name of her real father, around the same time a Lord Orville proposes marriage. We know, however, that her character is worth more than her right to the title of Miss Belmont as she ultimately wins Lord Orville’s heart. Lord Orville offers her the title of his wife before she is granted the adoption of her father’s name. Thus, it is her character and not her class that makes her desirable. This sounds familiar as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela’s virtue also makes her desirable.
When defending her against one of her many sexual aggressors, Lord Orville says,
It is very true…that I did not, at our first acquaintance, do justice to the merit of Miss Anville; but I knew not, then, how new she was to the world; at present, however, I am convinced, that whatever might appear strange in her behavior, was simply the effect of inexperience, timidity, and a retired education, for I find her informed, sensible, and intelligent. She is not, indeed, like most modern young ladies, to be known in half an hour; her modest worth, and fearful excellence, require both time and encouragement to show themselves. She does not, beautiful as she is, deceive the soul by surprise, but, with more dangerous fascination, she steals it almost imperceptibly (379).
After such a long defense, the reader wonders what is taking him so long to propose marriage. The impatience we feel is also conveyed by Evelina’s guardian, who warns her that she has placed herself in an exceedingly vulnerable position. She is falling in love with Lord Orville and he is taken by her but no one knows what his real intentions are. It is in demonizing Sir Clement Willoughby’s intentions that Sir Orville reveals his own. Just like Evelina, a great amount of pressure is required to reveal Lord Orville’s feelings. Another person that indirectly pressures Lord Orville is Reverend Villars. When Evelina is accused of not acting with strategic discretion, Reverend Villars offers tactful advice. He gives Lord Orville the opportunity to pursue Evelina by advising her to suspend all communication with him. Of course, Lord Orville rises to the occasion and one of the pieces in the story concludes with a happy marriage.
Critics have proposed Evelina as anything but a passive object. In “Writing Innocence: Fanny Burney’s Evelina,” Joanne Cutting-Gray discusses how Evelina obtains agency through the process of self-engagement with writing. Though we get an image of an innocent and passive country-girl, she is not out of tune with society. She’s socially aware of other people’s faults and is repulsed by the behavior of those who should be behaving “nobly.” When she is silent, she is strategically so in a social setting to display her feelings of disapproval (Cutting-Gray, 43-57)
Evelina’s thoughts, however, are continually being revised and guided by Reverend Villars. He is presented as a more wise and better judge of culture than she assumes to be; thus, in following his advice, she can achieve her desires, which she otherwise cannot openly assert in an sexually restrictive social space.