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Worthy Companions (Evelina Paper)

Worthy Companions (Evelina Paper)

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Published by: Patrick McEvoy-Halston on Nov 06, 2009
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Worthy Companions: Assurance Through Association in
 Evelina
and
Young Werther 
(Patrick McEvoy-Halston: 10 March 2005)Evelina, in Frances Burney’s
 Evelina
, and Werther, in Johan Wolfgang Von Goethe’s
Young Werther,
might easily be thought of as very different from one another, for they seem toassociate themselves with very different kinds of people. We note that Evelina is very careful toassociate herself with those who will help differentiate herself from the lowly, the base, whileWerther actually seeks them out in an effort to differentiate himself from exactly those sorts of sensitive people that Evelina seeks to associate herself with. However, both characters aresimilar in that they both seek to distance themselves from those they gauge coarse and to attachthemselves to those they gauge superior, and we therefore have cause to think of them both asequally artful equals whom we may have much to learn from.After Evelina’s first social outing in London, Mrs. Mirvan relates to Lovel, Lord Orville,and Sir Clement’s assessment of her behaviour. Since Evelina, as much as Mrs. Mirvan,essentially eavesdrops on them, we are provided with evidence here which suggests thatEvelina’s desire to know what others think of her is such that it can overpower her desire toappear well bred—and this is saying a lot, since, as we will explore, Evelina’s desire to convinceherself that she is sensible, or well bred, is very strong indeed. Evelina attends most closely tohow Lord Orville’s judged her. In the letter in which she informs Mr. Villars of their assessmentsof her, she ruminates (for the moment) only on those words Lord Orville used to describe her  —“‘A poor weak girl!’ ‘ignorant or mischievous!’” (40)—and for good reason, since LordOrville is characterized as exactly the sort of gentleman whose good opinion most mattered ineighteenth-century English society.Paul Gordon Scott argues that the social order in eighteenth-century England required theintimidating presence of superior, singular gentlemen who, along with ideal manners, possesseda penetrating “voyeuristic gaze that disciplines subjects by observing them” (88). Gordon argues
 
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that the ideal gentleman in eighteenth-century English society was, then, someone who bothcaused and soothed social unease. He was someone like Lord Orville, whose own judgmentalgaze is employed in ensuring that bad behaviour—which according to Lord Orville requires“immediate notice [. . .] for it encroaches when it is tolerated” (113)—is policed. Lord Orville’sgaze is ideal for this purpose; for his vision is informed by “the cold eye of unimpassioned philosophy” which [allows him] to view, for example, women and art simultaneously withoutallowing “the heart [. . .] to interfere and make all objects but one (i.e. a beautiful woman) insipidand uninteresting” (119).Sir Clements is the one who makes this assessment of the prowess of Lord Orville’ssingularly disinterested eye, and, in the scene where the three men assess Evelina’s character, wesee how his own assessment of Evelina is the subject of reproof by Lord Orville. Sir Clementinsists that Evelina is an “angel” (38); Lord Orville, disliking an inflated assessment of her informed by Sir Clement’s apparent desire for play/mischief, insists that she is not a “Helen” (39) but rather a “pretty modest-looking girl” (38). Lovel, having been humiliated by her preferenceof Lord Orville, eagerly makes use of Sir Clements’ suggestion that Evelina might be a “parson’sdaughter” (39) so as to construe her as coarse and lowly. Sir Clements insists that she is “toosensible to be
ignorant 
” (39), but Lord Orville will not “play along” as he is not interested inrecovering her character so that she seems fitting sport for libertine play. He knows she“affront[ed] [Lovell],” probably guesses right that her laughter betrayed that she “enjoy[ed] hismortification” (40), and understands that regardless of whether or not her behaviour was born outof ignorance or out of mischief it remains inexcusable behaviour. But simply because the natureof the behaviour is so unacceptable to Lord Orville that he deemed it beyond redemption by aclose examination of her motives, does not mean that we should facilely assume that both possible explanations for her behaviour are equally damning. They’re not. That is, if her 
 
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 behaviour was the result of her being ignorant, she is doomed: she has no chance of deemingherself worthy of Lord Orville. But, if she is and was mischievous, the novel provides evidencewhich suggests that the case is in fact the opposite.The exchange between Lovel and Sir Clement helps us understand “ignorance” as theopposite of sensible, the opposite of genteel. For Evelina, to be ignorant would be to be less thecountry gentleman’s daughter which Sir Clement prefers to see her as, and more the country bumpkin that the likes of Lovel and Madame Duval (75) are convinced her ostensibly inadequateupbringing have made her. Characters such as Madame Duval and those who compose theBranghton family are not characterized as if there is any hope of them becoming sensible. For instance, Mr. Villars at one point expresses his wish that he could change Madame Duval’s plans, but argues that “[h]er character, and the violence of her disposition, intimidate me from makingthe attempt: she is too ignorant for instruction, too obstinate for entreaty, and too weak for reason” (142). We also know that Evelina gauges the Branghtons as so obstinate that she doesnot believe that their manners might be improved upon; in fact, she guesses that they probablyalready think of themselves as genteel (195).Several characters who are characterized as libertines (with the exception of LordMerton), on the other hand, are not only redeemable—witness what happens to Evelina’s truefather at the end of the novel—but possess positive qualities which make them fundamentallysimilar to rather than fundamentally different from the novel’s most sensible characters. Sir Clements possesses qualities which make him something of a libertine. He, unlike Lord Orville,takes pleasure in hearing how Evelina humiliated Lovel, but he is also someone whose ownstatus as genteel is not compromised in doing so. In this, Sir Clement bears resemblance to therestoration libertines who engaged in “shaming rituals [which boar resemblance to that] of non-urbane and impolite society” (245), but which were employed in an effort to “enforce rather than

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