Appearing to Diminish: Female Development and the British Bildungsroman, 1750-1850

By Lorna Ellis | Go to book overview

4
Evelina: Appearing to be a Bildungsroman

The subtitle of Frances Burney's Evelina, or, The History of a Young Lady's Entrance Into the World (1778) may give the impression that this novel will be, like Betsy Thoughtless, a Bildungsroman. The author's preface furthers this impression through its claim that Evelina will demonstrate “the natural progression of the life of a young woman of obscure birth, but conspicuous beauty, for the six months after her ENTRANCE INTO THE WORLD” (Burney 1992, 5). The idea of life's having a “natural progression” is central to the Bildungsroman, which demonstrates “a reasonably direct line from error to truth, from confusion to clarity” (Tennyson 1968, 137). The mention of Evelina's “obscure birth” could coincide with the Bildungsroman's turn away from the aristocrats featured in the romance toward the emergent middle class, as well as the genre's emphasis on the individual's internal worth as a predictor of happiness and social status. In addition, the emphasis on Evelina's “entrance into the world,” which is enacted through her introduction to London society, corresponds to what Jerome Buckley has termed the Bildungsroman protagonist's “direct experience of urban life” (1974, 17). It is therefore not surprising that recent discussions of the female Bildungsroman have attempted to include Burney's first novel in the genre. Evelina is listed in Laura Sue Fuderer's annotated bibliography of the female Bildungsroman (1990) as the earliest female Bildungsroman in English and is also the first novel addressed by Susan Fraiman's Unbecoming Women (1993), the most recent and substantial investigation of the genre.1

However, Evelina's status as a Bildungsroman is much more problematic than its subtitle would suggest. As several critics have pointed out, it is unclear whether Evelina achieves any in-

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