Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

The Legal Fiction and Epistolary Form: Frances Burney's Evelina

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

The Legal Fiction and Epistolary Form: Frances Burney's Evelina

Article excerpt

The heroine of Frances Burney's Evelina, or The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World (1778), concludes her first letter to her guardian Reverend Villars by writing, "I cannot to you sign Anville [her pseudoanagrammatic pseudonym] and what other name may I claim" (19). By the end of the novel, she is able to subscribe a letter "for the first-and probably the last time" with her legitimate patronym "Belmont" (335). Both Wolfram Schmidgen and Catherine Gallagher have argued, in different ways, that it is Evelina's lack of a patronym, her being nobody or nullius filius, that allows for the novel to be written and that thus underwrites the authority of both Burney as author (insofar as she published anonymously) and Evelina as character.1 The question of what name the heroine can claim-manifested in how she signs her letters-is undoubtedly crucial to any consideration of identity and authority in the novel.2 However, discussions of how Evelina signs her letters do not account for the way in which the novel also explores the problem of address. In Evelina, the problem of how and to whom a letter is addressed, and not only how it is signed, forms the condition of possibility for the epistolary novel. This aspect of epistolarity becomes particularly clear in a letter that Evelina's mother Caroline Belmont writes shortly after Evelina's birth, but which is only very belatedly and posthumously delivered to Sir John Belmont by Evelina herself. In this letter, Caroline signs her own name seemingly without trouble or consideration, but she cannot decide "in what terms" (279) she can address the husband who refuses to acknowledge her. Despite the fact that this is not Caroline's novel, it is this letter that constructs and makes possible the fictional space of Evelina, for it is this uncertainty of address that allows Evelina (the novel and the heroine) to escape from two powerful and constricting discourses of paternity: the romance ideology of blood as destiny; and the legal definition of paternity as a fiction.3

Caroline's letter, with its uncertainty of address and its belated delivery, is a peculiarly physical object. Its effect is not only to produce or reveal a character's mental state, but also to cause a physical or sensual reaction. The fact that this letter has both a symbolic and a physical significance makes it structurally similar to the problem of paternity, and it is through her innovative engagement with epistolary form that Burney addresses the vexing problems of paternity. In particular Evelina deals with the tension between a form of paternity defined by the social and symbolic question of a child's place within a determined social hierarchy, and a form of paternity that maintains a physical and sensible relationship between parent and child, and especially between father and daughter. By looking at how the letter in Evelina is a part of the material world of sense, and is not merely a narrative mechanism for producing psychological interiority, we can understand the conflict between symbolic and physical aspects of paternity in the novel. The letter is more than a literary conceit in the same way that Belmont is more than a name, and we need to understand this so that we can understand why Evelina has such a visceral, physical reaction to meeting her father. The hyperbolic physical reactions of both Evelina and her father in the scenes in which they meet prove that Evelina's subjectivity depends at least as much on a material as on a symbolic connection to her father, at least as much on the body as on the "no-body" of her anonymous status as nullius filius.

Evelina thus uses the complexities of epistolarity to comment upon the paradoxes of paternity, and particularly on the theory of paternity operative in the legal institutions of patriarchy. The novel shows how both letters and fathers are at once ideal and material. With regard to paternity, this means that the father is at once a "legal fiction," an ideal entity produced by the fiction of the law, and a sensual and sensuous figure, the materiality of whose connection to his child (and especially to his daughter) always exceeds and disrupts the ideality of the fiction. …

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