Between Self and Society: An Invitation to Openness in Frances Burney's Evelina, Cecilia, and Camilla

Jane, John, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Wall, Cynthia, AS-English-Eng Lit Ops, University of Virginia

Frances Burney’s novels, Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1782), and Camilla (1796), form a triad that investigates the tension young women feel between their own desires and what society wishes for them to be. Each of Burney’s heroines face different and new pressures as they enter the world, but what always remains the same is that the ecosystem of the patriarchal society is consistently hostile to the idea of an autonomous woman. Through close reading of key scenes from each of these novels, this thesis investigates how each heroine navigates between self and society. Chapter one explores how Evelina succeeds in learning to express and act for herself. Chapter two examines Cecilia and centers on how Frances Burney ties together both a quest for independence and friendship as if they are the same. Cecilia also shows how if a kind and good woman follows the logic of society to its extreme, the only sane outcome is madness. Chapter three reads Camilla as the culmination of these three novels. The chapter argues that in Camilla Burney offers her vision for how one ought to be in the world. She puts forth a prescription for openness — that one needs to begin to look at the world with eyes of their own, not ones scripted by the world. The thesis closes with a meditation on an episode from Burney’s own life when she displays the type of benevolence and openness reflected by her heroines. Through these three novels, Burney offers an invitation for readers to open their eyes from the closed slumber of selfishness and to see the world with kindness and compassion.

MA (Master of Arts)
Frances Burney, Selfhood, Benevolence
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