Letters and Identity: Burney’s Evelina and Austen’s Lady Susan

Frances BurneyJane Austen

A part of my writing here was presented in the “Resilience, Renewal, Recovery Conference”, July 2021

Epistolarity has been a site where negotiation of identity and cultural politics has been prominently operative. In the context of eighteenth-century fiction, the epistolary form gained further prominence, involving the regulating factors which determined how sociological identities were constructed within the performative parameters of culture. In The Courtship Novel, 1740-1820: A Feminized Genre (1991), Katherine S. Green articulates that it is crucial “to recognize that the feminization of the novel was not an isolated phenomenon but part of a general shift in consciousness in eighteenth century England” (p. 14). As a result of the currents of sensibility running through England, partially produced by the discourses of Enlightenment feminism, the courtship novel became a part of a larger socio-cultural imperative to legitimize the ‘self-actualization’ of women as affective individuals (Green, 14). It is in this context that the aspect of epistolarity and its relation to the resurgence of discursive identity gains prominence. 

In her Preface to Evelina (1778), Burney talks about the tensions existing between the real and the imitated which the novel, as a genre, mediates: 

“The heroine of these memoirs, young, artless and inexperienced, is No faultless monster, that the world ne’er saw, but the offspring of nature …”  

Therefore, for Burney, her protagonist becomes co-extensive with the narrative itself, raising crucial questions about authorship, agency, and crucially, legitimacy within a patriarchal discourse, and further the idea that her identity is inextricably connected with the textual discourse of the novel. Not only does Burney distinguish her novel from the traditional romance but makes an attempt at deconstructing the potential markers of fiction dealing with incorporation of identity within discursive frameworks.  

Burney employs this trope to argue the position of the woman writer in a textual tradition overshadowed by a patriarchal literary inheritance – the anxiety of authorship and the potentially debilitating silence, which Gilbert and Gubar discuss in The Madwoman in the Attic 

In her first letter, the timidity with which Evelina enters the discussion and the way she translates the responsibility of her encroachment onto others signify her awareness of her lambiguous position within a male-defined discourse: 

“I cannot to you [Revd. Villars] sign Anville and what other name may I claim?” (Volume I, Letter 8) 

Her declaration “I am Evelina” gains an added resonance as it reflects Evelina’s strong need to establish her subjective position within the context of legitimacy.  

Julia L Epstein in The Iron Pen (1989) argues that Evelina thwarts the language of suppression medium of the letter as ‘a site of struggle’ against cultural norms. Between the two poles of paternal relationship, Carolina’s letter (Volume 3, letter 13) reflects the disruptive, libertine nature of the father, problematising Sir John Belmont’s position as a symbolic place-giver to an otherwise unacknowledged daughter. In Letter 19 of the final volume when the reader finds Sir John Belmont exclaiming – ‘Oh dear resemblance of thy murdered mother’, Burney suggests an implicit comment on the spiritual and subjective reconciliation of Evelina with her departed mother’s selfhood. This takes up an added resonance as the redemptive recuperation of Evelina’s identity, in a discourse where selfhood is inscribed in the domain of epistolarity, culminates in a psycho-biographical as well as symbolic recognition of lineage which may also signify the moment of liberation of the authorial selfhood beyond the narrative.  

Epistolarity, for Austen, becomes a site for discursive contestation, as a lot of negotiation in terms of cultural materiality is embedded in it. Although Austen’s discourse is informed thoroughly by her reading of contemporary as well as preceding writers like Richardson and Burney, both of which she enjoyed reading, her re-construction of the epistolary fictional trope gains an autonomy, considering she was a profound letter-writer herself. 

Margaret Drabble writes in her introduction to the text of Lady Susan 

“The letter form is an artificial convention, and [Austen] felt its limitations: stylistically, she was a far from conventional writer, and as Virginia Woolf pointed out, she had the courage and the originality to find her own way of expressing herself.”  

In Lady Susan, Austen provides, through a vivid detail of an unscrupulous coquette’s journey, a social commentary on the configurations and cultural politics of Georgian England. Here, Austen centralises the character of a widow in order to reflect on or diagnose an erroneous social discourse with the characteristic instrument of her oeuvre – irony. Deborah Kaplan argues, “Lady Susan reveals that Austen found in the technical resource of epistolary fiction the means for expressing powerful female friends.” 

Epistolarity takes on larger ramifications when positioned within the context of Lady Susan’s assertions at various points of the narrative. In the final letter when Mrs Vernon writes “but after all that I have seen, how can one be secure?” Significantly, the narrative is dominated by this discursive uncertainty centering around the figure of Austen’s Machiavellian protagonist, who weaves into her discourse “worldliness, intelligence and vitality.” (Drabble) However, unlike her later writing, Austen here writes to work with extremes, as characters, including the protagonist, posit a resisting discourse to moderation, one of the foundational precepts of eighteenth-century rationality. The idea of psychosomatic recovery being consigned to the realm of the textual and the semantic, gains an additional resonance in Lady Susan when her account to Mrs. Johnson of her reconciliation with Reginald is considered "I am again myself; — gay and triumphant". 

Kaplan further articulates that the epistolary form may be “morally anarchic, but it is also in Lady Susan the terrain of women's networks and of their power”, continuing that “as long as the story is told in letters, most written by the female characters, the reader has the opportunity to identify with, to seem to be ‘inside’ women's intersubjectivities.” Therefore, the recuperation is on the level of the semantic, the epistemic and the authorial. Considering the resources which Austen invests to reconstruct a thesis centred on the "self-seeking, self-indulging” protagonist (Beatrice Anderson, quoted in Mulvihill, p.620), the way in which the work is positioned at a time-period when conduct books, with their gendered indoctrinations, governed the Georgian social landscape, is also important. The subversive strategies of recovery of discursive identity are placed on a dual axis – firstly, the Machiavellian dimension of the narrative (‘There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one’s superiority’) and secondly, the idea of operating with the tactics of the female bildungsroman – how re-incorporation within the patriarchal moral discourse becomes a contested ground. Here the subversion facilitates an autonomous recuperation, characteristic of Austen’s independent craftsmanship. Although informed by and positioned within a network of existing epistolary traditions, Austen’s Lady Susan becomes a document of individual resistance against the compartmentalisation of discourses.  

Aisik Maiti is an MA candidate in the English Department of the University of Calcutta. You can reach out to him or give him a follow @AisikMaiti on Twitter.

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Bibliography: 

  1. Austen, Jane. Lady Susan, the Watsons, Sanditon. United Kingdom, Penguin Books Limited, 2003. 
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  8. Degabriele, Peter. “The Legal Fiction and Epistolary Form: Frances Burney’s Evelina.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, vol. 14, no. 2, 2014, pp. 22–40. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/jearlmodcultstud.14.2.22. 
  9. Green, Katherine Sobba. The Courtship Novel, 1740-1820: A Feminized Genre, University Press of Kentucky, 1991. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/britishcouncilonline-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1915111 

 

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