When reading Clarissa, I became interested in the way the protagonist interacted with the public sphere, the way reputation and public perception influenced the actions and reactions of the characters in the novel, especially for those women operating in the space between childhood and marriage. Though this initially caught my attention because it is thematically related to a creative project of mine, as the semester had progressed I’ve been attentive to the way this has been addressed in the other eighteenth-century novels we’ve read. All of the female protagonists’ actions in these books have been explicitly limited, and at times determined, by the “eye” of the larger society, and so for the annotated bibliography I sought out articles that addressed this facet of Frances Burney’s Evelina.
The first article I read was Timothy Dykstal’s “‘Evelina’ and the Culture Industry,” which was a good starting place as it talked about a change in the middle class’s (and think the characters we’ve been concerned with so far would all fall into this social category) interaction with the public sphere in the eighteenth century, something that I was previously vaguely aware of but hadn’t connected with the books we’ve been reading in this class. While I found the framework of dividing the “benefits” of art into three categories to be somewhat reductive, it was instructive to read his analysis of how women in the eighteenth century were and were not allowed to engage critically with art. I’d been considering the ways in which behavior was proscribed but not thought. Dykstal also asserts that culture (with the exception of literature) in Evelina has been reduced to spectacle—e.g., balls and frivolous entertainments—and I would say that this pressure to see and be seen, in a certain light, of course, is one of the limitations placed on Evelina (and other women) as well as a critique of popular culture overall.
Kristina Straub’s and Julie Parks’ essays are more tightly focused on the period of courtship, a time during which both authors assert that women have the most personal power and social importance. In essence, it is the time in which they most operate in the public sphere.Straub in particular is interested in the devaluation that follows this period, whether via marriage or old maidhood, and the tension between that truth and ideals of romantic love. She points out the way Burney embodies this in mature female characters; being so focused on Evelina herself, I confess that this is something I didn’t attend to on my own. Parks explores similar topics, but with an emphasis on the idea of the automaton (which I’m still wrapping my head around) and the chasm between a private sense of self-consciousness and being continually scrutinized in the public sphere.
Everything about my final project still feels nebulous, but its direction might be something of a synthesis of aspects of these three articles. I’m interested in the idea of the coming out period as being one of unprecedented social clout but also one filled with peril and scrutiny. In particular, I’m thinking about the way this effects women’s private and social senses of self. In terms of texts, I’m undecided as so far it feels like there could be a fruitful analysis along these lines for all of the novels we’ve read so far. As far as a complementary text goes, half of me wants to find a contemporaneous novel that handles this tension in somewhat different manner, though I’m also interested in the idea of looking at the same topic in a later piece of literature. Suggestions/thoughts welcome!