One of the defining characteristics of 18th-century England was the contrast between the city and the country. The people who lived in the city were as partial and loyal to their own environment as the people who were brought up in the countryside, and the two groups developed opinions about each other that were often based on bias and misunderstanding. Frances Burney’s novel Evelina presents a comparison of city life and country life from the point of view of city and country dwellers, showing how the country and the city were viewed differently by residents of both places.
In Evelina, the inhabitants of the countryside appreciate the calm and peaceful lifestyle they enjoy there. Whenever the characters of Burney’s novel find themselves in the countryside, they occupy themselves with activities that are relaxing instead of active or strenuous. For example, when Evelina and Miss Mirvan are surprised by Sir Clement Willoughby’s appearance at Howard Grove, they are “strolling . . . down a lane” near the grove, simply enjoying the fresh air and natural vistas (Burney 111).
This kind of activity is healthy and rarely leads to trouble or harm, making it preferable to the busyness of the city. Afraid that Evelina might become too fascinated by the city, Mr. Villars expresses his opinion that a country life would allow Evelina to “spend her days in tranquility, cheerfulness, and good-humour, untainted by vice, folly, or ambition” (106). To Mr. Villars, a country dweller, a life of tranquility is the best option, and the lifestyle that allows the most tranquility is definitely that of the countryside.
Country life looks different from the point of view of stylish London residents. To them, the tranquil lifestyle of the countryside seems unsophisticated and boring. Throughout Burney’s novel, the characters who are used to city life make several sarcastic comments about how ignorant people who live in the country are. Mr. Lovel makes a suggestion that if some people “were as much used to town-life” as they could be, they “would not find so much diversion from a circumstance so common” as a play (91).
This statement shows the condescending attitude of city dwellers toward the supposedly less refined tastes of the inhabitants of rural England, who are easily entertained by a simple play. Madame Duval also comments several times that Evelina is “a foolish, ignorant country-girl” (149) showing that she believes that the term “country-girl” is synonymous with ignorance and foolishness. On another occasion, Madame Duval actually uses the word “country” as an adjective, “considering what a shame it was to see [Evelina] such a poor country, shame-faced thing, when [she] ought to be a fine lady” (101).
Here, the prejudiced lady essentially defines “country” as lowly or common, implying that fine ladies do not come from the countryside but can only be found in the more sophisticated realm of the city. A reputation of wealth and success is the most important thing to these city dwellers, and in their opinion, that cannot be found in the country. City life is also viewed differently by those who live in the city and those who live in the country. Just like country people, residents of the city are partial to their own environment.
From a city dweller’s point of view, London life is the best because it is exciting and active. While they are in London, the members of Evelina’s party attend the opera, the theater, a ball, or some other public place nearly every night, taking their tea in a “box” where they can be seen and admired publicly instead of drinking it privately in their homes (48). There is always something interesting to do or see, which makes life in the city more stimulating according to those who live there.
However, just as city residents view the country as boring and simple, country dwellers tend to see London as a city of sin and evil. In Evelina, the Reverend Mr. Villars is the most outspoken against city living. He tells Evelina that he “ever dreaded [her] being too much pleased with a life of dissipation,” implying that he believes that a dissipated life is the only sort that exists in the city (97). He recommends to Lady Howard that Evelina be allowed to return to her life in the ountryside because “this young creature’s chance of happiness seems less doubtful in retirement, than it would be in the . . . dissipated world” (106).
As a country dweller, Mr. Villars’ perception of the city is limited to its worst qualities, and as a result he sees the city as a dangerous, awful place. Throughout Frances Burney’s novel Evelina, the author presents views of the city and the countryside held by residents of both places. The city, with all its operas and private balls, contains all the sin and evil that Mr.
Villars expects of it, but it offers entertainment and opportunity that cannot be found elsewhere. Similarly, the country’s simplicity and honor are sometimes accompanied by crudeness and foolishness, but it continues to embody the ideal of tranquility and peace. The two environments are actually equal in good and bad qualities, and only their own inhabitants, whose opinions of each other and of each other’s environment are caused by bias and personal taste, see them differently.
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