Men and women of the same class have a lot in common in terms of the rules of polite society, but their gender roles are quite different. Women were expected to become wives and mothers, which was reflected in their education and upbringing. They were told to value their chastity as a virtue and went from the protection of their father to the responsibility of their husband.
Evelina does not have a father but is under the guardianship of the Reverend Arthur Villiers, who suggests she is innocent and knows nothing of the world. Yet although Evelina is naïve, she is aware that she must be careful about her conduct and how she represents herself in writing, lest she be labelled as too conscious, knowing, and a plotter. Burney states the heroine is young, artless, and inexperienced—a woman of nature. For her, this meant recognising her earnest lack of understanding. While she is new to the world, she can make judgements based not on a full understanding of what she witnesses but on her reactions.
At the theatre, the men debate the meaning of a woman’s blush and whether it is natural or contrived. Lord Orville states that the difference between natural and artificial is that one is mottled and the other is smooth. When Mr. Lovel approaches her to ask her to dance, she describes him as advancing on tiptoe with a smile on his face. His request is punctuated with pauses as he tries to take her hand, and unfortunately, Evelina laughs at him and blushes, noting Mr. Orville’s surprise at her reaction. She finds the rituals of the ballroom unfamiliar, and Mr. Lovel’s extravagant chivalric behaviour is ridiculous. Mr. Lovel accuses her of ill manners, and she realises her mistake; she cannot refuse to dance with one man and then accept someone else. Mrs. Mirvan acknowledges Evelina’s ignorance of the customs of the assembly and accepts that she should have instructed her.
Evelina had been informed that it was improper for a woman to dance at an assembly with a stranger. When Sir Clement asks her to dance, she tells him she is already engaged to dance with someone else. Evelina expects him to withdraw gracefully, but he accompanies her and begins talking to her as if he were an old acquaintance. As if to mortify her further, he questioned her about the man she was due to dance with. When she asks Mrs. Mirvan to lead her to a seat, she does, but Sir Clement follows her and sits next to her. Much to her discomfort, he continues to lament the fact that this man has kept her waiting, and could he go and find him for her? Then Sir Clement suggests she may have made the fellow up, but he says she would not have been so cruel as to trifle with him. This causes Evelina even more confusion and embarrassment. She asks Mrs. Mirvan to walk with her, and he also rises and joins them as if he is part of their party, continuing to point out different men. In his frustration, he resorts to a violent and angry outburst. Evelina then asks him to leave them, as he is a stranger and she does not like his language or manner. At first, he appears to leave and then returns to ask the captain and then Mrs. Mirvan to intercede on his behalf. Despite refusals, he will not take no for an answer, and Evelina is obliged to dance with him. This appears to be typical of his persistent, bullying behaviour, which wears her down with his words and physical presence. Politeness would suggest he should not have imposed himself on her, as he was a stranger. He goes on to compound the error by making her feel uncomfortable and not being aware of her feelings. The comic nature of this incident shows Evelina’s naivety in trying to negotiate social norms and Sir Clement’s lack of manners in refusing to leave her alone.
The precarious nature of female characters can be seen when Evelina tries to leave the theatre. She wants to wait for Mrs. Mirvan and travel home with her rather than accept a ride in Sir Willoughby’s carriage, but Lord Orville informs her that Mrs. Mirvan has already left. He offers her his carriage, but Sir Willoughby interrupts him, saying his carriage is already at the door. Sir Clement hands her into his carriage and gets in himself. He asks her why she does not trust herself with him. The suggestion is that Evelina cannot control her emotions, but it is Sir Willoughby who takes her hand and will not let her go. Again, Sir Willoughby is controlling the situation with his physical presence. Evelina soon realises he has instructed the coachman to drive the wrong way to prolong their journey and tries to jump out of the carriage. Men often dismiss women’s ignorance as a weakness of character but adopt ignorance as an excuse for their actions, and there is no doubt that Sir Willoughby has instructed his driver, despite his protestations. When they are within twenty yards of Evelina’s residence, the carriage stops, and he asks her to forgive him for any offence she has taken. Evelina points out that he should not ask her to keep this from Mrs. Mirvan. At first, he states he will not force her, but then gets on his knees, making her ashamed to refuse. Sir Clement uses words to verbally overpower Evelina and manipulate her emotions. She blames her folly and pride for embroiling her in such a compromising position and vows she will not do this again.
When Evelinas first meets Lady Louisa, she reflects on how she can be so different in manner from her brother Lord Orville. She enters the room complaining about the carriage drive and the physical strain it had been on her person. The words and body language used to describe Lady Louisa suggest that the languor is more artifice than natural, in contrast to Evelina. Looking around the room Lady Louisa sees Evelina but after satisfying her curiosity pays her no further attention. After dinner, Evelina sits quietly by the window while Lord Merton, Mr Coverley and Mr Lovel surround Lady Louisa however when Lord Orville enters the room, he not only speaks to Evelina but draws up a chair and sits beside her. Thus, demonstrating that Lord Orville is comfortable addressing different types of people, and does not possess the snobbery of his sister. The influence of Lady Louisa is demonstrated when Lord Merton speaks to Evelina when they are alone, explaining Lady Louisa watches him constantly. This proves she is not only discerning about whom she speaks to, but she also seeks to control others.
Burney comically shows her readers the pitfalls of a young woman entering London society. Evelina may be naïve when it comes to the customs of the assembly, but her observations allow an unvarnished look at society and its changing manners. Her innocence is not a retreat from the world but a way of looking at and responding to it without letting it overwhelm her.