In Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778), a masterful tale of love and discovery, the novel’s namesake character takes center stage. Among a truly diverse set of characters, her authenticity and innocence stand out. Throughout her many adventures, she deals with people who are strong, polite, ill-mannered, rude, scheming, playful, honorable, trustworthy, self-centered, gracious, and jealous. While she is an outsider, she is not the only one. There is one fellow outsider who holds many of these qualities, less the positive ones: Captain Mirvan. Evelina is sent to stay with the Mirvans at Howard Grove. She soon finds out that the merchant captain, who has been ship-bound for seven years, is coming back home—possibly for good. Much to her dismay, Mirvan is rude and troublesome. He puts down others and finds ways to entertain himself. He greatly dislikes Evelina’s grandmother, Madame Duval, and enjoys making her life miserable. The only thing that seems to really make him happy is playing cruel tricks on Madame Duval. The Captain doesn’t seem to care about anyone, except for himself. He finds pleasure in other people’s misery. It appears that he fits the classic model of a hedonist. However, Captain Mirvan’s behavior is not ultimately due to hedonism, but is because he is a man out of his element.
One can clearly see that the Captain is out of place on land, because he makes use of seafaring terms—in place of standard words. This is apparent to those around him. Mr. Lovell tells the Captain, “Oh Sir, my opinion I fancy you would hardly find intelligible. I don’t understand sea-phrases enough to define it to your comprehension” (Burney 397). He then explains to Lady Louisa that “the gentlemen of the ocean have a set of ideas, as well as a dialect, so opposite to ours” (397). The Captain is not amused at this insult and says he has no trouble understanding the common language. His first instinct, after being offended, is to deny Lovell’s statement and order an ale, a drink with a name familiar to sailors. No matter who he’s talking to, he likes to pepper his speech with terms that help—as he sees it—explain his answers. In discussing the women in Lord Orville’s tea party, the Captain says that getting a view of their faces wouldn’t even be worth half a guinea. While this monetary term isn’t exclusively maritime in nature, he would use it often in trading. One of the men in the scene replied that money is best spent in connection with fine women and that half a guinea was too low. Yet, Mirvan would use his limited ship’s funds—in trading situations—to buy as much as he could, at the lowest price possible. If his crew did spend money on women, the women would probably be of ill repute. This is why his choice of monetary term makes sense. In the same scene, he likens his daughter Maria and Evelina to a set of parrots. He says they just repeat things they’ve memorized. As a sailor, he certainly has seen parrots or had them on board. He and his crew may have trained parrots to say phrases. When the entire party asks if he will be going with them to the Ranelagh Gardens, he says he’d rather go to the “Black-hole in Calcutta” (113). As the explanatory notes detail, this was a jail in India.
Captain Mirvan does not, for the most part, enjoy the company of landed men, and misses camaraderie with men like himself. He believes that Sir Clement is the only one who understands his kind of fun. But Sir Clement doesn’t really like the Captain and just wants to be around Evelina. In discussing upper-class Frenchman with Madame Duval, the Captain asks, “do they game?—or drink?—or fiddle?—or are they jockies?—or do they spend all their time in flummering old women?” (62) He wants to know if they like any of the same things he does. He also tells Madame Duval, “I never kept company with any such gentry” (63). Mirvan wants to put as much distance between himself and true gentlemen as possible, whether they are French or British. He refuses to identify with their cultural habits, manners, and appearances. He thinks they are all fools and aren’t real men. When some of these men try to explain their way of life to the Captain, he argues and makes fun of them. At a social engagement, he tells an unnamed lord, “I sha’n’t go for to model myself by any of these fair-weather chaps, who dare not so much as say their souls are their own….I’m almost as much ashamed of my countrymen, as if I was a Frenchman. . . .before long, we shall hear the very sailors talking that lingo, and see never a swabber without a bag and a sword” (114). He can’t trust men who won’t speak their mind, as he does. His use of a weather term seems to be two-sided. He is a man who would go through both calm and stormy oceans to get the job done. The phrase also seems to denote men who couldn’t be relied on and are flaky, which would not be useful on a trade ship. If sailors started acting ‘foppishly,’ then their sea culture would be damaged.
Many of the Captain’s actions are either consciously or subconsciously reflective of life aboard a ship. He does things in a way that will make him feel at home and socially satisfied. At one point, Monsieur Du Bois joined the ladies in a coach owned by the Captain. Evelina reports that the Captain grabbed Du Bois’ wrist and “made him jump out of the coach. M. Du Bois instantly put his hand upon his sword, and threatened to resent this indignity. The Captain, holding up his stick, bid him draw at his peril. Mrs. Mirvan, greatly alarmed, got out of the coach, and, standing between them, entreated her husband to re-enter the house” (119). For the Captain, it is probably not unusual to push another man to the point of having a sword fight. He doesn’t think much of it. To the others, it is a tense and unacceptable situation. He appreciates a challenge and isn’t happy that his wife wants to hold him back. On his ship, women—if there are any—wouldn’t have a say in the matter. A fellow sailor might try to break up a fight if he thinks it will end in a fatal blow, because they need the crew in one piece. He wants people to do what he wants to do. When he plans the fake chaise robbery, he says he would “read his commission to his ship’s company” (140); he was really talking about Evelina and the family. He continues, “I expect obedience and submission to orders; I am now upon a hazardous expedition, having undertaken to convoy a crazy vessel to the shore of Mortification. . . .if any of you, that are of my chosen crew, capitulate, or enter into any treaty with the enemy,—I shall look upon you as mutinying, and turn you adrift” (141). It would be easy to claim that he is simply acting silly in order to amuse himself. However, he is addressing his family, his ‘friend,’ and Evelina. Onboard his ship, his crew would be his second family. Also, he would probably have a friend. He may also have a passenger or guest on the ship. He would also expect loyalty on his ship. By using the phrase “ship’s company,” the Captain is trying to make sense of his place in standard culture.
Additionally, the following robbery scheme continues to, apparently, be inspired by the Captain’s nautical life. In fact, the coach could be a ship. The coachman and footman, who get ‘lost,’ are like a ship’s watchman and helmsman who lose their bearings. Also, the ‘robbers’ are akin to pirates. Evelina describes the state in which she found Madame Duval. She explains, “I then saw, that her feet were tied together with a strong rope, which was fastened to the upper branch of a tree. . . .I endeavored to untie the knot, but soon found it was infinitely beyond my strength” (149). This was done by the Captain and should not be surprising. As a sailor, he should have been proficient at tying knots. He is also very familiar with ropes, which would be found on any ship. One could also imagine that the tree branch is like a wood pole or beam above the deck of a ship. Sometimes, if crew-members caused trouble aboard a ship, they would be tied up with rope. Captain Mirvan is simply having fun, in the fashion of a sailor.
Coming from a man of the sea, the Captain’s apparent disregard for the law and rules isn’t based on a love of anarchy, but rather, on the rules on his own trading vessel. Evelina recalls that when Madame Duval told the Branghtons what the Captain had done to her, that “Every body agreed, that the ill usage the Captain had given her was actionable, and Mr. Branghton said he was sure she might recover what damages she pleased, since she had been put in fear of her life. She then, with great delight, declared, that she would lose no time in satisfying her revenge, and vowed she would not be contented with less than half his fortune” (171). The family members are concluding that she could sue, based on their understanding of how justice is normally served in England. People expect that if they are accosted, they can seek out a magistrate and get monetary damages. However, the Captain would not see things the same way. On his vessel, he is the law. He normally doesn’t have to answer to anyone, at least when he is sailing the oceans. His crew does what he orders them to do and the only thing they can do is to mutiny.
In an earlier incident, the Captain and Sir Clement convinced Madame Duval that M. Du Bois had been thrown in prison for treason. She was panicked and took off in a coach to find him. If one reads the letter written by a county clerk—actually composed by the Captain or Sir Clement—an obvious flaw can be spotted; M. Du Bois, being a French citizen, cannot be charged with treason. He has not betrayed his own country. One has to be a citizen of the United Kingdom in order for that to happen. Du Bois would, instead, be charged with sedition. With the ensuing commotion, no one notices this flaw in the faux letter. Lady Howard, trying to calm Madame Duval, assured her, “you have no reason to be uneasy. This is not a country where punishment is inflicted without proof” (143). Yet, for the Captain, proof doesn’t matter. It’s all a big game to him. Even though he boasts of his Englishness, he feels that he isn’t bound by the law of the land. His heart lies on the deck of an independent nation, floating across a sea of uncertainty and nearly unbridled testosterone. If he were to claim that one of his crew defied his orders, how many sailors would jump to the accused’s defense? Would they risk being punished as well? Probably not. The Captain is happy when he is controlling the situation and can make others look foolish. His mindset reflects the fact that, on his ship, he may put fear into his crew. Even though M. Du Bois wasn’t actually jailed, the Captain wouldn’t have minded, because he felt that the Frenchman had offended him. Not to mention, he hates French people in general.
In looking at all of the arguments I have laid out, it is now obvious that Captain Mirvan’s behavior is due to him being a fish out of water. As an outsider, he has trouble fitting in to English society, especially that of the gentry. On his vessel, he has expectations of crew-members and a different idea of what a man should be. He’s been used to seven years of shipboard relationships and a different sense of what’s fun and entertaining. Madame Duval is willing to engage the Captain’s meanness and silliness, while the others are not. Thus, she is his favorite target. He doesn’t want to think about the rules that landlubbers try to impose on him. To the average person, the Captain comes across as rude and uncivilized. Mirvan is who he is, and will only be truly content on board his ship.
by Aaron J. Schieding
(Originally written March 31st, 2016)
Burney, Frances. Evelina. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.