From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
In this epistolary novel in three volumes, Evelina, the title character, is the unacknowledged daughter of a dissipated English aristocrat. Her dubious birth has seen her raised in rural seclusion until her seventeenth year. Through a series of humorous events that take place in London and the resort town of Bristol-Hotwells, Evelina learns how to navigate the complex layers of 18th century society and earn the love of a distinguished nobleman. This sentimental novel has notions of sensibility and early romanticism satirizes the society in which it is set and is a significant precursor to later works by Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth, whose novels explore many of the same issues.
The novel opens with a distressed letter from Lady Howard to her long-time acquaintance, the Reverend Arthur Villars. In the letter, Lady Howard reports that Mme. Duval, Villar's ward and Evelina Anville's grandmother, intends to visit England to renew her acquaintance with her grand-daughter Evelina. Eighteen years earlier, Mme. Duval had broken her relationship to her daughter Caroline, Evelina's mother, and has not acknowledged Evelina since. Reverend Villars fears Mme. Duval's influence could lead Evelina to an untimely and shameful death similar her mother Caroline.
In an effort to keep Evelina away from Mme. Duval, the Reverend consents to her visiting Lady Howard's home, Howard Grove, on an extended holiday. While she is there, news comes informing the family that Lady Howard's son-in-law, Captain Mirvan, a naval officer, is returning to England after an absence of seven years. Desperate to join the Mirvans on their trip to London, Evelina pleads with her guardian to let her attend them, promising that the visit will only last a few weeks. Only with reluctance does the Reverend consent.
In London, Evelina's beauty and ambiguous social status attract unwanted attention and unkind speculation. Ignorant of the conventions and behaviours of 18th century London society, she makes a series of humiliating (but humorous) faux pas, further exposing her to the ridicule of society. She soon earns the attentions of two gentlemen: Lord Orville, a handsome and extremely eligible peer who is a pattern card of modest and becoming behaviour as well as Sir Clement Willoughby, a baronet with duplicitous intentions. But Evelina's untimely reunion with her grandmother, along with the embarrassment her grandmother and her hitherto unknown extended family, the Branghtons, cause with their boorish social-climbing antics, soon leads her to believe that she will never gain Lord Orville's attention.
The Mirvans finally return to the country, taking Evelina and Mme. Duval with them. Spurred by Evelina's greedy cousins, Mme. Duval concocts a plan to sue Sir John Belmont, Evelina's father, and force him to recognize his daughter's claim in court. The Reverend is furious. Lady Howard intervenes and manages to elicit a compromise that sees her write to Sir John. Belmont repulses them, announcing that, far from abandoning his daughter, he has raised her since her mother's death and has already made her heiress to his now considerable fortune.
Mme. Duval is furious and threatens to take Evelina back to Paris with her to pursue the lawsuit. A second compromise sees Evelina return to London with her grandmother. There, she is forced to spend time in the company of her ill-bred cousins, the Branghtons, and their rowdy friends. During this period, Evelina is distracted by a melancholy Scottish poet, Mr. Macartney, whose dire poverty is clear. At one stage, she misinterprets his acquisition of pistols as a suicide attempt and bids him to look to his salvation. She later discovers he had been pre-meditating armed robbery to change his financial status whilst tracing his own obscure parentage as well as recovering from the loss of his mother and the discovery that his beloved is actually his "sister." Evelina gives him her purse as an act of charity. Beyond this episode, her time with the Branghtons is uniformly mortifying. Among the events she must suffer through is a disastrous visit to Marybone, a pleasure garden, which sees Evelina attacked by a drunken sailor and then rescued by prostitutes. It is in this humiliating company that she meets Lord Orville again. Certain that she has lost all possibility of his respect, she is stunned when he searches her out in the unfashionable section of London and appears to be interested in renewing their earlier acquaintance. But an insulting letter from Lord Orville soon opens her eyes. Despondent at such a betrayal, she returns home to Berry Hill and falls ill.
Slowly recuperating from her illness, Evelina agrees to accompany her neighbour, a sarcastic widow named Mrs. Selwyn, to the resort town of Clifton Heights. There, she attracts the unwanted attentions of a womanizer, Lord Merton, who is on the eve of marrying Lady Louisa Larpent, Lord Orville's sister. She realises they have come to Clifton to prepare for the wedding. Evelina tries to distance herself from Lord Orville, believing him an inveterate womanizer and liar. But slowly, his gentle manners work their spell and Evelina is torn between her love and her belief in his past dishonesty.
But the unexpected appearance of Mr. Macartney reveals an unexpected streak of jealousy in the heretofore unflappable Lord Orville. Convinced that Macartney is a rival for Evelina's affections, Lord Orville withdraws. However, in reality Macartney has arrived in Clifton Heights to repay his financial debt to Evelina.
Lord Orville's essential goodness finally wins out and he secures a meeting for the two. It appears that all doubts have been resolved between Lord Orville and Evelina, especially when Evelina overhears Lord Orville arguing with Sir Clement about the latter's inappropriate attentions to her. But when Evelina discovers the purported "Miss Belmont" at a ball, uncertainy reigns once more. Lord Orville proposes, but Evelina is distraught at the continuing gulf between herself and her father and the mystery surrounding his false daughter. Finally, Mrs. Selwyn is able to secure a meeting with Sir John. When he sees Evelina, he is horrified and guilt-stricken because she is the very image of her mother, Caroline. Evelina is able to ease his guilt with her gentle pardon and the delivery of a letter written by her mother on her deathbed that absolves Sir John of culpability.
It is Mrs. Clifton, Berry Hill's longtime housekeeper, who is able to solve the mystery of the second Miss Belmont's parentage. While in Sir John's kitchen, she recognizes Polly Green, Evelina's former wetnurse and mother of a girl only a few months older than Evelina. Polly has passed her own daughter off as that of Sir John's for the past eighteen years, in the hopes of securing a better future for her daughter. Upon her unmasking, Sir John wants to throw them both out and cut Miss Belmont from his will, but Lord Orville intervenes and insists on the unfortunate girl being named a co-heiress alongside Evelina.
Finally, Sir Clement Willoughby confesses to being the author of the insulting letter, which he wrote in the hopes of separating Lord Orville and Evelina. Mr. Macartney is reunited with the false Miss Belmont, who was the young woman with whom he had been in love in Paris. Separated by Sir John, who believed that, thanks to an affair with Mr. Macartney's mother, they were brother and sister, they are able to marry now that Miss Belmont's true parentage has become known. Lord Orville and Evelina, now Sir John's acknowledged daughter, marry and return to Berry Hill for their honeymoon trip.
Miss Evelina Anville is the daughter of Lady Caroline Belmont (born Caroline Evelyn) and Sir John Belmont. Being the novel's main character, a variety of letters convey the story and she summarizes specific experiences of her life. She embodies the desirable traits for women at the time. Although she called a social "nobody" by the fop Mr. Lovel, other, more reputable characters have high opinions of her. She is deemed "a very pretty modest-looking girl" by Lord Orville and an "angel" by Sir Clement in the first volume. The novel traces her trials and tribulations and growing confidence in her own abilities and discernment.
Reverend Arthur Villars is the man who raised Evelina as his own and refers to her as the "child of his heart." He is her tutor and guardian. Taking in the disgraced Lady Belmont, he vowed to be the protector of her child. He is Evelina's moral guidance and confidant throughout the novel. <p> Sir Clement Willoughby is a minor nobleman (baronet). Evelina meets him at the infamous Ridotto during her first visit to London. A steadfast pursuer of Evelina's good favour, he tries to accomplish this through very forward courting, which usually consists of flamboyant proclamations and flattering speeches. Evelina dislikes him and tolerates him only because he has curried favour with Captain Mirvan. He also accompanies Captain Mirvan whenever he assaults, provokes or teases Madam Duval. <p> Lord Orville is a fine gentleman and earl who rescues Evelina on several occasions, including from the advances of Sir Clement. Lord Orville instantly falls into her good graces simply by conducting himself in a manner befitting his rank and person. He is open and engaging, gentle, attentive and expressive. <p> Captain Mirvan is a retired captain in the navy, who despises foreigners and annoys Madam Duval constantly. Husband to Mrs. Mirvan and father of Maria, he is at times a source of much embarrassment to his family. <p> Mrs. Mirvan is a woman who shows much compassion and concern for Evelina. She takes care of her while she in London and while she stays at Howard Grove. She treats Evelina as though she is her second child. <p> Miss Maria Mirvan is a childhood friend of Evelina's and a true companion in whom she confides. <p> Madam Duval is french and the grandmother of Evelina. She wants to take Evelina to France, away from English influence in general and Rev. Villars in particular. She is very stubborn and ignorant and repugnant to Evelina. <p> M. Dubois is the lover of Madam Duval, who speaks only French and some broken English. Evelina bonds with him during her second residence in London because he is elevated in her opinion through comparisons with her then present company, the Branghtons. This in turn incites unwanted advances infuriating Mme Duval. He is given the nickname "Monseer Slippery" by Captain Mirvan because he once slipped in mud while carrying Madam Duval. <p> The Branghtons are a low-bred family and Evelina's London relations, who own a silversmith's shop in High Holborn. Evelina must associate with them on her second visit to London. She grows impatient of their crass behaviour and is embarrassed to be thought of as in their party, especially when she meets Lord Orville in their company. They are very interested in Evelina and her potential wealth. <p> Mr. Macartney is an impoverished Scottish poet, who boards with the Branghtons and is the butt of many of their jokes. Evelina rescues him during what she perceives to be a suicide attempt, but which was actually the precursor to an armed robbery. He was brought to such a desperate action by the death of his mother and the discovery that the young woman he had courted in Paris was, because of his own parentage, his unacknowledged sister. When Miss Belmont's actual parentage is revealed, they are able to marry. <p> Lord Merton has first met Evelina at an assembly. He is reintroduced to her as the fiancé of Lord Orville's sister in Bristol. Along with his companion, Mr. Coverly, Lord Merton reveals his character as one of gaming and gambling and heavy drinking. <p> Mr. Lovel is the rejected dance partner of Evelina when she attends her first assembly. Though he knows that her action of accepting another dance partner (Mr. Orville) while refusing him is due to her lack of knowledge about society, he is very angry and tries to embarrass her whenever he can. <p>
- 1778, UK, Thomas Lowndes (ISBN NA), pub date ? ? 1778, hardback - in three volumes (first edition)
- 1994, UK, Penguin Books (ISBN 0140433473), pub date 31 March 1994, paperback
- 1997, USA, Bedford/St. Martin's (ISBN 0-412-09729-8), paperback (edited by Kristina Straub)
- 1998, USA, W W Norton (ISBN 0393971589), pub date 4 March 1998, paperback
- 2000, Canada, Broadview Press (ISBN 155111237X), pub date 15 May 2000, paperback
- 2002, UK, Oxford World Classics (ISBN 0-19-284031-2), pub date 30 April 2002, paperback (edited by Edward A. Bloom with annotations Vivien Jones)
- 2003, USA, Indypublish.com (ISBN 1404359885), pub date 18 June 2003, hardback
- 2006, USA, The Echo Library (ISBN 1406800910), pub date 20 June 2006, hardback