Evelina Summary

Fanny Burney


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Evelina Summary

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Evelina by Fanny Burney is an epistolary novel separated in three volumes. “Epistolary” means that the story is told primarily through journals, letters, and other first-person writings of point-of-view characters. From a literary standpoint, the benefit of an epistolary style comes from placing the reader directly into the headspace of the main characters who are writing the letters and journals. Evelina is a satire.

Set in the 18th century, these volumes highlight and satirize the role of women and social classes. The story is about a young woman named Evelina, the illegitimate daughter of an aristocrat. Her father, however, refuses to recognize her and sends her to the country, where she is raised by Reverend Villars. When she is seventeen years old, she is permitted to go to London, where she commits a series of social faux pas because she’s been raised in seclusion. Eventually, a nobleman falls in love with her, which ultimately leads to her father’s acceptance and recognition of Evelina as his daughter.

The reader learns that Evelina’s mother died young. Another character, Madame Duval, wishes to know Evelina better. Reverend Villars is reluctant to send his ward to see Duval at Howard Grove, because he fears that it will lead her to the same end as her mother. However, despite these fears, he permits her to go. Once there, Evelina befriends Maria Mirvan, granddaughter of Lady Howard. The Mirvan family plans to travel to London to meet with Captain Mirvan, who has been away from England for the last seven years. They invite Evelina, who is granted permission from a still-reluctant Reverend Villars.

In London, Evelina gains the attention of many, including Lord Orville, an aforementioned nobleman. Another character whose attentions are less welcome is Sir Clement Willoughby. Madame Duval arrives and introduces Evelina to the Branghtons, Duval’s cousins, who convince Evelina that she cannot hope to marry Lord Orville. Evelina leaves London with Madame Duval and the Mirvan family.

The Branghtons had previously convinced Madame Duval that Evelina’s father, Sir John Belmont, must be sued to recognize Evelina as his heir. Reverend Villars disapproves, so instead, Lady Howard writes to Sir John in an attempt to convince him to recognize his daughter. Sir John responds that he will not. Madame Duval wants to take Evelina to Paris to sue Sir John despite Reverend Villars’ disapproval.

Instead, Reverend Villars lets Evelina return to London, this time to visit her grandmother. There, she meets a poet named Mr. McCartney, who she thinks is considering suicide. In her attempts to convince him not to take his own life, she discovers that his recent acquisition of pistols has nothing to do with killing himself. Rather, he intends to take up highway robbery in order to support himself financially. He confides in her that since his mother’s death, he has learned that his father is also his beloved’s father. In sympathy for his situation, Evelina gives him money.

She also encounters Lord Orville, who wants to continue their acquaintance despite Evelina’s social awkwardness. However, on her way home she receives a letter from Lord Orville. She’d apologized to him for the Branghtons’ behavior, and his letter is nothing short of insulting. Evelina becomes ill in response to his harsh words. Reverend Villars sends her to Clifton Heights with a widowed neighbor in order to renew her health. However, there she encounters Lord Merton, who is engaged to Lord Orville’s sister, Lady Louisa. She tries to avoid Lord Orville, but when he finds out that Mr. McCartney has visited her to repay his debt, Lord Orville becomes jealous.

Lord Orville claims he didn’t write the insulting letter and asks Evelina to marry him. As it turns out, Sir Clement forged the insulting letter from Lord Orville because he disapproved of the match. Meanwhile, the reader learns that Evelina’s supposedly dead mother is actually her childhood nurse, who said she was Sir John’s daughter in the hopes it would mean a better life for Evelina. Sir John takes pity on her situation and acknowledges Evelina as his own because she resembles his late wife. As it turns out, Mr. McCartney is Sir John’s child. The book ends with a double wedding, leading to happiness for Mr. McCartney, Lord Orville, and Evelina.

Originally published in 1778, Evelina make astute observations about the importance of female reputation in society and men’s treatment of women. The reader might find many similarities between this novel and many of Jane Austen’s works, including the trouble-making character Willoughby—though in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Willoughby is less a villain and more a fool. Fanny Burney and Jane Austen wrote on similar topics at a similar time, both with wit and the power of observation.