Our story opens with a letter from Lady Howard to her dear friend Rev. Villars concerning his ward, Evelina. Lady Howard reports that Evelina’s estranged French grandmother Madame Duvall intends to renew her acquaintance with Evelina. Rev. Villars nixes the idea right away. Lady Howard writes back to invite Evelina to stay with her, her daughter (Mrs. Mirvan) and her granddaughter (Maria, Evelina’s bff) which the Reverend eventually agrees to. Shortly after Evelina’s arrival the Mirvans receive word they must meet with Captain Mirvan in London and they bring Evelina, who has never been to London.
Evelina is dazzled by London and makes many social errors. At a ball she insults the macaroni, Mr. Lovell and is flustered by the handsome Lord Orville due to his civilities. Lord Orville, in a very Darcy-like manner, refers to Evelina as a “poor weak girl” but still defends her when Mr. Lovell vengefully sets himself against her after Evelina’s unintentional slight. She also meets Sir Clement Willoughby whose attentions are very unwelcome to Evelina.
The next day the group has an accidentally meeting with non-other than Evelina’s estranged grandmother, Madame Duvall who automatically becomes the butt of Captain Mirvin’s jokes. Madame Duvall is pushy and unpleasant but becomes a regular part of the party due to Mrs. Mirvin’s kindness. Madame Duvall wants to take Evelina to Paris to bring her up in French society but the idea isn’t attractive to anyone. She also introduces Evelina to her nephew, Mr. Branghton’s family who lives in Holburn. The family is animated and open to their new cousin but Evelina finds them crude and trashy.
As Evelina prepares to leave London with the Mirvans she is surprised by a visit from Lord Orville in which he expresses sadness at her departure. Evelina is shocked and attempts to deduce whether his sentiment is one of courtesy or true feelings.
After the necessary background introductions from Lady Howard and Rev. Villars Evelina finally begins her letter diary. Her initial letters are blooming with the excitement you can expect a teenage girl to have upon her first visit to London. I particularly enjoy how she talks about the process of getting her hair done-up with all the primping and teasing (“When I shall be able to make use of a comb for myself, I cannot tell…”), which was also something the character Julia spoke of initially in The Sylph. However, unlike Julia who hated the process, Evelina is amazed by it and seems to like playing dress-up.
The ball, oh the ball! Is where most of the action happens so it is difficult to know where to begin. I guess we should say firstly, this is not only where the plot begins but where we are introduced to two main and foil characters, Lord Orville and Sir Clement Willoughby. Many have noted on the event’s similarity to Austen’s scene where Lizzy and Mr Darcy meet at the Meryton Assembly in Pride and Prejudice. Just as Darcy tells his bro how Lizzy isn’t pretty enough to tempt him, the equally hunky Lord Orville proclaims, after dancing with her all night, that Evelina is “a poor weak girl.” Ouch!
What are your first impressions of the characters? Evelina, Lord Orville, Mr Lovell, Madame Duval, the Capatin, etc?
Jane Austen was a fan of Burney’s work; do you think her Meryton Assembly was a direct reference or homage to Evelina?
[Anyone participating in our premiere salon is qualified to win a copy of Oxford World's Classic's Evelina (unless you note that you don't need a copy)! The winner will be announced at next week's salon. Good luck!]