I haven’t read much 18th century fiction, but when I made my Classics Club list, I wanted to pick books from a variety of centuries. So, I picked Evelina.
Evelina’s heritage is unfortunate. Her grandfather married a vulgar woman much below his class and died without providing for his daughter, Caroline, leaving everything to his wife. When Caroline was old enough, her mother tried to force her to marry a cousin. Caroline instead eloped with Lord Belmont, but when her grandmother cut her off without a penny, Lord Belmont threw her off and denied they were legally married. After her mother’s death, Evelina was raised in isolation by the elderly Reverend Mr. Villars, who had been her grandfather’s tutor and had also raised her mother.
When Evelina gets an invitation from Lady Howard to visit London, Mr. Villars is reluctant to let her go because of her family history. But Mrs. Mirvan, Lady Howard’s daughter, offers to take great care of her. Evelina makes some social errors at her first appearances, for example, agreeing to dance with Lord Ormond when she has already turned down Lord Lovel.
Evelina is immediately attracted to Lord Ormond but she is barely able to speak to him at the dance and keeps making mistakes or having people impose upon her, so that she fears she creates a wrong impression. She herself is the typical 18th century heroine, virtuous, compliant, and innocent.
Later, her vulgar and coarse grandmother, Madame Duval, appears in London and demands her attendance. Evelina meets a series of ill-mannered and socially inferior cousins who keep putting her into embarrassing situations.
This novel is a social satire that pits the innocent, gentle Evelina against a number of snobbish or sexually aggressive members of the upper class and against the crassness of her relatives in the merchant classes. Some modern readers may struggle with the elaborate speech. That didn’t bother me, but my patience was a bit tried by the middle section of the book, in which Evelina is on a long visit to her grandmother and rude cousins. In that section as well as those featuring Captain Mirvan, I had a hard time believing anyone would behave so badly.