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Tuesday 24 September 2013

A Regency History guide to Evelina by Fanny Burney

Madame Duval is furious  from Evelina Vol 1 (1808)
Madame Duval is furious
from Evelina Vol 1 (1808)
Evelina or the history of a young lady’s entrance into the world was Fanny Burney’s first novel. She sold the copyright to Mr Lowndes for a mere £20 and it was published anonymously in January 1778. The novel was received with great acclaim and her proud father soon divulged the secret of her authorship.

I read Fanny Burney’s second novel, Cecilia, first, but prefer Evelina. It is written as a series of letters but although this initially put me off, it in no way detracts from the narrative. It is interesting as a social history too – it includes details of visits to many of the London venues of the time – the opera house, Cox’s Museum, the Pantheon, Ranelagh, Vauxhall and Marybone Gardens.

Below is a list of the main characters, with a little description. After that is a plot summary to remind those who have read Evelina what happens and to provide a crib sheet for those who want to know what happens but may not have the time or inclination to read it.

The characters

Evelina’s family:
Evelina Belmont, the heroine, brought up under the name Evelina Anville.
Lady Belmont, Evelina’s mother, who died in childbirth.
Sir John Belmont, Evelina’s father, who denied his marriage to Lady Belmont and abandoned her.
Mr Evelyn, Lady Belmont’s father, who married beneath him.
Madame Duval, Lady Belmont’s vulgar mother who has been living in Paris.
The Branghtons, Madame Duval’s nephew, a silversmith, and his unrefined son and daughters.

Evelina’s friends:
The Reverend Mr Villars, once tutor to Mr Evelyn and now Evelina’s kind guardian.
Lady Howard, an old friend of Lady Belmont’s.
Mrs Mirvan, Lady Howard’s daughter, who takes Evelina to London.
Miss Mirvan, Mrs Mirvan’s daughter who becomes Evelina’s particular friend.
Mrs Selwyn, a redoubtable lady who takes Evelina to Bristol.

Evelina’s suitors:
Lord Orville, a gentleman with impeccable manners and a generous heart.
Sir Clement Willoughby, a bold gentleman who forces his attentions on Evelina.
Monsieur Du Bois, Madame Duval’s friend.
Mr Smith, Mr Branghton’s lodger.

Other characters:
Captain Mirvan, Mrs Mirvan’s ill-mannered naval husband.
Mr Lovel, the fop who Evelina refuses to dance with at her first assembly.
Mr Macartney, Mr Branghton’s lodger who has recently gone into mourning.
Mrs Beaumont, a friend of Mrs Selwyn who lives in Bristol.
Lady Louisa Larpent, Lord Orville’s sister.
Lord Merton, Lady Larpent’s fiancĂ©.

Plot summary

Evelina’s background

Mr Villars was once tutor to a Mr Evelyn who married beneath him and moved to France. The marriage was unhappy and, desirous of protecting his daughter, he appointed his old tutor as her guardian before he died.

Mrs Evelyn then married Monsieur Duval and when her daughter came of age, she sent for her to join her in Paris. Madame Duval and her husband tried to force a distasteful match on Miss Evelyn who rashly agreed to marry Sir John Belmont in order to escape. However, when Sir John discovered that his wife would not receive her mother’s fortune, he destroyed their marriage certificate and denied they had ever been married. Lady Belmont fled to Mr Villars for protection and died giving birth to Evelina whom she consigned to his care.

Evelina goes to London

Evelina pays a visit to her mother’s old friend, Lady Howard, and becomes friends with her granddaughter, Miss Mirvan. A message arrives that Mrs Mirvan’s husband, Captain Mirvan, is coming home from sea and Evelina accompanies the Mirvans to London to meet him.

Evelina makes a mistake

Evelina is very inexperienced and keeps making mistakes. At her first assembly, she refuses to dance with a foppish gentleman, Mr Lovel, but does not realise she is breeching social etiquette when she later accepts the hand of Lord Orville.

Evelina makes another mistake

Evelina attends a ridotto and is asked to dance by a strange gentleman, Sir Clement Willoughby. Unwilling to dance with him or to refuse him and thereby preclude herself from dancing with anyone else, she claims to be engaged. He pursues her boldly and to be rid of him, she implies that her partner is Lord Orville, who rises nobly to the occasion and says he is honoured that she made use of his name.

Madame Duval

Captain Mirvan proves to be very vulgar and argues incessantly with Evelina’s grandmother, Madame Duval, lately arrived from France.

When their carriage breaks down, Monsieur Du Bois, Madame Duval’s friend, tries to carry her across the mud, but they are pushed, presumably by the Captain, and Madame Duval is furious.

Vulgar relations

Evelina meets Madame Duval’s vulgar relations – her nephew, Mr Branghton, who is a silversmith and his children. Lord Orville’s delightful conversation makes a pleasant contrast.
Mr Branghton takes them all to the opera but buys the cheapest possible seats in the one-shilling gallery. Afterwards, Evelina inadvertently finds herself travelling alone in a carriage with Sir Clement and with difficulty prevents him from making love to her.


Madame Duval determines to prove Evelina’s birthright. Lady Howard writes to Sir John Belmont but he refuses to acknowledge that she is his daughter.

The Captain plays a trick

The Captain plays a cruel trick on Madame Duval aided by Sir Clement. She believes she is being attacked by highwaymen and is left tied up in a ditch. She is furious when she learns that the Captain is responsible.

Another visit to London

Madame Duval insists on taking Evelina to London with her for a month or she will cut her out of her will. They visit the Branghtons and meet Mr Smith, their lodger, who takes a fancy to Evelina.

Evelina meets Mr Branghton’s other lodger, Mr Macartney, a Scotch poet in mourning. She sees him with two pistols and fearing he means to commit suicide, she intervenes.

Evelina interrupts Mr Macartney  from Evelina Vol 2 (1808)
Evelina interrupts Mr Macartney
from Evelina Vol 2 (1808)
A disastrous trip to Vauxhall

Evelina visits Vauxhall, where Mr Smith tries to attach himself to her. Evelina and the two Miss Branghtons go down a dark walk and are accosted by some rowdy gentlemen. She is rescued by Sir Clement, but he tries to take advantage of the situation. Evelina bursts into tears and he sees that her lack of protection has given him a false impression of her morals.

Mr Macartneys’ story

Mr Macartney writes his story to Evelina. He had fallen in love with a young English lady whilst in Paris but her father was furious with the connection. His abuse had provoked a quarrel and Mr Macartney had injured the girl’s father with his sword. Mr Macartney had escaped back to Scotland where he confessed all to his mother, only to be told that the man he had fought was his father! Whilst he was in London trying to see his father, he ran out of money. Meanwhile he heard of his mother’s death, and in desperation, he bought a pair of pistols and planned to turn footpad when Evelina had interrupted him.

Another mess

They visit Marybone Gardens to see some fireworks, but Evelina loses her party. Trying to avoid the attentions of an officer, she runs to two women for help, who turn out to be women of ill repute. Arm in arm with these women she runs into Lord Orville! He later calls to caution her and Evelina is overwhelmed by his consideration.

To Evelina’s horror, Madame Duval proposes that she marry Mr Branghton’s son. Learning of this, Monsieur du Bois writes to Evelina of his attachment of her.

Lord Orville’s coach

Evelina and the Miss Branghtons shelter in a shop from the rain. When they discover that Evelina knows Lord Orville, they command the use of his carriage by mentioning her name. Evelina is dismayed, but when applied to, Lord Orville graciously gives them permission to use his coach.

Evelina is very distressed and writes to Lord Orville to apologise. She receives a letter purportedly from Lord Orville full of impertinent affection. She returns home and confesses what has happened to Mr Villars.

A trip to Bristol

Evelina is ill and goes to Bristol with the rich Mrs Selwyn to recuperate. They are invited to stay at Mrs Beaumont’s house where Lord Orville, his sister Lady Louisa Larpent and her fiancĂ© Lord Merton, a dissipated nobleman, are staying.

Evelina meets Lord Orville again and finds him as considerate as ever. Mr Macartney tries to talk to her and Lord Orville jealously suspects an assignation.

Miss Belmont

They go to an assembly where they see a Miss Belmont who claims to be the only daughter and heiress of Sir John Belmont. Lord Orville arranges for Evelina to meet Mr Macartney and she discovers that this Miss Belmont is the lady he loves and that their father is Sir John Belmont. Evelina realises that she is Mr Macartney’s sister.

Mr Villars advises Evelina to give up Lord Orville as her own dubious birth makes the match impossible. She withdraws from Lord Orville who is perplexed at the change in her behaviour.


Lord Orville is jealous of Sir Clement who continues to pester Evelina with his attentions. He confesses his adoration of Evelina and asks permission to write. The truth about the letters comes out – Evelina’s letter was never delivered and Sir Clement was guilty of writing his reply.

Sir John Belmont’s daughter

Mrs Selwyn waits on Sir John Belmont and urges him to acknowledge his daughter. He says that he already has – that Miss Belmont was brought to him by his wife’s nurse and she has recently left the convent where she has been educated.

Evelina accompanies Mrs Selwyn to see Sir John. When he sees her, he knows she is his daughter because of her resemblance to her mother. The infamous behaviour of the nurse is revealed: she had substituted her own child for Evelina.

Mr Macartney is now free to marry the ex Miss Belmont and Evelina marries Lord Orville.

Another cheat guide:

Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background(2021)
Rachel Knowles writes faith-based Regency romance and historical non-fiction. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew.

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Sources used include:
Burney, Fanny, Diary and letters of Madame D'Arblay, edited by her niece, Charlotte Barrett (Henry Colburn, 1846, London)
Burney, Fanny, Evelina or the history of a young lady’s entrance into the world (1808 version)


  1. It has been a long time since I read this one, and you make me want to again. So much of the back and forth romance that we love!

    1. Some great characters and I love the fact that Fanny Burney is writing about places that she must have visited herself eg Vauxhall, Cox's Museum. A first person perspective of these places rather than a historical one.

  2. Do we ever find out Lord Orville's complete name? Would Orville be his first name, his last name or his titled name?

    1. I think that Orville must be his title as his sister is named Lady Louisa Larpent which would suggest that his family name is also Larpent. I can't find any reference to a first name - he is always referred to as Lord Orville.

  3. Hi Rachel, I'm men and I'm carrying a research about Frances Burney's Evelina. I'm investigating satire in this novel and I need your help please contact me on facebook Rezig Imen.

    1. I am sorry but I am not an expert on English literature - most of what I know about Evelina is written above! You might find The Burney Society website helpful.