LADY HOWARD TO THE REV. MR. VILLARS
Howard Grove, Kent.
Can any thing, my good Sir, be more painful to a friendly mind, than a necessity of communicating disagreeable intelligence? Indeed it is sometimes difficult to determine, whether the relator or the receiver of evil tidings is most to be pitied.
I have just had a letter from Madame Duval; she is totally at a loss in what manner to behave; she seems desirous to repair the wrongs she has done, yet wishes the world to believe her blameless. She would fain cast upon another the odium of those misfortunes for which she alone is answerable. Her letter is violent, sometimes abusive, and that of you!-you, to whom she is under obligations which are greater even than her faults, but to whose advice she wickedly imputes all the sufferings of her much injured daughter, the late Lady Belmont. The chief purport of her writing I will acquaint you with; the letter itself is not worthy your notice.
Summary: Evelina Anville is out of place in the world. While she is the legitimate daughter of Sir John Belmont, she is unacknowledged, as Belmont was a libertine who denied the marriage and destroyed some of the evidence that he had ever been married to Evelina's mother, Caroline. Evelina has been raised by Rev. Arthur Villars. The story opens with news that Madame Duval, Evelina's grandmother, who had been estranged from her daughter, has only just discovered Evelina's existence, and is coming to take her to France. As Mme. Duval is regarded by no one as a good influence, being a histrionic and absurdly rude in exactly the way the English tend to attribute to the French, Evelina is sent off to a friend. There, however, she encounters the Mirvan family, and gets permission to take a trip to London with them.
Thus begins Evelina's introduction to high society. On the one hand, having been raised in the relatively quiet countryside, she often has no idea what people are doing; on the other, however, she has the triple power, always of immense value in urban high society, of youth, beauty, and artlessness. She commits more than a few faux pas, but she also gets the friendship and interest of a few people worth knowing. Part of the charm of the book is watching Evelina muddle through social situations; because, however, she has intelligence and decency (neither of which are of value in high society, but only in life), and good friends as well, she comes out all right. Some of these episodes are very well done and true to life, being recognizable to anyone who has ever been in awkward social situations in which they did not know what to do. For instance, early on she tries to get out of dancing with someone by the white lie of saying that she is previously engaged, but then finds herself at sea when the man doesn't leave but keeps wondering why her dancing partner has left her by herself. In another case, she is trying to avoid a young man, in whom she is not interested but who quite clearly has marriage on the mind, by deliberately spending her time talking with another man, who from this gets the wrong idea that she's interested in him. She also has more than a few occasions of running into someone she wants to impress while out with her cousins, who are not very polished people.
The story satirizes high society, but it is not merely a satire. It is very much about the nature of family, its honor and its shame, its value and its embarrassments, our need for it and its occasionally grievous difficulty. Many of Evelina's problems are not really due to her but due to the fact that her family is not there or, when they are, are not really concerned with Evelina herself. And a large component of the problem is that families are partly built on communication, not constant but essential, and miscommunication in family matters can sometimes do terrible things to us.
The novel is written well in every way. It is an epistolary novel, but it largely reads like an ordinary first-person novel, told from Evelina's point of view, with just occasional brief interludes in which another perspective enters the picture. The minor characters are often engaging and often funny. My favorite is Mrs. Selwyn, the acid-humored widow with that devastating sarcastic wit that on this earth belongs only to an intelligent elderly woman with a lot of practice; watching her repeatedly set to flight the foppish young men who think themselves witty was in itself worth the reading.
"Goodness, then," cried young Branghton, "if I was Miss, if I would not make free with his Lordship’s coach, to take me to town."
"Why, ay," said the father, "there would be some sense in that; that would be making some use of a Lord’s acquaintance, for it would save us coach-hire."
"Lord, Miss," cried Polly, "I wish you would; for I should like of all things to ride in a coronet-coach."
"I promise you," said Madame Duval, "I’m glad you’ve thought of it, for I don’t see no objection;-so let’s have the coachman called."
"Not for the world," cried I, very much alarmed: "indeed it is utterly impossible."
"Why so?" demanded Mr. Branghton: "pray, where’s the good of your knowing a Lord, if you're never the better for him?"
Recommendation: Highly Recommended; this is a very funny book with charming characters and yet serious themes.