The novel is comprised of letters in three volumes. The heading to each letter provides its sender and recipient, as well as its date. While this summary gives synopsis of the novel's plot, it should be understood that all information is from the perspective of whoever is writing the current letter.
The first few letters are sent between the Rev. Mr. Villars and Lady Howard. Lady Howard writes first, telling him of a letter she had recently received from Madame Duval, who despises Villars. Duval wishes to reunite with Evelina, her granddaughter. Evelina had been bequeathed to Villars when her own mother (the daughter of Madame Duval) had died in his care. Neither Lady Howard nor her own daughter Mrs. Mirvan wish Evelina to be returned to Madame Duval.
Mr. Villars responds with an account of Evelina's past. He explains that he had once been the tutor of a Mr. Evelyn, a young man who married Madame Duval, then working as a tavern waiting girl. Their marriage was very unhappy in spite of their daughter Miss Caroline Evelyn, and he lived only two years after getting married. Mr. Evelyn had provided a small amount of money for his daughter upon his death, but he entrusted her care and education to Mr. Villars. Though Madame Duval remained responsible for Miss Evelyn's fortune, she was a "low-bred and illiberal woman." Mr. Villars raised
Miss Evelyn until she was eighteen. He describes her as a virtuous and lovely creature, but laments that she rashly consented to marry the profligate Sir John Belmont. She suffered under his mistreatment - which was worst after he learned she had no access to her mother's fortune - and she died not long after she birthed their daughter. Belmont meanwhile had burnt their marriage certificate and denied any connection to her or their daughter. From that time onwards, Mr. Villars raised their child, Evelina.
Lady Howard writes back to ask if Evelina might come stay with them at Howard Grove, her estate. She reminds him how many happy days her granddaughter Maria and Evelina had passed there together as children, and believes it would greatly please them both to reunite. She further proposes that Mrs. Mirvan could take both girls to London in the spring.
Mr. Villars accedes to the proposal, acknowledging that Evelina would have an excellent time. He worries about her innocence, however. She is technically wealthy (with access to two fortunes) but has had no access to any wealth since her father had denied their connection. Further, his cruelty means she is not legally considered a legitimate child. For these reasons, he believes she should abstain from visiting London. Mr. Villars counsels Lady Howard to "shine in the splendor of high life, but suffer my child still to enjoy the pleasure of humble retirement, with a mind to which greater views are unknown." He tells Lady Howard how he had always called her by the last name of Anville (instead of Belmont), and he tells her other circumstances surrounding her birth.
After Evelina arrives in Howard Grove, Lady Howard writes Villars that the girl is a little angel possessed of gentle manners, natural grace, ingenuous character, and striking beauty. She is growing close with Maria. Lady Howard writes again to ask whether Evelina might join Maria and Mrs. Mirvan to meet Captain Mirvan, her son-in-law who is returning to England after an absence of seven years. She insists that they will not stay in the city for too long.
The next letter is from Evelina to Mr. Villars. She writes to personally ask whether she may go to London. She truly hopes for his permission but will abide by his decision. Mr. Villars responds that he can deny her nothing, and she is free to go.
Evelina writes to Mr. Villars after they arrive, to tell him that they had attended the Drury Lane Theater. She admits that the houses and streets of London are not as impressive as she expected, but that the theater was lovely. She admires the fashion of the Londoners very much. It had been arranged for the party to attend a ball given by Mrs. Stanley, a fashionable friend of Mrs. Mirvan's. They shopped together for silks in the city, and Evelina was struck by how the shops are tended primarily by men who are both impressively informed and "so finical, so affected" in their work. She also had her hair dressed, and marvels at its appearance.
Her next set of letters are about the extraordinary private ball they attended. She was surprised by the gentlemen there, who sauntered back and forth carelessly, as though wishing to keep the ladies in suspense over whom they would next ask to dance. One extremely foppish man (Mr. Lovel, though he is not named until much later) asked Evelina to dance, and she awkwardly excused herself. Another man, far more well-dressed, handsome and polite than the first, soon proposed a dance, and she accepted. However, the experience terrified her and she could barely talk despite his elegant, expressive conversation. She eventually snuck away from him, but was mortified to learn that he was Lord Orville, a nobleman. She noticed him looking around for her, but was embarrassed with this world she did not understand. He finally found her, and inquired whether she was ill, or if he had perhaps offended her somehow. She awkwardly assuaged his concerns, and consented to let him bring her refreshment.
She remained flummoxed and flustered, and could not stop thinking about the extent of Lord Orville's understanding and good manners. They were sitting together when the foppish man from earlier accosted them to ask Evelina why she had refused him, but accepted Lord Orville. She burst out laughing at his ridiculousness, but was sobered to remember these "rules of assemblies" that dictated the impropriety of refusing an offer and then accepting another. Evelina found Mrs. Mirvan playing cards with the other older ladies, and told her of her misadventures. She then accepted another dance with Lord Orville, but was still unable to converse intelligently because of her anxiety. She was excessively surprised when, at the end of the evening, he told her that it was an honor to dance with her.
Evelina's letters continue. She writes to Mr. Villars that Maria had overheard a man at the ball asking Lord Orville whom he was dancing with. This man had referred to Evelina as an angel. The foppish man joined them, and told them Evelina must be of ill-breeding. Lord Orville told them he knew nothing of her birth, but remarked that she was very quiet except when she laughed at the "coxcomb's" ridiculousness. Later that morning, Lord Orville called to inquire about their health. Evelina feels that London has grown tiresome, and she wishes to return to Howard Grove.
During their excursions into the city, Evelina saw Lord Orville again and felt hurt to consider the opinion he must hold of her. He was so agreeable and amiable that his opinion matters to her, and she hates to think of how stupid she must have seemed in her inability to speak. Thinking of this put her in an ill humor and she declined more sightseeing.
Captain Mirvan arrived, and proved himself disagreeable, rude, and gross.
Evelina reluctantly agreed to go to another assembly with Maria and the elder Mirvans. She saw Lord Orville there, and thought how much more desirable it would be to dance with him than with a stranger. She was asked to dance by a man with whom she did not want to be involved, and she decided to lie and tell him she was already engaged. To her dismay, he did not politely leave her alone but followed her around, teasing and persecuting her. She was peeved by his jesting, callous, and obnoxious manner. He even ventured to claim that she had made up her partner. She finally asked him to leave her alone, but he refused, instead continuing to follow her about. She tried to seek solace with Mrs. Mirvan and Captain Mirvan, but they could not make him leave either. She finally consented to dance with him after he had exhausted her resolution. She was also pushed into identifying Lord Orville as her partner, which she realized was a mistake since the obnoxious man might try to speak with Lord Orville and tell him she had falsely used his name.
Lord Orville and Mrs. Mirvan together approached Evelina and the man. The man unsubtly insinuated that Evelina had lied using Lord Orville's name, and, overcome, she burst into tears. Lord Orville perceived what had been going on, and politely led her to a seat, saying quietly, "Be not distressed, I beseech you; I shall ever think my name honoured by your making use of it." Evelina decided she would never go to an assembly again. She also learned her persecutor's name – Sir Clement Willoughby. She worried that Lord Orville now thought her "bold and presuming." She concludes this letter by commenting how ignorant and inexperienced she is for this town.
In her next letter, Evelina writes to Mr. Villars of how an older, French woman approached the Mirvans as they exited the party. She was distressed because she was lost from her company. Mrs. Mirvan pitied her and offered her a ride in their carriage. Captain Mirvan did not want to do this, as he is excessively prejudiced against foreigners. Indeed, the woman and the Captain soon began to argue hotly about the relative merits and shortcomings of the English and the French. To everyone's surprise, it turned out that the woman was Madame Duval, Evelina's grandmother. Evelina calls the resulting interview "the most afflicting I can ever know."
Madame Duval wished to talk to Evelina immediately, but they convinced her that Evelina should visit her house the next morning. Mrs. Mirvan accompanied her the next day. The meeting the night before seemed to have affected Madame Duval, as she was very emotional toward Evelina. She was, however, very rude when speaking of Mr. Villars. Evelina writes that her grandmother looks to be just under fifty, and "dresses very gaily, paints very high, and the traces of former beauty are still very visible in her face."
It was decided that the party would remain in London for a few days more; they did not want Madame Duval at Howard Grove, and it was not polite to immediately leave the city now that she was there. Evelina can hardly wait to return to Mr. Villars at Berry Hill.
Most of this novel is concerned with the marked contrast between Evelina's sweet simplicity and the confusing world of manners that she encounters. Most of the novel's themes - class, gender, civility - manifest out of this conflict. Evelina is painted almost right away as a pastoral angel. Certainly, this is clear in the way Lady Howard and the Mirvans describe her. However, it is also apparent in the way her beauty attracts pretty much every man she meets. Her connection to Berry Hill, which is removed from any and all fashionable society, paints her as a pastoral beauty, one supremely innocent of all vice, and she certainly lives up to this impossible description through her effusively gentle and loving letters to Mr. Villars. However, she also possesses great insight, both into the world around her and into the people who inhabit it, which makes her a strong narrator. She can be both in conflict with the world, and eloquent about why it is confusing. Most of Burney's ultimate messages will derive from the irony that such a sweet, wonderful girl is necessarily battered by a world that professes to prize such virtues. Her journey, which has already begun by the end of these letters, will be an attempt to maintain such virtue in a world that seems to have little use for it.
However, the sweet and innocent Evelina's entry into fashionable London society is a memorable reading experience not just for offering profound wit and insight into 18th century social norms, but also for its catalogue of contemporary London entertainments and cultural offerings. Evelina's first taste of the city's entertainment is the Drury Lane Theatre, which was open from September to May. It held about 2,300 people and had four classes of seating: boxes, for the very fashionable and wealthy; the pit, for Londoners and their wives, critics, and courtesans; the middle gallery, for middling folk; and the fourth, for the lowest sort of people. David Garrick was an actor and co-manager of the theatre from 1747-1776, and was a personal favorite of Frances Burney's. This first cultural adventure is just one of many that Evelina passes during the novel, and her letters throughout her stays in London demonstrate that she has a keen eye for quality entertainment – such as opera – and that her commentary is valuable despite her youth and ignorance.
Others locations mentioned in the first handful of letters are the Mall in St. James Park, the Palace, the opera, and Ranelagh. The first of these, the Mall in St. James Park, was one of London's several royal parks. During the 18th century, the Mall was a straight gravel path through the park, about a half mile in length. It was frequented by men and women of fashion and was hence a place to see and be seen, but it was also home to courtesans and other lascivious, low folk. The Palace is, of course, Buckingham Palace, and was known as the "Queen's Palace," since it was given to Queen Charlotte by George III in 1775. The opera that Evelina later mentions is the all-Italian opera at King's Theatre in the Haymarket. It was a very fashionable place, but suffered financially throughout the 18th century. Burney frequented the operas there, and was thus well-qualified to write about them. Finally, Ranelagh, which is referred to later in the novel as well, was a very famous London pleasure-garden and a place of public amusement established on the site of Ranelagh House in Chelsea. It had garden walks, canals, orchestra performances, dances, masquerades, and the ever-popular promenade along the Rotunda.
Evelina writes of her first ridotto and assembly. A ridotto was, as described by Vivien Jones in the annotations to the Oxford World's Classics edition of the novel, "a public social entertainment which included music and dancing...[it] was first introduced to England in 1722...[and] is strictly speaking a form of outdoor entertainment."
Much of the novel's important drama occurs at assemblies. An assembly was a prominent feature of 18th century life; it was a gathering for dancing, card playing, conversing, and matchmaking. In some ways, it serves as a microcosm of high society, since it functions by highly regimented modes of behavior. Evelina's ignorance of high society becomes quite manifest at these. She marvels at the types of men she encounter, and fumbles at the rules of accepting dance invitations. However, despite the fact that she does not know precisely how to behave, she is still a naturally sensible and intelligent young woman and makes the correct judgments regarding the people she meets. That her good sense is one of the qualities that leads her to bumble is something of an irony, suggesting that high society has less use for insight and character than it does for pretense and ceremony.
The modern reader might be surprised to discover that there were actual rules to these assemblies, and they were often posted on the door of assembly rooms. It was indeed the height of bad manners to refuse one gentleman for a dance and then accept another for the same dance. Jones points out that the assemblies followed the rules laid out at the beginning of the 18th century by Richard "Beau" Nash, Master of Ceremonies at the Bath Assembly Rooms. These rues stipulated the correct dress code and standards of behavior, the start and end times of the event, and how dances were to be conducted.
Dr. Johnson, the preeminent 18th century English editor, poet, essayist, biographer, critic, and scholar offers some telling insight into some of the terminology used in Evelina (a book which he enjoyed immensely). He defines "foppish" as: "Vain in show; foolishly ostentatious; vain of dress," and a fop as a man who was "fond of show, dress, and flutter." Evelina identifies Mr. Lovel as a fop, but Sir Clement, Lord Merton, and Mr. Coverley also fit this description. Dr. Johnson also defines the term sensible, which means "having moral perception; having the quality of being affected by moral good or ill" and "Having quick intellectual feeling; being strongly or easily affected." It is very apparent that Evelina, while not a noblewoman, possesses a great deal of sensibility.