Evelina Summary and Analysis of Volume III, Letter XVI – Volume III, Letter XXIII


Evelina continues to write to Mr. Villars.

In the morning during breakfast, Lord Orville asked Evelina if he could privately speak with her later, about the rude letter she had received. Later that day, Evelina was alone when Sir Clement Willoughby came into the room unexpectedly. When he saw that letter in her hand, he grew passionately agitated, asking her over and over again if the note had disgusted her, why she had not burned it, and whether she loved Lord Orville. She would not answer, even after he grow so distressed that he rudely exited the room as soon as others entered. That evening, Mrs. Selwyn tried to, in her ironic and piercing manner, determine why he had behaved with such panic.

Evelina and Mr. Macartney met again at the house, using Lord Orville's invitation to him as a cover to arrange their meeting. He told her he was unable to gain audience with Miss Belmont, even though he had tried. Evelina suddenly exclaimed that she was his sister, and the two clasped hands in emotion. Lord Orville entered and saw this right before Mr. Macartney left. He was a bit surprised but soon pried from Evelina the news that Macartney was her brother.

Meanwhile, as she had planned with Evelina, Mrs. Selwyn visited Sir John Belmont to tell him about her. When she returned, her countenance immediately revealed her anger and embarrassment. Sir John had been hostile to what he called the "ridiculous story," and he explained his side of events. Soon after leaving Evelina's mother, a nursemaid brought him his daughter from the estate of Mr. Villars, and he put the girl into a convent to be educated. She had recently returned a grown woman, and was the Miss Belmont currently seen around town. Hence, Evelina must be only a ruse to extort money from him.

After Evelina heard this, she was devastated. Lord Orville found her during her grief, and when he tried to comfort her, she sobbed that she was unworthy of him.

Later, Mrs. Selwyn admitted she had told Lord Orville about the girl's past, and that he was now doubly committed to marrying her. She was excited about the match. She also proposed the next step in the plan: Evelina would attend Mrs. Selwyn on a visit to Sir John Belmont on the next day. Evelina agreed, but trembled at the thought.

The next day, Evelina was full of shock and terror when they went to Sir John Belmont's abode. Mrs. Selwyn first confronted him privately; he was in particularly poor spirits at recently learning he had a son in Macartney. Mrs. Selwyn begged him to at least see Evelina once, and he agreed. Evelina thus came face-to-face with her father.

When he saw her, he was profoundly affected by fervid emotion and disbelief. He exclaimed that Caroline Evelyn (her mother) was still alive and breathing before him. He was so distressed that he apologized and ran upstairs, saying that he could never see Evelina's face again.

Later, Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Selwyn tried to understand the story. It seemed that there had been a poor nursemaid who attended Caroline's deathbed, and who also had a daughter. After Caroline died, the nursemaid and her infant daughter disappeared. Considering how much secrecy Mr. Villars had employed in raising Evelina (to protect her from Madame Duval and her father), it seemed likely that Sir John Belmont might never have known about her. Mrs. Selwyn returned to Sir John's house to further investigate the matter.

When she returned, she had an answer. She and Sir John questioned the nurse and discovered how the nurse had overheard Mr. Villars promising Caroline that he would raise Evelina. Seeing an opportunity to make her own poor daughter an heiress, she brought the wrong infant to Sir John and claimed it was his daughter from Caroline. Evelina was overjoyed to learn that her father's neglect was not born from cruelty of spirit.

The next day, Evelina was shocked with more information - Mrs. Selwyn, Sir John, and even the kindhearted Lord Orville had decided that both girls (Evelina and Miss Belmont) were to be married immediately. This way, Miss Belmont would not be shamed by losing her noble name before she married Mr. Macartney (who was obviously not actually her brother), and so Evelina could soon reclaim her rightful place as Sir John's heiress.

Evelina was overcome with emotion; she largely approved of the plan, but felt even better when Lord Orville promised that they could pass their first month of marriage at Berry Hill.

While they remained at Clifton, Evelina noticed a change in Lady Louisa's demeanor. She had obviously learned about both her brother's proposal and Evelina's change in station. As a result, she treated the girl with more civility. Mr. Macartney and Evelina met again, this time with Lord Orville warmly and openly offering his sincere compliments to the man.

The time came for Evelina to visit her father again. Their meeting was beset with fervent, consuming emotion on both sides. He was fraught with despair about how he had treated her, and begged her forgiveness. By the time the interview was over, they had reunited and he promised to overcome the guilt her countenance brought him (because it reminded him of how cruelly he treated her mother). He would simply need some time to make peace with himself. After the meeting, Mr. Macartney told Evelina that Lord Orville had promised him that they would consider the poor Miss Green – the fake heiress – as a sister and co-heiress, if not in law then in justice. Evelina writes to Mr. Villars of this: "Oh Lord Orville! – it shall be the sole study of my happy life, to express better than words, the sense I have of your exalted benevolence, and greatness of mind!"

Evelina receives a letter from Sir Clement, explaining that it was he who penned the rude letter and forged Lord Orville's signature. He had found Young Branghton on his way to deliver Evelina's letter, and intercepted it. He does not apologize for doing so, but felt he should explain himself. She marveled at his unrepentant attitude, and wrote him back that she would not be telling anyone about it.

Lord Orville also confessed to Evelina that he had originally intended to investigate her past before proposing, but that he became so overcome with emotion that he did so before he had adequate time for it.

The group traveled together to Bath to show Evelina the city. There, they encountered Captain Mirvan and his family; upon hearing of Evelina's engagement, Maria had convinced her parents to join her. Evelina loved Bath, but the trip was somewhat soured by the Captain's incessant persecution of Mr. Lovel, who was in attendance. He treated him as he had treated Madame Duval. At one point, he even dressed up a monkey in fine clothes and called him Mr. Lovel's brother. The entire company was shocked, and Mr. Lovel was frightfully embarrassed.

Evelina finally receives a letter from Mr. Villars – she had been waiting anxiously for his approval and was profoundly relieved to hear how excited and pleased he was for the couple.

The last letter from Evelina to Mr. Villars states that "this morning, with fearful joy, and trembling gratitude, she united herself for ever with the object of her dearest, her eternal affection!"


In this last set of letters, it becomes clear that Evelina has successfully navigated the perilous waters of the London social scene, reclaiming her birthright and marrying an extremely eligible man. Moreover, she has done so while retaining her most prized possession – her innocence. This is the novel's primary dramatic conflict: her internal innocence is threatened by a public world characterized by masculine licentiousness and assertiveness. Joanne Cutting-Gray's article on Evelina's innocence offers insight into the novel through a discussion of her namelessness and the act of writing. Evelina has no real name – she is not recognized by her father – and thus can identify herself only by the innocence she is expected to show as a woman. Her name is a diminutive of her mother's last name, which marks her as something of a doll.

Almost everyone in the novel is concerned with preserving Evelina's innocence. Mr. Villars warns her in nearly all of the letters of what she will face and how to protect herself. Evelina is, however, not completely a "tabula rasa of innocence upon which experience is engraved, for she has the reflexive ability to read more than one possible meaning in otherwise socially acceptable behavior." She can recognize the bad traits in others and justly condemn them. Further, she is willing to consider a situation's complications. Notice how, before she learns that Lord Orville had not penned the rude letter, she finds herself forgiving him nevertheless. She is willing to consider situations, and not view base behavior as the sum of a person's character.

The facade required of women was thus very difficult to maintain: one had to be wise enough to recognize worldliness and stave off men's aggressive advances, but unworldly enough to appear diffident and guileless. Evelina enters a social world where her identity is already limned for her; this requires her to sublimate her own desires, and to allow her reflections to be "covered over by the veneer of naiveté." Someone like Sir Clement assumes she merely possesses the latter of the two aforementioned qualities. He only wishes to seduce her, not to marry her, and believes that her guilelessness and naiveté will make her an assured victory. That she is strong continually surprises him.

Evelina herself tries very diligently to convince everyone that she is powerless and deficient in thought. This unfortunately reduces her potential to further develop as a person; she remains one-dimensional and does not endeavor to be anything except molded by her world. However, as the narrative reveals, "the Evelina who writes reveals a far more evaluative knowledge of her world than the Evelina she writes about." That is, she presents the proper face to society, but in private, is very witty, discriminating, and perceptive. For instance, when Evelina earlier rages over the way the Branghtons secured Lord Orville's carriage, she "claims her own right to the disclosing as well as concealing power of name and discourse." She is clearly frustrated at her role as a nameless female and must assert herself. She must respect her own name, since, as a woman, nobody else will.

Throughout the writing of her letters, Evelina discovers meaning and thereby discovers herself. She records what she sees in London, but does much more as well: she learns "that she is capable of thought and therefore capable of speech." The "persuasive power of her narrative compensates for the confusion and distress that a predetermined innocence causes her," Cutting-Gray concludes. She discovers the parallels and patterns in the events that shape the world, and is subsequently able to voice her opinions. As she gathers a greater vocabulary of experience, she gains perspective on events, while always grappling with the perils of innocence. Through writing, she is able to "share in the composition of her own destiny" and slough of the role of innocent bystander and passive spectator.

The novel's happy ending confirms Evelina's growth, though it does finally reveal some limitations in Burney's perspective of female empowerment. For all of Evelina's personal strength (as revealed in the letters), notice how we rarely hear about deep and witty conversations she has with Lord Orville; instead, she merely mentions to Mr. Villars that such conversations take place. It would perhaps have burst the unbelievable bubble of their relationship to test how a man and woman of their social standing would actually converse. Further, the happy ending is engendered much more by Lord Orville and Mrs. Selwyn than it is by Evelina. She loses agency as a protagonist, and actually relies on other characters to represent her in this final set of letters. The implicit idea is that she has succeeded once she finds a good match, and now she can sit back and let the more masculine forces (counting Mrs. Selwyn as a masculine figure) to orchestrate an appropriate ending.