London in Literature: Evelina

Evelina, or, The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World by Frances Burney

‘Well my dear Sir, we went to Ranelagh.  It is a charming place, and the brilliancy of the lights on my first entrance, made me almost think I was in some enchanted castle, or fairy palace, for all looked like magic to me.’  This is how the protagonist of this epistolary novel wrote about her first visit to one of the pleasure gardens of Georgian London.   

The book was a best-seller in 1778 and tells the story of Evelina, on her first trip to the Metropolis.  Both beautiful but with a complicated family history, she becomes the object of fascination by several suitors, only one of which she admires.  She also has to endure her ‘social climbing’ relatives, including her previously estranged grandmother, Madame Duval.   

Through her adventures we learn about the pleasures of late eighteenth-century theatre and  shopping, then quite a novel experience.  We share the delights and distractions of an assembly – the pleasures of a dance with the refined Lord Orville then having to tolerate the flamboyant Sir Clement Willoughby.  While in the company of Lady Mirvan and her daughter Maria, Evelina sees some of the better sights of London.  But when her grandmother insists she stays with her cousins, the Brangtons, Evelina gets taken to the more down-market end of town.  She is embarrassed by her new lodgings above a silversmith’s shop in High Holborn and is particularly upset by the family’s treat of their sad lodger, Mr Macartney.  But the family also put her in danger in another way – during a trip to Marylebone Gardens Evelina gets separated from her party only to be ‘rescued’ by a couple of prostitutes who she naively thought were ladies of quality. 

What I like about this book is that it shows two sides of London – a place of magic but also danger.  In that sense, the city hasn’t really changed much in over 200 years. 

Written by Janette Bright, IHR PhD Candidate.

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