For many months now, O Readers, I have sullied your ears with accounts of the savagery and snark that so often fell from the pen of the youthful Jane Austen. Together we have roamed the rocky path of vice through her childhood tales of deceit and drunkenness, cruelty and callousness, as she skewered human frailty with her sharpened quill. I dunno about you, but I’m ready for a little break from the nasty!
Upon turning to the pages of “Evelyn,” written when she was sixteen, we find the promise of relief. The scene opens upon a gentleman traveler—later identified as Mr. Frederic Gower—who turns up in “one of the most beautiful Spots in the south of England,” the eponymous village of the tale. Mr. Gower is so taken with Evelyn, Sussex, that he asks the landlady of the local alehouse if she knows of any houses to let in the parish. After some reluctance, the landlady says there is nothing available: “Every house in this village, from the sweetness of the Situation, & the purity of the Air, in which neither Misery, Illhealth, or Vice are ever wafted, is inhabited.” Nevertheless, she obligingly directs him to Evelyn Lodge, the home of a Mr. and Mrs. Webb, declaring them to possess “a peculiar Generosity of Disposition.”
And so, indeed, it proves. Mr. Gower is invited in, and the Webbs proceed to offer him every amenity: “‘Bring up some Chocolate immediately [I’m liking them already, aren’t you?]; Spread a Cloth in the dining Parlour, and carry in the venison pasty—. In the mean time let the Gentleman have some sandwiches, and bring in a Basket of Fruit—Send up some Ices and a bason of Soup, and do not forget some Jellies and Cakes.’ Then turning to Mr Gower, & taking out her purse, ‘Accept this my good Sir,—. Beleive me you are welcome to everything that is in my power to bestow.—I wish my purse were weightier, but Mr Webb must make up my deficiencies—. I know he has cash in the house to the amount of an hundred pounds, which he shall bring you immediately.’ ”
Okay, so Jane Austen hasn’t entirely sworn off the snark. Mr. Gower proves only too happy to accept all this proffered largesse, and when the hapless Webbs ask if there is anything else that might contribute to his happiness, he demands the house and grounds, and shortly afterward even their elder daughter’s hand in marriage! All this they give, and they quit the house on the moment, leaving him in possession.
Mr. and the new Mrs. Gower settle in happily, but after several months a chance encounter with a fallen bloom puts Mr. Gower in mind of his youngest sister, Rose, who had been the occasion of his journeying into Sussex in the first place. It seems she had been solicited for her hand by the scion of an aristocratic family in the county; the young man’s family had objected to the match and sent him away to the Isle of Wight, “with the hope of overcoming his Constancy by Time and Absence in a foreign Country.” Sadly, the young man’s ship was wrecked, and he was killed. Mr. Gower’s intent on coming into Sussex had been to seek out the young man’s father, Lord ——, and demand an image of Rose’s swain to give to his bereaved sister. As soon as he remembers this errand he writes to his sister, only to hear back from his mother that over the intervening months Rose has died of grief.
Nevertheless, he departs to accost the noble family at their castle, where he demands to know if the death of their son has softened their hearts toward the would-be couple. They assume he is crazy and send him away. Upon his return to Evelyn, he discovers that not three hours after he left her, his new wife perished of grief over his departure. He buries her and makes haste homeward to his own family in the north of England.
There he discovers that his beloved sister did not die after all; rather, she has only just learned of the death of her noble suitor, and has married the man who came to tell her of it (why in that case their mother told Mr. Gower that she had died of grief, Jane Austen does not explain). In the town Mr. Gower encounters the very same landlady from Evelyn whom we met in the first scene; they marry, go back to Evelyn Lodge, and live there happily ever after.
“Evelyn” is a bit of froth, dated May 1792 and intriguingly dedicated to Miss Mary Lloyd, a longtime friend of the Austens. The spring of 1792 was a traumatic time for Mary Lloyd: along with her mother and sister, she had been renting from Jane Austen’s father the rectory at Deane, a secondary living controlled by Mr. Austen. In January 1792 Jane Austen’s eldest brother James was granted the living of Deane and took a wife, forcing the Lloyds to relocate fifteen miles away, to Ibthorpe. (This sad tale had a happier ending for Mary, though: after his first wife died three years later, James proposed to Mary and was accepted, allowing her to return to her former home.) In dedicating a lighthearted story to Mary in 1792, Jane might have been trying to cheer up a friend; certainly the house the Lloyds occupied at Ibthorpe matches the description of the idyllic lodge at Evelyn, “at the exact centre of a small circular paddock, which was enclosed by a regular paling, & bordered with a plantation of Lombardy poplars, & Spruce firs alternatively placed in three rows….”
There is a degree of specificity in the descriptions of Evelyn that imply Jane Austen had a real location in mind when she drew her word picture of this idyllic spot. As for the rest of the tale, it is a pretty standard example of Austenesque mockery of literary convention, with some delightful flights of wit but little continuity or coherence.
Abigail Bok is the author of the short story “A Summer in Sanditon” in Sun-Kissed: Effusions of Summer and of a novel titled An Obstinate, Headstrong Girl.