Fanny Burney: A Biography 
by Claire Harman.
Flamingo, 464 pp., £8.99, October 2001, 0 00 655036 3
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Fanny Burney: Her Life 
by Kate Chisholm.
Vintage, 347 pp., £7.99, June 1999, 0 09 959021 2
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Faithful Handmaid: Fanny Burney at the Court of King George III 
by Hester Davenport.
Sutton, 224 pp., £25, June 2000, 0 7509 1881 0
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In March 1815, Madame d’Arblay, the woman we know better as Fanny Burney, was forced by the arrival of Napoleon from Elba to flee Paris and to leave behind almost all her possessions. ‘Books – Cloaths Trinkets – Linnen – argenterie Goods – MSS!!! All!’ When she reached Brussels, she wrote to her brother Charles: ‘Unless some speedy happy turn takes place, in public affairs here, we have lost all we possessed in France.’ There was, from her point of view, a happy turn: the Battle of Waterloo. As before in her life, she was about to become a witness to history, able to record the prelude to and the doubt-filled aftermath of the battle, just outside the city. Yet even after victory was confirmed, she told her sister Esther that she feared the loss of her manuscripts.

All the Mss I possess – all the works, begun, middled, or done, large or small, that my pen ever scribbled, since the grand Firework of destruction on my 15th Birthday … all our joint Mss of my dearest Father – his Letters – his Memoirs – his memorandums! – And all my beloved Susan’s Journals, & my own that she returned to me, with every Letter I have thought worth keeping, or not had the leisure for burning, from my very infancy to the day of my flight!

What would Burney’s reputation as a writer now be if all this paper had been lost? The four novels that she wrote had already been published, so her central literary achievement would seem unthreatened. There would have been regret about the loss of her plays, none of which was published in her lifetime. Yet her tragedies are crude and portentous (‘ludicrous’, Kate Chisholm admits), and the only one to have been produced, Edwy and Elgiva, seems to have been laughed off the stage. The comedies are better. A Busy Day has recently been staged and comes over as an engagingly brutal comedy of Regency courtship and manners. The Witlings and The Woman-Hater have some acid satire, particularly on intellectual pretension, but also have love-plots whose sentimentality makes them unperformable, except as acts of homage.

It turned out that when she and her sick husband returned to Paris more than two months later, all those pieces of paper were safe. Posterity would be denied only what, over the next couple of decades, she chose to destroy herself, notably the ‘Memoirs’ written by her father. Hating his candour about his humble origins, his neglect by his parents and his attachment to his second wife, Burney’s stepmother, she burnt most of it. It had been written when he was senile, she later untruthfully explained. What would have been an invaluable record of Charles Burney’s indefatigable efforts at self-advancement was replaced by her Memoirs of Dr Burney (1832), a canonisation of him and a celebration of her own literary career. (‘Fanny’s last novel’, Roger Lonsdale called it in his biography of Charles Burney.) Yet she recovered and left to us a hoard of paper that makes Burney a biographer’s dream: the letters and journals that she lugged back and forth across the Channel, and which at present constitute 15 volumes in a still incomplete OUP edition. Reading these recent biographies of Burney makes it clear that the letters and journals – the self-conscious record of a life enjoyed and struggled through – matter to the fiction, that her literary achievement would engage us less without them.

Certainly they are what make Burney such a biographable character. Not just because they constitute a ready source of information and quotation, promising access to her thoughts at every stage of her adult life: they also provide a running commentary on her times. She is a witness to George III’s derangement in 1788, sequestered with him and the Queen in the Palace at Kew. She attends the trial of Warren Hastings. She experiences the Napoleonic regime first-hand during an enforced stay in France between 1803 and 1812. In her teens and twenties, thanks to her father’s ambitious sociability, she meets and describes many of the characters of the age. She is befriended by Samuel Johnson and passes the days in Mrs Thrale’s coterie at Streatham. She records the bluestocking salons of Elizabeth Montagu (material for some savage vignettes in The Witlings). Garrick frequently turns up at the Burney home in Leicester Fields to entertain them with his impersonations. One evening Omai, the Tahitian tribal chief, comes to dinner (her brother James had been on Captain Cook’s second voyage). There is Joshua Reynolds and Richard Sheridan, and later Madame de Staël and Talleyrand. In her ostensibly private records of her life, Burney often keeps pace with current events and personalities, providing the biographer with the background as well as the foreground of a Life. It is as if she is already fitting herself into her times.

So it is no accident that two substantial biographies should appear within a year of each other, along with Hester Davenport’s account of Burney’s five hellish years at Court, as Second Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte. They join several other biographies on the library shelf. It is worth asking – as Harman and Chisholm, for all their virtues, do not – what Burney was doing composing, storing (and later editing) these supposedly confidential documents. They have almost none of the compacted obscurity of, say, Jane Austen’s letters, which had no thought of readers like us and often trust so wholly in a shared knowledge of family and acquaintances that they might be in a foreign language. Much of the time Burney’s letters and journals were angled for posterity. This can make even the keenest biographer suspicious. Davenport pauses to wonder how Burney is able to recollect ‘lengthy conversational exchanges’, but reassures herself with reports that ‘the Burney family were distinguished for their remarkable memories.’ Certainly, Burney has left us conversations that are often as full and as readable as any in her novels.

This is not to say that we must disbelieve the extraordinary record that she has left us. Even what we call her journals, invariably written in letter form, constantly involve the echoes and the corroboration of others. This is touchingly – occasionally embarrassingly – true in the dizzy days when she is being wooed by Alexandre d’Arblay. The two middle-aged lovers communicated in a home-made mixture of French and English. Burney preserved both their letters to each other and her eager reports back to her sister, giving an unparalleled enactment of an 18th-century courtship (seized on with particular delight in Harman’s biography). And sometimes, even while she writes volubly, she allows us to sense the extent of what cannot be said. There is the puzzlement in her accounts of men who appeared to be courting her, yet turned out not to be interested – or to be disguising an interest in another woman. There is the wariness that comes across in her recollections of intellectual gatherings chez Thrale. Against the grain of a biography, what is often most believable in the letters and journals is the limitation on what can be put down on paper.

Madame d’Arblay lived for a long time, and became ever twitchier about what she had written and perhaps revealed. In old age, she went at her own letters and journals with a will, burning some and erasing parts of others with thick inking and paste-overs. It was work continued by her niece and literary executor, Charlotte Barrett, who cut and pasted away while preparing her selected and improved version of her aunt’s papers. The ‘Burney Project’ at McGill University, begun by Joyce Hemlow, has been dedicated to recovering these censored passages and producing the standard edition for OUP. Infra-red light has penetrated most of the ink obliterations; over a thousand paste-overs have been floated away; the journals and letters have been transcribed. Hemlow herself supervised the 12 volumes of the later journals and letters (1791-1840) which appeared between 1972 and 1984. Lars Troide has been at work on the Early Journals and Letters since the 1980s; three volumes, of a projected 12, have been published, and another is imminent. It is slow progress, and all three of these biographers have made the pilgrimage to Canada to read the transcribed but still unpublished material. Indeed, it is one reason for Hester Davenport’s book, which covers a period that this edition has not yet reached.

Yet her book also has a problem. In the records that she left of her five years as Second Keeper of the Robes, Burney’s dispiritedness is evident. Dispiriting it can be for the reader too, thinking of the author of the fizzy, giddy Evelina and the drily observant Cecilia filling her days with the rituals of regal dressing and undressing, and the endless attentions to the Queen’s hair. The profession of ‘novelist’ did not exist for a lady, and Charles Burney had made his daughter abandon her potentially profitable comic drama, whose satire he thought would cause offence. So she had felt obliged to accept this post at Court, urged on by her father. Whenever the Queen’s bell rang (‘so mortifying a mark of servitude’) she had to hurry to attend to her. Worst of all, she was left ‘unremittingly’ in the company of Mrs Schwellenberg, the Queen’s favourite courtier and the ‘Cerbera’ guarding the regal gate.

Davenport catches the sheer uncomfortableness of much of life at Court. We see all the awkward postures into which Burney and others were forced, all the stupid conventions governing behaviour in the presence of the Royals. There was no sitting in the royal presence, no eating (even if a feast was laid in front of you) and no speaking unless asked a question. No one could show his or her back to the monarch, so reversing out of his presence became a necessary skill. Burney was unable to invite guests to dine with her privately, and obliged to ask the Queen’s permission to begin any correspondence. She was firmly told that it would be ‘unwise and indiscreet’ to communicate with the German writer Sophie von la Roche, a new acquaintance. She was instructed by a senior courtier that she could see ‘no fresh person whatsoever without an express permission from the Queen’.

Davenport’s account confirms the worst images that we have had of Burney’s time at Court: it was a palatial prison. It is no wonder that her heart failed her when, after her first six months of eventless servilities, another courtier told her: ‘You have now nearly seen the whole of everything that will come before you … the same round will still be the same, year after year, without intermission or alteration.’ It was also grim to be the monarch, denied all normal sociability. Burney recorded Queen Charlotte’s complaints of ‘the difficulty with which she can get any conversation, as she not only has to start the subjects, but commonly entirely to support them’. It is difficult to believe Alan Bennett could have conceived quite as sympathetic a version of the royal household if he had read this book, which makes it seem more like some terrible Sartrean purgatory, with the ‘mad business’ but an extra darkening of the ordeal. You can only cheer on the campaign by family friends to release Burney from her imprisonment. She was finally set free in 1791, taking with her the tragedies that she had written in captivity, her ‘Court Annals’ and, most important, an annual pension of £100.

As a teenager, Burney had begun her annal-making as a private diary and then developed the habit of sending letter-journals to Samuel Crisp, her mentor and a friend of the family – ‘Daddy’, as she called him. It was her younger sister Susan, though, who became her most important correspondent. Burney would send her monthly accounts of her life, which Susan would sew together into notebooks. These epistles were at once intimate and composed, and flicker with the pain of separation. A few years back there was a kerfuffle in the LRB about the significance of Jane Austen sharing a bed with her sister Cassandra – concluded by some evidence that the two had in fact slept separately. Well, Fanny and her sister certainly had shared a bed, and the fact was of some significance to them. Both Chisholm and Harman quote from a letter written three weeks before Susan’s marriage in 1782 to the ominously dashing Captain Molesworth Phillips. ‘There is something to me at the thought of being so near parting with you as the Inmate of the same House – Room – Bed – confidence – life, that is not very merrifying.’ (As often in her novels, Burney marks a point of pressure or irony with a neologism.)

The life went out of Burney’s letter-journals after Susan died in 1800. Harman records the marginal remark that, as an old woman annotating letters for her heirs, Burney added to a note that she had sent her father only hours before she was told of her sister’s death. ‘These were the last written lines of the last period – unsuspected as such! – of my perfect Happiness on Earth.’ She kept the anniversary, 6 January, as a day of meditation for the rest of her life. She even compiled a book of ‘Consolatory Extracts’ from which she would read on this day. It is in the Huntington Library in California, where Chisholm has read through it. Its sententious passages, many from leading bluestocking authors, are, she reports, ‘copied out by Fanny in an uneven, blotchy script as if written in great distress’. After Susan’s death, she was apparently unable to mention her name, even when talking to her husband.

Burney’s animosities have to be discerned by rather more careful reading of the evidence. Harman makes shrewd use of Memoirs of Dr Burney to find clues to its author’s true feelings in its very ‘manipulation and invention of biographical fact’. You can sense these when her sentences turn to frigid circumlocution (sometimes a stylistic vice of her novels). Here she is on Charles Burney’s remarriage to the widowed Elizabeth Allen, who seems to have cast a spell of sexual infatuation on her father and whom he married five years after the death of Fanny’s mother, Esther.

The four daughters of Mr Burney – Esther, Frances, Susan and Charlotte – were all earnest to contribute their small mites to the happiness of one of the most beloved of parents, by receiving, with the most respectful alacrity, the lady on whom he had cast his future hopes of regaining domestic comfort.

For the biographer, such stiltedness is wonderfully self-revealing. Burney never liked her stepmother, and you can hear as much of her true emotion as you like in the sheer awkwardness of ‘with the most respectful alacrity’. But in the turgidity of such prose there is also the cloying effect of what is always there in Burney: the concern for propriety, the fear of vulgarity.

Chisholm, whose greatest skill as a biographer is her art of quotation, provides a sentence from the Memoirs where Burney hints at ‘the second Mrs Burney’s lack of gentility’.

The friends of Mr Burney were not slack in paying their devoirs to his new partner, whose vivacious society, set off by far more than remains of uncommon beauty, failed not to attract various visitors to the house; and whose love, or rather passion, for conversation and argument, were of the gay and brilliant sort, that offers too much entertainment to be ever left in the lurch for want of partakers.

You can hear the dislike, but also the creaking of the prose as the writer tries to achieve a polite periphrasis. This merry widow from King’s Lynn readily offended Burney’s sensibility. Her novels are much preoccupied with failures of gentility, satirised with what modern readers would often call vindictiveness. In the first, Evelina, the preoccupation – largely by being transferred to the excited, ingenuous Evelina – surprisingly animates the novel. Most of the country-bred heroine’s letters are about London, a city of novelties, full of places of public entertainment. As Evelina strives to ‘Londonise’ herself, as she puts it, she must learn to distinguish between the elegance of polite consumers and the vulgarity of Georgian arrivistes. The latter do not recognise paintings, do not read books and talk loudly all the time (especially during plays and concerts). The vulgar are always boasting of their liking for refinement. Evelina is forced into the company of a silversmith’s family, the Branghtons, who grotesquely embody every mode of vulgarity and seem a deeply felt creation on Burney’s part. Unworldly as she might be, Evelina is genteel to her fingertips, and notices, in the pleasure gardens for instance, what the urban nouveaus cannot see. ‘There were many people all smart and gaudy, and so pert and low-bred, that I could hardly endure being amongst them; but the party to which, unfortunately, I belonged, seemed at home.’ ‘Pert’ is a deadly Burney-ism.

The hatred of vulgarity, so tested in the novel by a world of commercial pleasures, was rooted in Burney’s character. It was also relished by many of her readers. Recorded in one of Burney’s own letters is Dr Johnson’s appreciative exclamation at the success of the character of the Branghtons’ tenant Mr Smith, who speaks of himself as ‘a man who wishes to have things a little genteel’. Johnson was delighted by this ‘Holbourn Beau’: ‘such a fine varnish of low politeness! – such a struggle to appear a Gentleman!’ Mrs Thrale claimed to recognise just the type from her visits to one of London’s many new places of resort. ‘I know Mr Smith, too, very well; – I always have him before me at the Hampstead Ball, Dressed in a White Coat, & a Tambour waistcoat, worked in Silk.’ By some of her critics, like Mrs Montagu, Burney was herself accused of vulgarity for writing the novel. Certainly, the volume of her Early Journals and Letters for 1778 records the author’s own mixed feelings about the sudden success of Evelina. She felt ‘an exceeding odd sensation, when I consider that a Work which was so lately Lodged, in all privacy, in my Bureau, may now be seen by every Butcher & Baker, Cobler & Tinker, throughout the 3 kingdoms, for the small tribute of 3 pence.’ Her own book could be a thing of vulgar pleasure.

Evelina was certainly written by a snob, but one sharp-sighted enough to make her sense of propriety a virtue. Once she had owned up to the novel, everyone started thinking of her as a gimlet-eyed watcher rather than the bashful prude that she had seemed before. She was now ‘a sly, designing body’ who ‘looks all the people through most wickedly’, as Arthur Murphy put it. Hester Thrale thought that one unsophisticated family friend who had been reckoned a prospective husband for Fanny was ‘no Match for the Arts of a Novel-writer’. In her letter-journals, Burney is a more anxious character than the steely satirist that her acquaintances suddenly discovered in their midst. Having read Evelina, Johnson mischievously suggested that she write a comedy based on Hester Thrale’s literary circle, to be called ‘Stretham: A Farce’. Clearly she had what Mrs Thrale herself called ‘malice’.

Her achievement in her first novel was to write satire through the eyes – and in the voice – of an innocent abroad. The novels that followed have some strong satirical portraits, and, to the satisfaction of academics, develop some complicated ‘female difficulties’ (the subtitle of her fourth and last novel). Yet they never approach the zest of Evelina. Partly it is simply a matter of the judicious-sounding third-person narrative that Burney came to aim at. Here is our introduction to the heroine of her second novel, Cecilia.

But though thus largely indebted to fortune, to nature she had yet greater obligations: her form was elegant, her heart was liberal; her countenance announced the intelligence of her mind, her complexion varied with every emotion of her soul, and her eyes, the heralds of her speech, now beamed with understanding and now glistened with sensibility.

Though this is more articulate than other novels of the period, Burney’s paragon-by-numbers has just the properties to be found in any amount of post-Richardson fiction. All that beaming and glistening. She is put in interesting situations: an heiress, she has to survive the circling fortune-hunters. Yet she herself is not interesting. The life of the novel is all in its minor characters, several of whom are satisfyingly sour observers of fashionable life.

Cecilia is given peculiar ‘female difficulties’. It is a condition of her inheritance that she preserve her family name, and therefore that if she marry her husband should adopt this name, too. She falls in love with Mortimer Delvile, whose proud aristocratic family value their name above all else. Mr Monckton, an especially cunning fortune-hunter, is continually scheming to get her. It is not surprising that the novel, drawing much on the literary mode of wounded sensibility, features the nervous collapse of its protagonist. Getting through the ‘difficulties’ is troublesome. Chisholm notes that Burney found the novel hard to finish. Having completed three volumes, she wrote to Hester Thrale to say ‘the worse is, there must be another, & that I have merely begun, – for I could not squeeze all I had to do in 3.’ In the event, it was to take up five volumes. Yet it was much admired by contemporaries and did Burney’s literary reputation no harm at all. It was valued as a thoroughly refined and respectable novel. Some of what now seems inert was what first appealed. In particular, there is a vein of sententiousness that Burney was to pursue into her third novel, Camilla. She cannot, for instance, describe the energetically vicious Mr Monckton, who wears away his own health waiting for the death of the rich old dowager whom he has married, without pulling away for a lesson. ‘So short-sighted is selfish cunning, that in aiming no farther than at the gratification of the present moment, it obscures the evils of the future, while it impedes the perception of integrity and honour.’ We are rarely free of such teaching for long.

The sententiousness is writ large in Camilla, which Burney wrote in the early 1790s to help herself and her husband out of their money worries. Financially, it was a great success, but it must be one of the least read of ‘World’s Classics’. The periodic sentences of Cecilia have become cod Johnsonese and the moralisms are inescapable – not least because the supposedly flighty heroine is given as a potential lover a young man, Edgar Mandlebert, who is a constant and priggish monitor of her conduct. If we do not have his sermons, we have those of Camilla’s mother or clergyman father – literally so, as she and we are made to read ‘A Sermon’ in which he abstracts the lessons of her life into Christian orthodoxy. It does not even have the strange and mad elements of Cecilia, in which London is a genuinely frightening and violent place. The ‘female difficulties’ that we can sense in her letters – the awkward conversations at balls, the uncertain feelings about uncertain young men – are described in parody Rambler prose. Here is what we are told of the appearance of two pretty, untutored girls at their first dance: ‘Timidity solicits that mercy which pride is most gratified to grant; the blushes of juvenile shame atone for the deficiencies which cause them; and aukwardness itself, in the unfounded terrors of youth, is perhaps more interesting than grace.’ OK to be clumsy if you’re young and lovely, in other words. Chisholm gamely argues that Austen could not have been Austen without learning from Camilla, but it seems more likely that her achievement depended on getting away from it.

‘Fanny’s ability to speak directly to her readers is as true now as when her novels were fresh from the press,’ Chisholm writes. This seems clearly not so. It is more that her novels are historically fascinating compendia of the preoccupations and worries – about gentility, tastefulness, the trustworthiness of romantic feelings or the limits on female freedom – that run through the letters and journals. Chisholm makes a better case for the interest of Burney’s last novel, The Wanderer, which she wrote in her fifties, and which was shaped by the comparisons between Britain and France that had been forced on her by the Napoleonic years. The heroine, Juliet Granville, is on the run from a commissar of Robespierre’s secret police, who has forced her to marry him for the sake of her inheritance. Yet the England to which she flees is a place of fear and sometimes Gothic danger. To get her man, Albert, she must win him from a free-thinking feminist rival, Elinor Joddrel. It is not the only novel of the period to stage such a rivalry: Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda also does so. Chisholm, like many critics, grabs at Elinor, finding her ‘the most richly drawn of all Fanny’s fictional characters’ (though conceding that she is constantly ‘made to look ridiculous’). More convincingly, both she and Harman sense that Burney’s moralisms are, in this late work, unsettled by a kind of hankering for social justice and female freedoms that she has come to late in life.

Among Elinor’s several theatrical gestures are a couple of attempted suicides. Here again Burney’s fiction seems to send us to her life. There are suicide attempts in every Burney novel. The love-lorn Scottish melancholic Macartney in Evelina is persuaded by the heroine not to shoot himself. In Cecilia, one of the heroine’s guardians, Mr Harrel, driven to despair by debt, shoots himself in Vauxhall Gardens, while the heroine of Camilla also encounters a would-be suicide. Chisholm and Harman both note Mrs Thrale’s recollection that Burney’s brother Charles, recently expelled from Cambridge for stealing books from the University Library, ‘was actually discovered by his Sister Fanny in the desperate State mentioned of Macartney’. No evidence of this was left in the Burney papers, of course. Yet it is one of very many examples of preoccupations that keep returning to her fiction, seemingly pressed on her by the dramas of her own family. It is not surprising that the fiction has appealed to psychological interpreters, able to find in it the suppressed terrors or resentments that official moralism shrouds. Burney does not deserve such presumptuous readers, but her novels are often likely to seem less without her life, and the copious, gap-filled record that she left of it.

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Vol. 23 No. 18 · 20 September 2001

John Mullan (LRB, 23 August) paraphrases the Fanny Burney passage beginning ‘Timidity solicits that mercy which pride is most gratified to grant’ as ‘OK to be clumsy if you’re young and lovely,’ but what I get from the line is ‘the proud like to encounter the timid, because it gives them the opportunity to condescend,’ which by my standards, anyway, is both shrewd and nicely put.

Ian MacDougall

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