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The Court Journals and Letters of Frances Burney 1786-91, Vols III-IV: 1788 
edited by Lorna Clark.
Oxford, 824 pp., £225, September 2014, 978 0 19 968814 2
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When​ Frances Burney’s journals were published by her niece in a seven-volume series of highlights (Diary and Letters of Madame d’Arblay, 1842-46), they were savaged by John Wilson Croker in the Tory Quarterly Review. Hatchet jobs were Croker’s speciality: it was his review of Endymion that Byron joked was the cause of Keats’s death in Don Juan (‘’Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,/Should let itself be snuff’d out by an article’). Burney was already dead, and Croker let rip. The diary was just gossip ‘treated with all the pomp of history’; its author displayed ‘the most horse-leech egotism that literature or Bedlam has yet exhibited’; the work as a whole was ‘nearly the most worthless’ ever published. Croker also alleged self-serving embellishment, perhaps even fabrication. His charges were reinforced when the heirs of the famous bluestocking Mary Delany – a cherished mentor of Burney’s who had corresponded with Richardson and Swift – accused her of lying, and made caustic asides about ‘Madame d’Arblay’s well-earned position as a writer of fiction’.

‘Frances d’Arblay’ by Edward Burney (c.1784)

‘Frances d’Arblay’ by Edward Burney (c.1784)

But Victorian Britain came round to the Diary and Letters, and in the process venerable Madame d’Arblay (she married a French émigré in 1793) was rebranded as sprightly, girlish, domestic Fanny Burney. Only with the feminist revisionism of the 1980s did the patronising diminutive ‘Fanny’ vanish from the title pages. The earliest, weightiest defence of the book came from Thomas Macaulay: his counterblast to Croker in the Whig Edinburgh Review was written to settle a private score, but he was sincere in his admiration. He found in the diary the same qualities of observation that in 1778 had made Evelina, in his view, the first important novel by a woman. He valued its uncluttered prose – its freedom from the Johnsonese and Gallicisms that had marred Burney’s late style. The diary’s cast of household names excited Victorian readers in the same way that Boswell’s Life of Johnson did, or a Thackeray novel in which characters encountered Addison and Steele in taverns. Someone famous was sure to turn up on each page: Joshua Reynolds, perhaps, or Mrs Siddons, or mad King George III. The diary gave ‘fresh colours to the pale and faded portraits of past ages’, a reviewer for the Gentleman’s Magazine wrote. It wasn’t long before readers began rating the diary above the novels, and when further extracts covering Burney’s youth were published in 1889, the acclaim intensified. In an influential biography of 1903, Austin Dobson declared that he couldn’t understand why Macaulay hadn’t pushed his case further. Dobson ranked the diary ‘high above Mme d’Arblay’s efforts as a novelist’, not least because it seemed, for the most part, so effortless. It combined Evelina’s dramatic strengths with ‘the further advantage that it is true, and that it deals with real people’. Burke, Garrick, Sheridan and the rest ‘stand before us in their habits as they lived, and we know them more intimately,’ Dobson concluded, than any of the characters in Burney’s novels.

It’s tempting to dismiss this shift in opinion as Victorian philistinism, a frivolous preference for anecdote over art. There’s certainly a parallel to be drawn with Johnson’s reputation in the same era, when the ‘personality’ on view in Boswell’s Life – pugnacious, tea-swilling, manic-depressive – came to eclipse the author of Rasselas and the editor of the Rambler. The crucial difference is that Burney’s career as a novelist, which had started so well – she followed Evelina with Cecilia in 1782 when she was still barely thirty – fell into abeyance for 14 years until the massive, glacially paced Camilla. By that time Burney’s prose style was ‘tarnished’, as Virginia Woolf put it (‘its leaves were fluttering and falling profusely to the ground’), and her early proto-feminism had hardened into conservatism. There are no Burney novels, in other words, from her early middle age, when other writers of the era (Austen, Wordsworth) were at their most creative. Nor are there any Burney novels from the moment when the shock of political revolution transformed the genre, both for so-called ‘Jacobin’ novelists like Godwin and Wollstonecraft, and for their non-radical interlocutors.

The diary – or, as the Oxford edition more accurately has it, The Court Journals and Letters – is what she did instead. Between Cecilia and Camilla, Burney experimented with tragedy, and a play in verse that she began writing in 1788, Edwy and Elgiva, was staged in 1795 – but most of Burney’s energy went into the journals. Perhaps she always had posthumous publication in view: near the end of her life, she sorted, purged and annotated her ‘myriads of hordes of MSS’ before bequeathing them to her niece. Burney served as Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte between 1786 and 1791, a situation in which the dubious activity of novel-writing was out of the question (Edwy and Elgiva, with its theme of regicide, was kept secret), so she turned to diary-keeping. Lorna Clark’s meticulously documented edition covers 1788, Burney’s most prolific year at court (600 pages in manuscript; 220,000 words). It is the centrepiece of a complete edition that now supersedes the heavily abridged one edited by Burney’s niece and published in the 1840s. Hundreds of pages of deletions have been restored, along with thousands of lines struck from the manuscript by Burney herself.

Her failure to have anything published often comes up in the journals. She is dismayed when Sheridan accosts her during the trial of Warren Hastings and urges her to write him a comedy for Drury Lane; she cuts him off mid-compliment. On another occasion a fellow courtier puts the Morning Chronicle in front of her, open at the gossip page: ‘The literary silence of Miss Burney at present is much to be regretted; no novelist of the present time has a title to such public commendation as that lady; Her characters are drawn with originality of Design, & strength of Colouring, & her Morality is of the purest & most elevated sort.’ At times like these, Burney’s anxiety, even panic, revived the trauma of the publication of Evelina, when her attempt to remain anonymous was thwarted. She had been unmasked in print by a minor satirist named George Huddesford, and was ‘shocked, mortified, grieved and confounded’ by the experience. At one point in the diary she draws on the language of the Confession of Sin (‘one who had done what I had done’) in a description of her early ventures into authorship: ‘my incog[nito]: intentions defeated.’ She says she dislikes being referred to in works by others, and that she dreads ‘any thing, every thing, that brings me forward into Print’. Throughout the diary she defends Johnson’s one-time confidante, Hester Thrale Piozzi, who had been ostracised after marrying her daughter’s music teacher; Burney even intercedes on Piozzi’s behalf in a custody battle. But she’s scandalised when Piozzi cashes in on her friendship with Johnson by publishing their personal correspondence, and vexed when she discovers she is mentioned in it: ‘Mrs. Thrale, in one of the Letters she has most improperly published … says, to Dr. Johnson, “Burney has picked up an Infidel [the irreligious Lydia Rogers White], & recommended to her to read Rasselas –”.’

Burney didn’t abandon literary ambition. She thought of Edwy and Elgiva as therapy for the ennui of royal attendance, but she also must have known that tragedy wasn’t her genre. Siddons, who played Elgiva, so disliked the verse that she ad-libbed lines of her own: ‘The Audience were quite angelic,’ she said of the play, ‘and only laughed when it was impossible to avoid it.’ Burney was committed to the journal not just as a repository, but as a form. She celebrates its effects of artlessness like the heroine of a Richardson novel: ‘writing to the moment’ means her report is unshaped by retrospection or premeditation; ‘writing from the heart’ is how she characterises the almost cardiographic outpouring triggered by an exchange of letters. ‘How well may this writing Daily & to the moment, shew my beloved Susan and my Fredy [her sister Susanna and a friend, Frederica Lock] the present freedom of my Mind from agitation,’ she writes in an early passage. Later she speaks of offering ‘a window to my Breast’, Momus-style.

She is thinking of the journal quite differently, though, when she calls it ‘my Epic prosaic Performance’: with ‘performance’ she echoes the great letter writer Mary Wortley Montagu, for whom a letter was always theatrical, a satirical set piece or display of wit. ‘Epic prosaic’ recalls Fielding’s manifesto for the novel in Joseph Andrews: a ‘comic Epic-Poem in Prose’, a neoclassical genre that would give shape to personal struggles and public themes. For Burney, the contingencies of experience threatened to inhibit perfection of form, and she acknowledges as much when she shrinks from the moment: ‘Let me now finish – if ever that may be, – my Narration.’ Yet she works to endow the year with narrative shape. She begins ‘this new Year with writing to the moment’ and ends it ‘perfectly composed’.

Burney’s writing process was highly self-conscious. There are what she calls her ‘alives’: brief letters to intimates, typically functional, often dashed off in lulls during attendance on the queen. Then there are her daily memoranda: candid, fragmentary but copious notes on court life – ‘memoranduming scraps’, she calls them at one point – which she then wrote up. The memoranda are intensely private, but dried up at times of emotional strain, such as the death of Delany. The missing experiences were reconstructed in retrospect: ‘a general sketch’, she calls her account of one month, ‘for I kept no journal, not even a memorandum’. She abandoned the memoranda when the king’s first bout of madness disrupted the life of the court. ‘I have now no more fair running Journal – I kept not now even a memorandum for some time – but I made them by recollection afterwards, & very fully, for not a circumstance could escape a memory that seemed now to retain nothing but present events.’ There’s something novelistic in the mismatch between tense and deixis (‘I kept not now … a memory that seemed now’). Often the journals were written up a year or more after the events they describe, then immediately sent to Susanna, who received the journals for November and December 1788, for example, in January and February 1790. The immediacy is still there in them: they often portray a writer grappling with unresolved experience, ‘tormented with a sort of indefinable perplexity’. But they also possess a layer of considered analysis; and though Burney always resists explicit prolepsis, sometimes they’re coloured by events that have taken place between the original memorandum and its revision. ‘Troublous Times’ (from the Book of Daniel) is her summary comment in the December journal on the king’s descent into madness, which was already destabilising state affairs. But the institution of monarchy was in much deeper trouble in 1790 when Burney wrote those words. The Gothic style of her response to George’s condition – ‘nothing before us but despair & horrour!’ – has an unmistakable, albeit implicit, political inflection.

Historians​ have been mining the 1788 journal since it was published, not only for its account of the onset of George’s madness (which was at first thought to be merely physical, caused by eating too many pears) but also for its commentary on the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the ousted governor-general of Bengal. Charged with reporting proceedings to the queen (the princesses were there, Burney notes, but incognito), she enjoys a ringside seat, and though she claims not to have political expertise (‘by no means a female business’), in her account of the trial she sides firmly with Hastings. She refuses to see the occasion, which took place in Westminster Hall, as anything more than a spectacle (the tickets, the opera glasses, the fashion statements), and reports the histrionics of Hastings’s prosecutors with disdain. (Sheridan gave a five-hour speech before collapsing in tears of exhaustion into the arms of Burke.) Fox is ‘violent’, Sheridan ‘florid’, Burke ‘cruel’ – though Burke is also the most compelling of the Whig orators arrayed against Hastings, and ‘the whirlwind of his eloquence nearly drew me into its vortex.’ Nearly, but not quite. When Burke approached her, expecting her to praise him, she asked him to justify some of the wayward phrases in his speech, such as ‘Geographical morality’. Burke responded ‘with an air so full of respect, that it quite shamed me’.

Macaulay was appalled by Burney’s stance at the Hastings trial: ‘The truth is that she had been too long at Court,’ he wrote, and was ‘sinking into a slavery worse than that of the body’. She’s certainly reserved on the subject of the monarchy, and expresses her sense of entrapment by projecting it onto others, such as the friend who ‘scrupled not to lavish the most open censure upon the narrowness and illiberality with which I was shut up from my friends & the world’. Fellow courtiers are caught by Burney’s lash, notably the atrocious Mrs Schwellenberg, an Angela Merkel-like operator who had run the queen’s household for decades, and who, when not tormenting underlings at court, relaxed in the company of her pet frogs: ‘A commendation ensued, almost ecstatic, of their most recreative & dulcet croaking, & of their Ladder, their Table, & their amiable ways of snapping live flies.’ Burney doesn’t allow herself this licence when it comes to the king and queen. Her gratitude is poker-faced when Charlotte ‘most graciously presented me with a very delicate filligree tooth pick case’, even though, as Clark notes, in Cecilia this accessory is an emblem of vacuous affectation. Nor can she write directly about George’s madness: during one attack he is ‘all agitation, all emotion, – yet all benevolence & goodness’. Increasingly, his state defies expression. When the king is confined, Burney’s role, again, is to report to the queen, and though she has access to more information than anyone except the king’s own physicians and senior male courtiers, ‘all is now too fearful – & intricate, – for writing a word. – I begin to confine my memorandums almost wholly to my own personal proceedings.’

The court journal slides into the territory of the courtship novel, the genre pioneered by Burney and later perfected by Austen. It has the right cast: spiteful, domineering Mrs Schwellenberg, who plays Lady Catherine de Bourgh to Burney’s Elizabeth; tremulous, inconsolable Miss Port (‘her poor swelling Heart’), whose name, it turns out, is Marianne; and a procession of sentimental military men, all melting at the poems of Cowper, which they mine for chat-up lines. The difficulties posed by Burney’s various suitors become the journal’s main subject: there’s the ambiguous, commitment-phobic George Owen Cambridge, with his endless, indecisive ‘paradoxical puzzling’; leering, maladroit Mr de Guiffardière, who attempts to bully Burney into bestowing her attentions; and tender, melancholy Colonel Digby, ‘in whose Character the leading trait is the most acute sensibility’. None of these men is entirely legible to Burney, and all seem uncertain in themselves, presenting her, as she says in Digby’s case, with ‘obstacles difficult to surmount, because difficult to ascertain’. If she’s able to end the 1788 journal on a note of closure, with the political crisis intensifying and her mind in turmoil, it’s not because the obstacles have fallen away, but because she has made the choice to leave them where they are. ‘I plainly feel myself devoted to singleness … to all this I am perfectly composed.’

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Vol. 37 No. 18 · 24 September 2015

Thomas Keymer claims that there are no Frances Burney novels ‘from the moment when the shock of political revolution transformed the genre’, and that ‘her early proto-feminism had hardened into conservatism’ (LRB, 27 August). Burney began work on The Wanderer in the late 1790s, after the publication of Camilla, although it was not published until 1814. I can’t think of a book more marked by the French Revolution: set during Robespierre’s ascendancy, the nameless heroine disguises herself as a black woman in order to flee from France, only to discover in England a repressive social system where she comes under more insidious forms of attack. It would surely be truer to say that few writers were more engaged with the revolution’s challenges to identity, gender relations and every other social structure. Burney claimed to eschew politics, but made clear in the book’s dedication how well she understood the relation between political history and the contemporary situation: ‘To attempt to delineate, in whatever form, any picture of actual human life, without reference to the French Revolution, would be as little possible, as to give an idea of the English government, without reference to our own.’

Clare Bainbridge
Crediton, Devon

Readers bemused, as Frances Burney seems to have been, by Mrs Schwellenberg’s frogs and their ladders might be interested to learn of the 17th and 18th-century German fashion of keeping tree frogs to forecast the weather. The idea was that, mimicking their behaviour in the wild, as good weather approached the frogs would climb the thoughtfully provided ladders to catch insects that flew higher in such conditions. The frogs were, in effect, supposed to function like primitive barometers. W.G. Sebald makes reference to these weather-forecasting frogs in his poem ‘Barometer Reading’:

Nothing can be inferred
from the forecasts

Tree frogs
are ignoring their ladders

I understand that German weather forecasters are still known as Wetterfrosch (‘weather frogs’).

Richard Carter
Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire

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