Alethea Hayter

  • Frances Burney: The Life in the Works by Margaret Anne Doody
    Cambridge, 441 pp, £30.00, April 1989, ISBN 0 521 36258 X

In a spirited attempt to forestall criticism, Margaret Doody warns her readers that they may ‘feel horrified at what they they regard as a changeling-substitution of a mad Gothic feminist for the cheerful little Augustan chatterbox’ which is the conventional picture of Fanny Burney. Stimulated to anger by past biographers who see Fanny Burney as sunny and shallow, ‘dear little Burney’, who class her with, but below, Jane Austen, who are interested only in Evelina and the Journals, Professor Doody sets out to present an altogether different version. ‘Burney’, or ‘Frances’, as she alternately and rather confusingly calls her subject, was a different kind of writer from Jane Austen, more like Dickens or even Hardy. She should be judged on all her works, and more on the plays and later novels than on Evelina and the Journals. Violence, anxiety, grotesque farce and brutal jokes pervade her works. ‘The search for identity, egoism, embarrassment, self-destruction, emotional blackmail’ are listed as the subjects that interested her most; ‘drift, inconsequentiality and anti-climax’ as her constructive principles. Revolt against the pattern of female submission laid down in the contemporary courtesy manuals, and an ardent advocacy of self-dependence, are detected as master themes in all the novels and plays.

Fanny Burney’s relationship with her father is seen as the dominating influence in her life and in her writings. Professor Doody disclaims any intention to make Dr Burney the villain of the piece, but that is in fact what she has done. She expatiates on his hypocrisy, complacency, secret rapacity, devious obsequiousness, egoism, lack of sympathy for his children’s difficulties, and possible latent homosexuality. His pressure on his daughter to suppress socially unacceptable ideas in her writing, his forcing her into the prison of her Court appointment, are seen as betrayals.

It is ironic, in the face of this severe judgment on Dr Burney’s part in his daughter’s story, that his biographer Roger Lonsdale saw Fanny Burney as the villainess in her father’s story. In Dr Charles Burney he accused her of conscious dishonesty and ruthless egoism in her Memoirs of her father, in which she was found guilty of having schemed – by omission, distortion and outright invention – to enhance her father’s moral reputation, her family’s respectability and her own importance. It seems a pity that Burney biographers should feel they can only exalt the devotedly attached and mutually admiring father and daughter at each other’s expense. It is hard to recognise Dr Burney, whose magnetic charm of personality enchanted all his contemporaries and made his children adore him, in the hard-hearted hypocrite in whom Professor Doody asks us to believe. ‘Nobody is so much beloved,’ said Mrs Thrale of him. But she also said, ‘The Family of the Burneys are a very surprising Set of People,’ and so indeed they were. It would be possible to make a gloomily Gothic scenario of scandals and disasters out of their family history. Fanny’s eldest sister was born before her parents’ marriage; her younger brother Charles was sent down from Cambridge for stealing library books; her stepmother was violent and tyrannical; her half-brother Richard was shipped off to India for some unnamed crime; her brother-in-law Molesworth Phillips was a bullying and unfaithful husband; her elder brother James had an incestuous relationship with his half-sister. It sounds like a Mrs Radcliffe family in a castle in the Apennines, but in spite of these events the Burneys were a cheerful and devoted clan, closely-knit in a web of affectionate laughter and tribal catchwords and incessant letter-writing. Dr Burney cannot be made to fit into the Gothic mould of a Montoni or Schedoni, looming over intimidated and helpless offspring.

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