- 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.
With the ‘intense and demanding relationship’ between Fanny Burney and her father as a guiding motif in the interpretation of her works, Professor Doody finds father-substitutes, good and bad, in many of the characters in the novels and plays, and coins the phrase ‘daddying’ for Fanny Burney’s supposed use of fictional father-figures to take the pressure off her ‘emotional incest’ with her real father. Older women, benign or malign, in the novels are revealed as coded versions of Freud’s Death of the Mother; sexual puns and images are detected in the most innocent-sounding sentences, and it is implied that there would have been still more had Fanny Burney not been consciously aware that she had to avoid sexual meaning or innuendo – though elsewhere it is suggested that women and homosexual writers then used codes which they themselves could not ‘readily crack and explicate, but were intuitively serviceable as images of unconscious or half-conscious feelings’.
One of the leading themes of the book is that Fanny Burney was a feminist writer. The central figure in all her novels is a young woman entering the world and learning to cope with it. It is contended that whereas the normal Bildungsroman showed the heroine being taught by her own mistakes, and ending happily because she has learnt to conform with courtesy manual standards, Fanny Burney’s heroines grow up by perceiving the falsity of society’s codes of female conduct and by learning to think for themselves and become self-dependent. ‘Women writers ... are constantly engaged in trying to rearrange the androcentric culture in order to make sense for themselves and each other, and Burney is certainly engaged in this operation.’
If this operation is not very evident in Evelina, it becomes increasingly so in Cecilia and Camilla, and reaches its full force in The Wanderer, whose subtitle is Female Difficulties. That The Wanderer has been unjustly underrated and neglected is one of Professor Doody’s main contentions, and though she may not convince many readers that it is anything but a very bad novel – with an unbelievable heroine, a wooden hero, much fustian dialogue and a series of disjointed exemplary episodes rather than a plot – she has called attention to some extraordinary and interesting elements in this ambitious failure, pre-eminently to the strident figure of Elinor Joddrel.
This young woman, indeed a ‘mad Gothic feminist’ whatever her creator was, has been converted during a sojourn in Revolutionary France into a philosophe and a contender for the Rights of Women; she despises public opinion, disbelieves in religion and the afterlife, and claims the right to propose marriage to the man she loves, whether or not he returns her affections. Her suicide threats, and wild and interminable harangues, hardly make her a sympathetic standard-bearer for the feminist cause, but she is certainly an unusual creation, and it is arguable that, though she is not the heroine of the novel, her creator’s attitude to her is ambivalent rather than disapproving.
By this stage in her career Fanny Burney had, as Professor Doody shows, more or less abandoned the use of the authorial voice, and now guided her readers as to which of her characters merited moral approval by what might be called the ricochet method – that they are disapproved of by the foolish or malevolent characters in the same novel. She sometimes even employs a double ricochet to allow her to stand still further back from the reader. When the vulgar but not unlikeable Mr Hobson, in Cecilia, describes the high-flown philanthropic maxims of the exalted Albany as his ‘whisky-frisky manner’, Fanny Burney may be mocking not only Hobson, but Albany, the Johnsonian style, even herself. When the frivolous but delightful Lady Honoria, in the same novel, makes fun of the hero as a mother’s boy, are we hearing Fanny Burney in impartial mood, observing both sides with equal amusement, or, as Professor Doody would have it, being given a disguised but unmistakable hint that the hero is, indeed, and is meant to be, too much a mother’s boy? When the cynical Mrs Arlbery, in Camilla, disparages the hero Edgar Mandelbert as a cold-blooded distrustful spy, is Fanny Burney indicating that anyone criticised by Mrs Arlbery is bound to be virtuous, or is she, as Professor Doody thinks, providing a clue that Mandelbert’s mentor Marchmont is the real villain of the piece, and his male-chauvinist attitude the true object of his creator’s wrath? It is not every reader who will want to pursue quite such labyrinthine interpretations of the novelist’s possible intentions, and this book does sometimes make one see a vision of the spectres of Freud and Mrs Pankhurst hovering over poor Fanny Burney prostrate on a psychiatrist’s couch chained to the railings.
We are asked to believe that she was a Jacobin as well as a feminist. Cecilia is presented as an allegory of social revolution, Marxist avant la lettre. The plays ‘question the systems of social behaviour and prescribed responses’. The French Revolution had invaded the mental territory of all writers and readers in the 1790s, turning fixed images into the shifting lights and scenes of the Eidophusikon shows which, by a ‘telling coincidence of history’, were among the most popular novelties of the time. A culture-shock had altered the internal climate, as well as the external political boundaries, of all Europe, an effect comparable to that of the Holocaust on all our minds today.
When we try to fit Fanny Burney’s works into this outline, and to see her as a challenger of society and institutions on behalf of working-class rights, it does not really work. Cecilia includes a fringe of the Deserving Poor, but they are introduced simply to show off the compassion or callousness of the upper-class central characters. The Wanderer does depict some of the Undeserving Poor – thieving seamstresses, boorish farm-labourers, poachers, smugglers – but they are still only a fringe. The heroine, like those of other contemporary writers who depict them as reduced to earning their own living, remains a perfect lady throughout her experiences among the shop-assistants and farm-hands, and ends up restored to her ‘proper station’ as an earl’s daughter. A comparison with, say, Mrs Gaskell’s Mary Barton reveals the slenderness of real social concern in Fanny Burney’s novels. It is only possible to see her as a ‘Jacobin’ by ignoring the evidence of her journals and letters, in which she does indeed show humanitarian concern for individual hardships, distaste for social hypocrisy and oppression, and scorn of insular jingoism, but also a detestation of popular violence such as the Gordon riots, and an acceptance of the broad framework of established institutions. She was a devout Christian, and in the main a loyal monarchist, though that did not prevent her from describing the embarrassments of royal etiquette with good-tempered derision. She was an eclectic, making up her own mind on every aspect of society, not a conformer to the Right or the Left, and she did not think it either courteous or prudent to flaunt her opinions. As Joyce Hemlow says, in the most authoritative of all the many biographies of Fanny Burney, ‘the woman of brave and independent mind, the rebel and the pioneer, is not always distinguished by flamboyant challenges to the conventions.’
The attempt to place Fanny Burney in the van of the attack on established institutions is not convincing. Perhaps the ubiquitous bogey of ‘contemporary relevance’ is raising its ugly head here: it is assumed that we can only identify with Fanny Burney if she can be accredited as a 20th-century feminist and social reformer. The rigid boundaries of ‘contemporary relevance’ constrict, and even insult, readers and audiences. It is assumed that we have so little historical curiosity and imagination that we feel no interest in experiences and emotions unlike our own; that we can only sit through Shakespeare’s plays if the actors wear jeans and wield machine-guns, only be cajoled into reading Chaucer or Milton if they can be shown to have been kind to whales and anti-imperialist.
‘Will the World value the notions of Those of other Times?’ Fanny Burney wondered at the beginning of her career as a writer, when she first confronted possible reader-reactions to the moral maxims in Evelina. A generation later, faced with readers’ revulsion from The Wanderer, she could only hope that the book would be better appreciated when it was ‘read fresh, and free from local circumstances of a mischievous tendency’. It is amusing to find Hazlitt, of all people, criticising The Wanderer as an out-of-date picture of a Rights-of-Women freethinker, a figure who by 1814 could only act on readers as ‘an historical antidote to any lurking remnants of poisonous doctrine’. The poison has today become the tonic, and an attempt is made in this book to get the antidote to work in reverse, but Fanny Burney’s plea that her works should be read ‘free from local circumstances’ deserves to be respected.
Frances Burney: The Life in the Works is a closely-woven, elaborately-textured book with a well-defined pattern and purpose. It is not meant to be a straight biography; it is assumed that readers will already know the main facts of Fanny Burney’s life, and external background details – where the Burneys lived, their occupations, their social activities, their friendships and households – are mentioned only when relevant to the main purpose of the book. Nor is it exactly a critical study of Fanny Burney’s technique as a writer, though it offers many illuminating insights on her use of the authorial voice, her word-play with puns and anagrams, her ‘use of counter-climax, frustration and retardation’ to make wild and fascinating eddies in the forward movement of the narrative. The novels are a web of misunderstandings, the classic plot-extending mechanism from Desdemona’s handkerchief to the modern detective story. Fanny Burney is equally ingenious in devising occasions for misunderstandings, and obstacles to their éclaircissements; her heroines are always longing for confrontations and explanations, but are continually thwarted because the other characters will not listen to what they do not want to hear. On such aspects of technique, Professor Doody has much to say that sharpens the reader’s response, and she says it in phrases and images that are often memorably vivid, as when she scorns filial piety as ‘the oozy luxury of obedience’, or speaks of the ‘large pale bricks’ constructing the high 18th-century style, or tells us that Fanny Burney was not interested in ‘examining creatures of the deep; she looks to the point where the ripples break.’
Neither biography nor critical study, this book is defined in its subtitle, The Life in the Works. The novels and plays are used as ‘evidence in a biographical study, treating them chiefly as psychological documents in Burney’s emotional history’. An intensely scrutinising eye has been turned on every character and incident, to single out every incarnate metaphor and secret intention. The only aspect of Fanny Burney’s work which is conspicuously absent from this study is her humour. Though her life had a high proportion of suffering and loss, it always flickered with amusement. She was a laugher; as a young girl she often had to hide her fou rire behind a newspaper, and all her life she had difficulty in controlling her giggles at solemn moments. She was well-equipped to make literary use of her laughter. She had a memory like a tape-recorder; she had learnt mimicry from watching Garrick amusing the Burney children with his impersonations; she had been coached by her mentor Samuel Crisp in the habit of unaffected journal-writing. So armed, she could transport into her books the ludicrous incidents and complacently idiotic monologues which had amused her, and they became a large element in the popularity of her works. A few years before she died, she described an absurd scene in which, bundled up in shawls, she was inserted into a royal coach by a posse of pages and footmen, ‘no doubt, inwardly sniggering when they saw ... such a Figure of Fun! However, I am always so well pleased when I can be beguiled into a little simper myself, that I am ever ready to rejoice when I can produce a sly smile, or an honest Grin, or an unguarded Horse laugh in any of my neighbours.’