John Mullan

  • Fanny Burney: A Biography by Claire Harman
    Flamingo, 464 pp, £8.99, October 2001, ISBN 0 00 655036 3
  • Fanny Burney: Her Life by Kate Chisholm
    Vintage, 347 pp, £7.99, June 1999, ISBN 0 09 959021 2
  • Faithful Handmaid: Fanny Burney at the Court of King George III by Hester Davenport
    Sutton, 224 pp, £25.00, June 2000, ISBN 0 7509 1881 0

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.

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