Too Many Pears

Thomas Keymer

  • The Court Journals and Letters of Frances Burney 1786-91, Vols III-IV: 1788 edited by Lorna Clark
    Oxford, 824 pp, £225.00, September 2014, ISBN 978 0 19 968814 2

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.

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