Dear friends and readers,
A third blog on the ASECS at Cleveland, one which also continues a series I’ve been writing on Frances (Burney) D’Arblay’s life-writing. As with my previous, this is just on one session. The papers were so good I managed to take more detailed notes; the second half of this blog I dedicate to providing more context by summarizing a few recent papers which are overturning a perspective on Burney’s life-writing which prevented real analysis of what’s there from going forward: Burney (FBA) may be said to have written 4 novels, the 4 traditional ones (three very fat) and a 25 volume novelization of her life.
This is the conclusion I had come to after reading through the fifth volume of the Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney (1782-83), as edited by Lars Troide and Stewart Cooke, which I’m now going through slowly. As I realized in front of me were writing from at least six different sets of years, all intertwined, some obviously rewritten, interpersed with letters by others (saved by Frances or provided by an editor or editors), and accompanied by notes from different editors, I began to wonder what it was I had in front of me and how many people at different times wrote it.
The “bouleversant” perspective as outlined below allows for a whole new way of approaching the life-writing. It becomes possible to apply to it techniques hitherto reserved for the fictions. Many of our close reading techniques (coming down ultimately from I.A. Richards) depend on the idea the text is imaginative, creative, and the sites or conventions of character, setting, theme (&c) seemed inappropriate for history based on some kind of factual truth. Now we can for example, look at how Frances D’Arblay used epistolarity in her final arrangement of her books. The real problem in treating his massive new “fiction” will be it’s so large. Critics and scholars will necessarily have to deal with a couple of volumes or one phase of her life at a time.
The Burney Society session began at 9:45 and there were 3 papers. Lorna Clark’s “Burney’s Methods of Narrating the Court Experience”, a result of her long work on 2 volumes of the court journals, came first. A summary (as far as I could manage it):
Frances Burney (D’Arblay) is one of the UK’s great diarists; within a few years of her death, her life-writing began to be published, first by Charlotte Barnett, a sanitized censured abridged version of 6 volumes. Kate Chisholm expressed the traditional view that what they represent was the work of a reporter, a keen observer who witnessed so much.
A new preliminary view from Clark’s own work on 2 volumes is redefining the nature of the text, reshaping our view. Contrary to the view taken of her years at court, Ms Clark suggests that the most creative and crucial years of her writing years are those at court. Burney wrote more than at any other time. Dobson pointed out that the 5 years at court take up 2 1/2 of Barrett’s 6 volumes. If we look at our present 25 rescued ones, the court journals represent 25% (or 1/4). Though the court journals are presented as a chronological account written to the present moment (the phrase is first Richardson’s), that’s a fictional device. Burney wrote up her journals 12 to 15 months later; they are creative, diverge to make into wish fulfillment versions of what happened. She would hoard notes she made obsessively, compulsively. She was herself someone who loved spontaneity and found the obsessive control of the queen’s court killing. We can see how she built up her texts fro her reaction to a meeting with George Owen Cambridge (who she had fantasized about since 1782), which he instantly hastily retreated from. Burney evades this realty, streetches out the drama into several phases (referring later on to a heart-to-heart communication). She takes his avoidance as him conforming to customs, and hiding original serious intentions. It’s an artificially heightened, carefully crafted account. This process is repeated in her depiction of her encounters with rprosecutor, William Wyndham, at the trial of Hastings; she turns these into full-scale arguments about Hastings which she wins.
She has two people for her audience and critics of her court journals: her beloved sister, Susan Burney Phillips, and her close friend, Frederica Locke; these would arrive in instalments many months after the events had occurred. Susan would respond to the tale as if she didn’t know the present situation, but only in terms of what’s narrated, most of the time as if she didn’t know what was to come, as if it were a novel. Frances was actually producing a pathetic sorrowful text. She’d write of the early days of her relationshiop with Stephen Digby much later by which time Digby was already married. What we have is a memoir developed in tranquillity [using Wordsworth's not altogether appropriate term here]; not something written to the moment where she doesn’t know what the future will bring. Claire Harman uses the phrase “super-retrospective:” we have someone not letting go of the past.
We see her doing this in 1812 where she tries to catch up to what’s happening. Frances echoes Boswell: she felt she could enjoy nothing without relating it. Again there had been 10 years where she was removed from relations and friends, this time interned in France.
If you compare the actual manuscripts to Barrett’s edition, you disover she sanitized in favor of the bland. Barrett removed the intensely effusive, the trivial and petty, some purely family news; some harsh criticism from Hester Thrale Piozzi, from the woman who married Goldsworthy (another courtier); pruned tediousness, repetition; anything too obviously egoistic. Barrett marginalized the male attention FBA made central to her stories. The summer at Cheltenham where the relationship with Digby (as a kind of Orville) is so central is cut entirely, including sentimentalized discussions, his reading of love poetry to Burney, lyrical passages of serenity, tender scenes of parting. All expunged. What FBA likes most to write about is what is removed. What appears to be a journal of George III’s illness is a journal of Digby’s courtship of FBA, which is structured as a romantic comedy in the vein of Evelina and Cecilia.
What we have is multi-layered complex re-structured life-writing
adrift in time, someone writing intensely while in isolation. The 5 years at court improved her technique enormously; she worked out something of a system for writing. After she was released from court, she quickly recovered from her depression. The court years were crucial, and what has been suppressed was we have here one of the UK’s great fictional writers masquerading as a diarist.
Elaine Bander’s paper, “Fanny, or a not-so-young lady’s entrance into the world,” was an account of FBA’s time at court from a perspective very different from that of Hester Davenport.
FBA entered the court at age 34; she was separated from her family, with no hope of marriage, her father delighted; Mary Delaney wanted FBA near her. Frances expressed her intense anguish to Susan alone; it was an exile from the country retreats at Chessington with “Daddy Crisp” where she had been so happy (a home free of the stepmother); at Mickleham with Susan, at Norbury Park with the Lockes. The ritual and customs of the court meant she had to devise strategies to get alert time to herself. the 1st year: a primary scene of battle was Mrs Schwellenberg’s tea-table. Visitors preferred to talk to Burney; FBA much preferred to spend her time with Mary Delaneybut was not able to. The way Burney survived was to sit there silently, which shocked Mary Delaney when Delaney saw it. Frances told Susan she tried to free herself by remaining aloof.
The 2nd year Burney renewed her resolve to make the best of her life; Peggy Planta (another courtier) told her they all longed to be free of the tea-table, but Delaney warned Burney not to try to make changes without the queen’s permission. In her earlier life Burney liked social assemblies, was eager to make new acquaintances; this delight in the world continued until 1784-86 when she begins to express frustration with the duties of social life. Burney began to find uncongenial the preoccupation with what’s expensive, dress and surveillance. These years saw the conflict with Hester Thrale emerge; Burney would not visit her in Bath, could not acknowledge that Piozzi was acceptable. So Hester Thrale Piozzi dropped Frances. George Owen Cambridge seems to be a real suitor, but he never declared himself. They enjoyed one another’s company sometimes deliriously; as years went on the relationship mutated; he was invited to parties and then for months he’d be absent. Frances felt the bluestockings watching her became insupportable.
So Frances began a campaign to extricate herself from her father’s socializing; she would say how tired she was. One 1784 letter shows her longing for quiet, to be by herself in the quiet, Norbury seems a refuge from George Owen Cambridge too. This new replacemtn for Chessington was lost when the Queen’s offer came; it would be 5 long hard years before she regained it.
Geoffrey Sills’s paper, “Journalizing as epistolary fiction” carried the story to 1789, the year of the Court journal he is editing.
Building on Lorna Clark’s paper in the Age of Johnson on “Epistolarity in Burney,” he showed her characteristic techniques and moods as an epistolary narrator. Her writing and sending journals to Susan was more than therapeutic; she “aimed to enlist her readers’ sympathy, to reshape reality, not reflect it.” The journal’s real emphasis is the romance; FB ignores US and French revolutions, and the madness of George III mostly.
Lorna Clark tells the story of Digby’s courtship of FB. Digby’s family was socially well above Burney’s, but he was the 5th child in the family so not about to inherit a lot of money. His wife died; as he appears in the journal, he is pessimistic and melancholy when it comes to thinking about achieving happiness in life. Life resembles the “grotto of grief” in a Spectator paper of 1712. Burney’s taste did not always turn to the gothic; when she heard Walpole’s Myserious Mother read aloud, she declared it “truly dreadful” from “the atrocious guilt:” the play’s themes include incest between a son and mother, and Fb showed an indignant aversion to this “wilful” story. Another courtier, M. Charles de Guiffardiere (the queen’s French reader called by her Mr Turbulent) troubled her too with his sense of the depravity of human nature; he once grabbed her wrists to see what she was writing so she erased what she had.
The summer at Cheltenham enabled her to escape Guiffardiere and construct Digby as an ideal hero. George III’s illness figures as part of her romance. Digby burnt whatever papers he wrote; Burney presents him as a potential serious lover who stays in her room to escape the socially stultifying world; she records her emotional conflicts at night. By 1789 she was looking to Digby to rescue her; the possibility was remote; she was told about Charlotte Gunning but refused to believe Digby would marry Gunning; she insisted to herself he would remain unmarried except if forced by his family or Miss Gunning. But in December 1789 a letter from the queen with a wedding present for Digby forced her to face reality.
The several phases of her presentation of Hastings’s trial: Hastings had come to stand for ruthless colonialism; it had been expected that Pitt would stop the impeachment, but he did not. The trial lasted from 1788 for 7 years; a third to 2/3s of the peopele had died and the tide turned against making Hastings a scapegoat. Claire Harman compares FB’s recording to a transcript that appeared in the news; instead of seeing that she is miraculously getting down word-for-word just as the reporter, it could be she took the report and rewrote what she had. This enabled her to pose as a chronicle of the time; yet we know that she sent off some version to her sister & Fredy Locke quickly after the trial scenes were done. At the same time Susan was sending very long very well-written journal letters to Frances.
The texts are prisms, many sided narratives where you are locked into the stories, but once you go outside and have someone else’s take or evidence, it contradicts FBA. Charles Burney loved the second wife whom Frances claimed he never liked.
The discussion afterward was lively and provocative (I did think of Cecilia’s project in Book 5 of that novel to leave off wasting time with “undermining” people and read much more), but I thought instead of recounting what was said I’d cite a number of texts by the people giving papers and others which argue for the same or supporting points of view on FBA’s life writing.
Claire Harman’s literary biography on Frances Burney D’Arblay is the first book centrally to use the idea that the life-writing is brilliant imaginative rewriting and journalizing. This was very courageous of her because at the time Lars Troide was the controlling force of the editing staff and he insisted in his volumes and essays that the texts were all historical records, perhaps fixed a bit, but essentially history. He kept to the story of a miraculous memory and that line of argument dominated as did he for at least a decade. Harman’s is also a very enjoyable insightful book which unlike all but Hemlow does justice to Frances D’Ablay’s later years. Julia Epstein’s The Iron Pen had voiced the idea without elaborating.
Lorna Clark has three articles in this vein: “The Diarist as Novelist: Narrative Strategies in the Journals and Letters of Frances Burney,” English Studies in Canada, 27 (2001):283-302; “Epistolarity in Frances Burney,” Age of Johnson 20 (2010):193-222; “Dating the Undated: Layers of Narrative in Frances Burney’s Court Journals,” Life-Writing Annual 3 (2012):121-42. “Epistolary” goes over the use of epistolary techniques like those we find in Richardson, which partly accounts for the immediacy of the texts, as well as how the writing of the texts themselves becomes part of the story. “Dating the Undated” seems to me the most important because there Ms Clark from her long experience of editing shows how FBA wrote her narratives much later in time, sent them to Susan who responded as a good critic-novel reader; the two were collaborating in the re-writing of FBA’s life “in a way that answered her deepest needs.” A “turmoil” is continually going on beneath the surface of all her journals; in the court years she “remains deeply traumatized and fixated on the failure of her first love affair, and her rejection by George Cambridge. When she realized that Digby would not rescue her, she broke down altogether and began her campaign to escape through illness.
Earlier accounts include Ingrid Tieken Bouvan Ostade,”Stripping the Layers: Language and content of Fanny Burney’s Early Journals,” English Studies, 72:2 (1991):146-59. Remarkably because based just on a real reading of the first of Lars Troide’s Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney, Ostade comes to the same conclusions as Clark and all the others I’ve cited here. She carefully distinguishes the different layers which is helpful. Here I should not omit John Wiltshire’s “Journals and Letters” in the recent Cambridge Companion to FB, ed. Peter Sabor where based on 3 of Troide and Cooke’s EJL, Joyce Hemlow and her team’s 12 volumes and filling in with Ellis and Dobson’s editions from the papers and Barrett Wiltshire sees clearly that what we have is a many layered multi-voice fictionalized life-writing.
I had high hopes for two further articles which disappointed me. One by Kathryn Kris, “A 70 Year Follow-up of a Childhood Learning Disability: the case of Fanny Burney,” The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 1983 (34):637-53, I thought might be of real help, from a psychoanalytical periodical, supposedly showing her compulsion to write the result of her 8 year dislexia and the humiliations it caused; it made a little stir in Burney studies, where people acknowledged she was “onto something,” but then anxiously hurried to deny FBA was disabled permanently or even at all. The essay itself was written in such a mild tactful it was almost useless. It didn’t convince because Kris was unwilling frankly to discuss FBA’s lifelong writing of her life as a fictionalized novel where much that we have is made up and starting with the court years written much later with the addition new habit of going back to earlier years and rewriting these to some extent too.
I also thought I’d like Linda Lang Peralta’s “Clandestine Delight: Frances Burney’s Life-Writing,” in Women’s Life-Writing: Finding Voice/Building Community (Bowling Green State University Press, 1997):23-43. Peralta’s idea — very reasonable — was that the persona or mood and attitude of FBA changed over time. I’d noticed this many times and know I prefer the later FBA, especially the woman who wrote the journal-letters of her time in Europe where she follows, stays near, and finally rescues her husband from Waterloo. Her later writing is more emotional, franker, more openly melancholy and yearning. But Peralta is taken by the work of Mary Field Belenky which purports to give a scientific documentary basis to Carol Gilligan’s book on a different psychology and development for women. The problem is it’s not scientific; Belenky claims too she did this working out with a team of women who wonderfully came to the same conclusions. It’s all Utopian (one can see that some of the women dominated over the others) and the schemes are too rigid and upbeat. The essay is good when it does into specifics, e.g., accounting for say Burney at the time she rejects Madame de Stael upon the advice of her father, but as a general account is not persuasive.
Among other things, what is happening is the Burney people are admitting that John Wilson Croker’s famous attack on Burney that it was impossible for her to have remembered so much, and the work was a fiction. Also the assertions of the few who had themselves witnessed the events told in the diaries or knew people who had and had told them something of them that FBA’s account was very far from an accurate record. We need to say that the value of the writing is in its imaginative realization.