Archive for March 16th, 2013

Fanny Burney as painted by John Bogle in 1783

Dear friends and readers,

Since sometime in January when an editor contacted me with an offer of Vol 5 of The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney (ed. Lars Troide and Stewart Cooke, 1782-83), for me to review, I’ve been reading Burney’s fifth volume and dipping into other of her diary and journal volumes as well as her novels and reading critics and scholars about her and a number of the central people she dramatizes or writes to in this volume. In a few days I’m going to force myself to write the review. I say force because I’ve not come to any conclusion about what perspective to take, or even quite what is my stand on central issues of Burney studies, even though I’ve written quite a lot about her, both conventional publications and on the web.

Since it’s a case of her non-fiction writing, the first question is how fictionalized are the journals? It’s not a question of what happened, but rather the emphases in the presentation, changes of detail (which would be important) and Fanny’s biased and self-defensive understanding of what happened. I incline to Claire Harman’s view that Fanny Burney’s preternaturally strong memory is a myth. “Self-conscious, attention-grabbing” vivid reconstructions of what she remembered mixed with imagination, her 24 volumes represent “creative autobiography.”

I realize this is not a popular stance among faithful Burneyites and in the volume at hand which represents the young Fanny, the way say George Owen Cambridge half-courts and keeps away from Burney is so puzzling and enigmatic, so half-shown, filled with things not susceptible to explanation beyond that it happened, her text here is in fact a reflection of what was said and done.

George Owen Cambridge (1756-1841)

It’s also true that while in some cases what we know of a happening otherwise recorded only by Fanny belies her account in others the two cohere. Still so much is retrospective and partisan stories of fabulous “tape-like” memory (decades later) arouse common sense scepticism. Of course part of the reason for this continued adament idea (especially in Troide) that the diaries are transcripts of reality has been their value has been their factual nature, their authenticity and it’s hard to give that up — even if only in part.

Clare Harman says she wants to unpick the layers that went into Burney’s journal and letter writing, but how does one do this when for the most part Burney is the only witness of her scenes and thoughts.

The second question is what makes her writing valuable, and inevitably since they are distinct, are the novels where her greatest genius and interest for content lies or are the journals and letters. I used to say I was one of those who preferred the life-writing, but now that I’ve read so much more of it, I see many flaws. She misrepresents people (blind to them and especially some close ones, like her father), her retrograde political views (or sometimes no political understanding beyond narrow partisanship) get in the way of her describing what she sees (Hastings’s trial, riots); her fiction becomes increasingly stilted as she ages.

OTOH, her non-fiction writing is one of the most vivid and sheerly alive word styles I’ve ever come across. As Patrica Meyers Spacks says, the novels are what betray her anger at women’s position and condition; her protesting women may be castigated or punished, but these women characters say and experience feels true and just, is expressed eloquently, concisely, pithily. Her saturnine meditations are as complex as Samuel Johnon’s. Relatively trivial events occur in the life-writing, crucially significant and understood to be so in the fiction.

Margaret Anne Doody says we must try to be adequate to the depths of apprehension and complicated thoughts in Burney. From my attendance at the recent day-long Burney conference I know readers of Burney value her hard comedy, the mockery and raucous burlesques, and don’t flinch at her anti-feminism; also valued are her critiques of capitalism vis-a-vis women: FB and the Marketplace, Love and Money.

Miss Austen as subscriber to Camilla, perhaps the first time her name appeared in print


What are the central topics and people of Volume 5. It covers her correcting Cecilia, writing its fair copy and its publication; Burney’s reporting on and reaction to the wild screams of praise everyone seems to shower her with (much of it hardly sincere or thought out for real).

Recent edition

This is oen of Hester Thrale’s view of Cecilia whic she did not send Frances:

Her new novel called Cecilia is the Picture of Life such as the Author sees it: while therefore this Mode of LIfe lasts, her Book will be of value, as the Representation is astonishingly perfect: but as nothing in the Book is dervied from Study, so it can have no Principle of Duration — Burney’s Cecilia is to Richardson’s Clarissa — what a Camera Obscura in the Window of a London Parlour, — is to a view of Venice by the clear Pencil of Cannaletti.

But equally she also sent ecstatic praise and enjoyment that can hardly have been faked (Vol 5, pp 48-52:

Such a Novel! indeed I am seriously & sensibly touched by it, & am proud of her Friendship who so knows the Human Heart … This Letter is written by scraps & Patches, but every Scrap is Admiration & every Patch thanks to you for the Pleasure I have received … Had I more Virtue than Cecilia I should half fear the Censures of such an Insight into the deepest Recesses of the Mind

(I’ve been reading the Blooms (editors) on Hester Thrale Piozzi; also Spacks, Norma Clarke, MacCarthy, Clifford)

What money she did or did not get for the book.

Her family including her sister, Susan’s marriage. Her cousin Edward’s attraction to her. Her very ambivalent relationship to Hester Thrale by this time a widow in love with Piozzi. Burney does seem to me to lie to Hester Thrale and give her hateful daughter, Queeney, an advantage.

Hester Thrale Piozzi (1790s, by George Dance)

Johnson as a burden she feels loyal to: he is very old and sickening, dying and, unwilling to suffer fools (irascible), ostracized, often alone. Visits with the bluestockings, with Burney signaling out Mrs Vesey as absurd, Anna Barbauld as dull.

Betty Rizzo gives solidly persuasive corrective analyses of a number of the women who feature in Volume 5, including Mrs Elizabeth Vesey, Mrs Mary Delany, Mrs Montagu.

Mrs Elizabeth Hancock Vesey

The meeting with and first intense friendship with Mrs Mary Delany and intense hostility of Delany’s niece’s daughter who edited (expurgated, censored) Delany’s autobiography and letters.

Mary Granville Pendarves Delany when young

I’ve a good biography on hand, Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden, and one article, not very critical of Delany — Verna Linna, “A Passion for Botany, A Passion for Art,” Eighteenth Century Women, 1 (2001):203-35, accepting her complacency. My view: Delany was an artist, a scientist of botany in effect, a genius in a different area than Burney and thus they came together.

Above all throughout the volume George Owen Cambridge’s on and off again courtship with his father, Richard’s similarly enigmatic behavior. (Ive read Stewart Cooke on George Owen Cambridge twice now.) During the time of this diary one sister (or daughter) is dying. He really is leading her on. His father is clearly for it too. A problem in reading this one is it is very artful – as Austen’s is not. So I think she is showing us that there are several places where GOC is not as sensitive, perceptive as she and takes cant and coarser views of things. Edgar Mandlebert’s watching, scrutinizing, seeking to control Camilla as he distrusts her is Fanny’s reading of GOC’s behavior when it was she who watched, scrutinizing, wondered what GOC would be at. Hester Davenport’s analysis of Fanny’s analogous thwarted relationship with Stephen Digby, the king’s high equerry and courtier in later years shows how someone acting like GOC could tie Fanny up in knots, leave an indelible searing misery on her mind. Digby was very like GOC: highly intelligent enough, melancholy enough, sensitive too, just enough alienated from the stupidity and irrational demands of social life.

Burney does not make her irony or hidden views explicit. A rare moment is where she has presented what Soames Jenyns (introduced to Fanny) said he thought (so much at a loss because so many people about) and what she feels he really felt; “I dare say, if the truth was known, it was my silence & gravity that disconcerted him.” So you have to give her credit where she does not give it to herself explicitly. Her insistent detestation of discussing politics as if she had no opinion, but she does have one which comes out and Montagu tries to discuss it with her. Was it considered unlady-like or is this conservative reaction?

General issues throughout the volumes to consider:

Drury Lane, 1775 (modern version of older illustration)

No longer easy to tell which writing Burney meant as private (she and one other person) and which as semi-confidential (she within a group of select people). Whose eyes she meant something for is important, but then she did plan to publish after her death so it is finally everyone’s. I’ve read Peter Sabor and Lars Troide’s history of the earlier scholarship of the fiction and non-fiction

A comparison of Austen and Burney is fruitful:

Burney artful, Austen immersed in reality; Burney implicitly continually self-defensive, Austen partisan. Burney can write disinterested literary criticism, Austen can’t or won’t. Burney can talk about art disinterestedly including her own in critical terms of her era; Austen goes on and on about literal versimilitude and which characters she’s fond of, occasional pointer to themes. Burney has wonderful dramatic vignettes making sharp social critical points, capturing daily life. Austen’s vignettes capture her own reaction, personal private, bodily sense of people, emanates from the gut. Fanny enjoys while satirizing social life, Austen studies it from askance point of view.

Burney a town person, knows rich, famous, well-connected, real geniuses; Austen a country person and knows only her narrow circle, often fringe people. You never hear Burney mention servants or truly marginalized people when they are large elements in Austen’s life and non-fiction. Consider Madame de Stael introduced Burney to her husband, and it was Burney who ended the intimacy; Austen was too uncomfortable to meet Stael in the first place. Austen’s life more like Anne Hunters, Ann Radcliffe’s.

Austen left Mme Bigeon whose picture we do not have (Sylvie Herbert played the part in the film) £50

Burney has terrific editors, Austen the editor-as-family-friend, Deirdre LeFaye.

Males who mattered: for Burney, her father, Charles Burney; James Crutchley (perhaps an illegitimate son of Henry Thrale: Burney’s cousin, Edward Burney; George Owen Cambridge, Stephen Digby; Alexandre d’Arblay. For Austen: Thomas Lefroy, Samuel Blackall (?); probably Harris Bigg-Wither (about which proposal we know almost nothing), her brothers, but centrally it’s Frank; someone unknown, a clergyman met one summer season (though maybe this is myth); Edward Bridges, perhaps Charles Haden. Then women, Austen with perhaps lesbian leanings: Martha Lloyd; and then friends with Anne Sharp, Madame Bigeon. Close sister relationship: Cassandra. For Burney: Susan herself a fine perceptive writer too; then Maria (badly married), Hetty, Charlotte (and her daughter, Burney’s editor); outside the family, Mary Delany, Hester Thrale Piozzi; Anna Ord, Fredy Locke; she let her father ruin her friendship with Stael.


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