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Archive for March 19th, 2013

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Dear friends and readers,

When I finished this book I found I was enjoying it in the way I had enjoyed reading Burney and about Burney when I first read her — when I was 18 and reading a 3 volume version of her diary taken from Charlotte Barrett’s edition by Austin Dobson. I felt strongly sympathetic to Fanny especially in the last sad and deeply felt entries. So I thought I’d make a blog recommending it even if it is no longer a new book for most Burneyites or people interested in the area or women’s studies.

I write to recommend Davenport’s book on Fanny Burney d’Arblay at the court of George III. It’s one of the new books (for me) I chose for my reading towards my review of Volume 5 of Fanny’s early journals. From her book emerges a perspective on Fanny’s 5 years at the court I was unaware of and suspect has not been sufficiently emphasized in the reviews; of those who take the older or “first stage” view of Fanny in the modern scholarship (as Janice Thaddeus puts it); hers is a convincing and appealing portrait of Fanny as a women who did follow a conduct-book set or norms. I then try to explain why Davenport was able to made me feel warm towards Fanny as I had not done for quite a while, revivified in me the liking for Fanny I used to have when I first read Fanny’s journals when I was 18.

What’s original is the idea that two relationships Fanny had while Keeper sustained her and it was when they vanished, she became psychosomatically ill, unconsciously pushed herself into death rather than remain at court, and thus roused her friends and family to help her free herself of her life in perpetual service to the Queen. The first was Mary Delany, who was (it seems) largely responsible for Fanny getting the position in the first place. Fanny lives for these meetings she has with Delany, a woman of genius, an artist like herself, and when Delany dies, Fanny is devastated.

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Paul Sandby’s romantic picture of Windsor Terrace (one of the king’s houses) at night

The other was the courtship of Stephen Digby, the trajectory of which, ins and out, nuances and outward events, Davenport traces with care. Fanny really thought Digby loved her, felt deeply congenial with him, was thrilled by the high status (though careful to avoid being snubbed by his family, which attitude he didn’t understand and so was hurt when she did not come to visit the family castle when the Royal Family stayed nearby); nothing anyone could hint or say (particularly her man servant, Jacob Column, who detested Digby) could rouse any fundamental distrust.

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Stephen Digby by Joshua Reynolds (date unknown)

Further, as told by Davenport by no means was Digby all hypocrisy which I gather is becoming the consensus point of view. It’s said that like Cambridge, Digby never seriously considered marrying Fanny. The time he spent with her over several years belies this. Digby was really engaged emotionally and genuinely tempted and only towards the very end when perhaps they had had too much of one another without marrying and they had some misunderstandings, did he turn to Miss Gunning with finality. Digby was like George Owen Cambridge who similarly is presented as on and off again by Fanny: intelligent enough, sensitive, melancholy, just enough alienated form the stupidities and irrationalities of social life. From this point of view the relationship did not move into marriage because Fanny couldn’t act on what these men offered, did not know how to cope, only the overt direct, ceaselessly emotional d’Arblay could capture her.

It was not long after he disappeared Fanny’s condition turned deadly.

It was not that she did not value serving the king and the queen; again as told by Davenport and shown in Fanny’s own words, she clearly did. But it was a distanced relationship demanding self-effacement and repression on her side which was utterly stifling to her deeper private self, the one Proust so famously said was the important “true” self. Madame d’Arblay and Monsieur Proust where they count for us and for themselves live in the same terrain here.

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Trial scene of Warren Hastings: Fanny a major witness during and after her time at court

Which leads me to the second perspective, one which shapes this book: Davenport makes a strong case for regarding the 5 years at court not as a loss but gain. For 5 years of work, Fanny gained 55 years of pension which enabled her to marry; the queen was centrally instrumental in providing Fanny’s son, Alexander, with a Tancred scholarship to Cambridge. It helped her brother, James, become an Admiral after years of being passed over (just before he died). The years brought her into contact with fascinating events and a made her into a independent woman (even if as a court servant) who was given fine quarters, servants, and a good deal of free time to write even if hardly any day was completely free of a schedule of tasks. She stays in fine places, has a summer by the sea. Meets interesting people. Everything she wrote testifies to how much she valued the position, the royal family; she learned to be a polished fine lady there. There is no proof she would have written another novel during the five years, and if she had, would that have been valued for more than adding another line to a biography.

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Kew — another of the three houses Fanny lived in, from 1735 print in Dugdale

What Fanny has been valued for and made her written about is her time at court and connections. Her way of weaving her own life in with the signal events she saw close up makes them alive. Would five years more of tea-drinking, visitings, and bluestocking gossip have been better?

I realize this resembles the kind of justifications one comes across of governess servitude for poor gentlewomen, but in this case she is not just a governess of children in an obscure household. Further, Davenport is clever or sound enough to do justice to the other nowadays conventional standpoint and a much more critical one: Fanny did rightly feel imprisoned without air to breathe or anything to live for because cut off from her family and friends and close emotional ties; she was isolated from her status and the court atmosphere, one of intrigue which she tried to keep away from (as beyond her). That such a job could destroy someone like her, especially subject to the bullying of Mrs Schwellenberg. The Queen was capricious, not open, Fanny didn’t dare small talk. She was not of high enough status to get any extended vacations to visit friends and family.

Davenport does not dismiss the conventional ambitious perspective either. Novelists were not respected, especially not women. In the first phase (earliest) Fanny was Keeper of the Robes, she may have been buoyed by the prestige and hope she could actually perhaps help her family, and compensated a bit by her beautiful quarters, servants, periods of free time. Fanny was respected. Davenport’s insinuation that Fanny was exaggerating her misery does slide us into her strong pro-monarchical stance (at moments unself-consciously idealizing). She does see how the queen controlled her daughters so much that they led infantile lives and some were never permitted adult independence, but the year 1789 is described simply as filled with “terrible” events. Everything about the revolution is quickly deplorable. Davenport is a partisan for Hastings, like Fanny, turning him by implication into a benign misunderstood scapegoat — when he was a tough, controlling, exploitative man (he likes to take his lower colleagues’ wives).

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Clare Harman identifies this as a portrait of Fanny in later life — after 1812 say.

Why did I finish and find I’d enjoyed it so? The portrait makes effective emotional as well as practical sense of Fanny’s whole life, the time before the court, and importantly the time after when Fanny did all she could to maintain her court ties and the royal family when it could reciprocated. Davenport’s book includes an opening chapter about Fanny’s life and family before she entered the queen’s service (a sort of prologue) and several chapters about her life afterwards. Like Clare Harman, Davenport does justice to Fanny’s later years. The journals from the later years are quoted to great effect: Fanny did become warmer, less inclined to laugh at people. I remembered the moving passages when Fanny’s husband, close siblings, and then her son predeceased her. I agree with her Fanny’s face in John Bogle’s portrait with its wistful “amused quizzical expression,” not a beauty, slightly pursed lips, a “marking” face is that of an individual not a generic beauty with great hat.

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I’ve one more book to read, Janice Thaddeus’s Literary Life before I return to Volume 5, skim, outline it and write.

Ellen

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