Archive for November 17th, 2014

An 18th century trunk

Gentle readers and friends,

Now where were we? I hope you have not forgotten the Burney Society Biennial Conference? We had reached the later afternoon. Due to the unexpected popularity (sense of exclusion) that actuated large numbers of JASNA people to join the Burney people to listen to Juliet McMaster’s “Female Difficulties: Austen’s Fanny and Burney’s Juliette,” and the time it took for them all to obtain coffee and/or tea, and snacks, Prof McMasters was forced to rush through her talk and leave little bits off. Luckily I heard it again in the very late morning the next day so can convey the gist of what she said and a few notes. In the later evening after dinner at the Burney conference members performed scenes from Burney’s Love and Fashion.

The next day, Friday morning, the Burney group were given a tour of the Burney Centre at McGill: at the McGill center we saw all the tools and papers and microfilms and microfiches at the scholars’ disposal and were told something of their procedures. Catherine Parisian’s talk ended the conference. She linked The Wanderer to MP (both published 200 years ago — as well as Edgeworth’s Patronage, Scott’s Waverley) she mentioned the War of 1812, Napoleon’s abdication, but her focus was Burney’s life that year.

To begin with Fanny in MP and Juliette in The Wanderer:

Fanny’s trip with Mrs Norris in the carriage (dramatized in Ken Taylor’s BBC 1983 MP)

Prof McMaster’s most remarkable insight made me see Mansfield Park anew: she suggested that Mrs Norris so loathes Fanny because Fanny was to be her way of having a child with Sir Thomas; things go awry immediately in the first carriage ride where Mrs Norris finds Fanny’s personality to be deeply antipathetic to her own; Fanny’s crying and yielding personality sabotages Mrs Norris’s project and she hates her ever after. If you reread the 1st and 2nd chapters, you see a lot of language which supports this thesis. Prof McMasters brought the two novels together in the context of other women’s novels of the era also about women in distress: we also know Austen’s high opinion of Burney’s work from Northanger Abbey. In both novelists nature is a moral force, where the heroines endure trials demanding the greatest fortitude. In Fanny Price we see dramatized the pain of enforced passivity (we also see this in Anne Elliot); Burney’s Elinor Joddrell does not accept this kind of role, fiercely resisting this socializing, but when she is rejected for her rebellion, she tries to kill herself. We do find a free spirit in Mary Crawford, but note that it is Fanny who is the catalyst in the scene between Mary and Edmund in the attic where they act out of the lines from Inchbald’s Lovers’ Vows. Fanny knows deep mortification, distress, gnawing jealousy as she is bullied and pressured into accepting a role in the play taken on for its usefulness in erotic exploitation. Juliette’s adventures are as harrowing as those in a Hardy novel, reflecting the French upheaval, the nameless Juliette is hurled from job to job, showing the same reluctance as Fanny to display herself in public (she gives up means of support); her wanderings include an eloquent depiction of the blighted lives of seamstresses. Fanny is forced to come out of silence; Juliette is silenced for volumes. Juliette may be a picture of perfection, but she is jeered at in public; she hates making money, it’s embarrassing. It seems what gets in their way is their “delicacy,” their fear of exposure. She ended on the thought that now in 2014 that we females have left these paths of avoidance and repression no matter what the cost, we find new hard difficulties.

I move to the concluding moving (poignant) matter of Frances Burney’s 1814:

Norbury Park

Prof Parisian’s chosen topic was “Frances Burney in the year 1814,” and she showed what a tough year it was for Frances. Charles Burney died and Frances finds that her father’s wish that the estate be divided equally is thwarted by her brother, and nephews; the sales of The Wanderer are poor, part of the run destroyed. Burney has her £2000, but her husband remains in France (he had visited for 4 weeks but had to return while hoping for an ambassadorship); he has an appt with no pay, and Burney foresees that his health will not hold up (he was to die painfully of cancer in 1817). Her beloved and now dead sister, Susan’s oldest son died, and a crushing blow, Camilla cottage is sold, and she can do nothing about the money she sunk into the place as she has only a lease on the land. Her long-time friend Fredericka Locke sides with her son, saying that the cottage does not belong on the big estate. Frances goes on to endure penurious circumstances, sharing quarters with Charlotte over Sloane Street (they have no visitors, no carriage). Her apparently apathetic son, Alex incurs expenses;the only alternative for him is a military career in France, but this is unrealistic given what he is. (He is presented as hopelessly unworldly but I wonder if there is something else here: was he a homosexual man? autistic and disabled?) Burney begins to sell things to make ends meet. D’Arblay wrote a letter to the Lockes that offended and Frances intervened to smooth things over, but here she is a mature adult but finds she had no rights (over Camilla cottage) and where she has (her father’s wishes at least) cannot act in court on her own behalf. The bright future she had hoped for her older years did not happen.

How can I bring these papers together? Austen’s life also began to go seriously awry a year later, in 1815 when Henry went bankrupt and she began to show the first symptoms of her fatal illness. There is a mad abuse of Fanny Price in Mrs. Norris’s fierce castigating antagonisms, matched by scathing censure Juliette experiences in the worlds she wanders through. Perhaps it is not overstating to say these novels are expressionistic mirrorings of the inner and outer lives of their authors and their own enforced (and for Austen soon fatal) passivities.

Bath where Austen and Burney both lived — contemporary photo of a bridge Austen and Burney both knew well


I regretted very much that I was not able to stay for the performance of Act I, scene 2 of Burney’s Love and Fashion though I had read the play. This is an area of talent Burney was not permitted to allow to flourish and develop. Only recently have her plays been edited and even played:

From a performance of The Witlings; a review of another performance (Houston, Feb 1998)

I can at least contribute Doody’s accurate reprise in her The Life in the Works:

Love and Fashion … is a stageable play … with many good things in it. Burney here uses the circumstances she had once sketched as the ground plan of the novel that became Camilla — the story of a family plunged into poverty, and the different members’ reactions to the change. Lord Exbury, his daughter, and his younger son Valentine are impoverished because of the extravagance of his elder son, Mordaunt Exbury. The family is forced to move to a humble dwelling in the country. Lord Exbury’s ward, Hilaria Dalton, good-hearted but volatile, flippant, and worldly, has doubts about life in the country, and is torn between Love (for Valentine) and Fashion, in the prospects offered by marriage with the wealthy if unpleasant Lord Ardville. Hilaria, who seems more like the original “Ariella” than does the ultimate heroine of Camilla, goes very near making the same mistake “Clarinda” almost makes, marrying a disagreeable old peer for his money. But Hilaria has little capacity for sentiment or self-reproach and a very strong sense of what she wants. When the fop Sir Archy Fineer woos her for” old Lord Ardville, her mind runs on the attractions of the life Ardville can offer:

Hilaria. Is it not provoking one can’t marry a man’s fortune, without marrying himself? that one can’t take a fancy to his mansions, his parks, his establishment, — but one must have his odious society into the
Sir Archy. But think how soon you’ll be free.
Hilaria. No; I hate to think about people’s dying.
Sir Archy. But you don’t hate to think about people’s being comfortably wrapt in fleecy hosiery, –reclined on an easy chair, & unable, by the month together, to hop after & torment their fair Mates?
Hilaria. Why no — that is not quite so disagreeable. But, really, poor Women are cruelly off: ’tis so prodigious a temptation to be made mistress in a moment of mansions, carriages, domestics — to have Time, Power, & Pleasure cast at once at their disposal —
Sir Archy. And where is the cruelty of all this?
Hilaria. It’s [sic] accompaniment is so often discordant! If the regard of Lord Ardville be sincere —
why can he not settle half his wealth upon me at once, without making me a prisoner for life in return?

One recognizes in Hilaria the tone of the Frances Burney who had thought that “a handsome pension for nothing at all would be as well as working night and day for a salary.” Hilaria, analyzing the situation in which marriage is a lady’s only way to come at mansion, establishment, power, and pleasure, mocks and (with the help of Sir Archy) caricatures the powerful but strangely impotent and unnecessary male who can command all this data, and she has the same desire for choice that other Burney heroines have. She carries forward the theme of woman’s choice — of libido, if you will — so marked in Burney since Evelina first laughed in the fop’s face, and refused to dance with the man she found unattractive, intending to choose one she liked. Hilaria, of course, has to come about. When she hears that Valentine has been ruined at play and is being pursued by a bailiff who wants to arrest him, she accepts Lord Ardville’s present of jewels, in order to free her true love, even though that means she must accept Lord Ardville. Her act of self-sacrifice is misinterpreted by Valentine, though she is persuaded to break off with Lord Ardville by Valentine’s homily: “You wish … to unite Love with Fashion? … The happiness of true Love is domestic life: the very existence of Fashion is public admiration” (V.i.204-20S). Lord Arville, in order to get out of the embarrassment of being considered “a disappointed Man,” will not take back the jewels, pretending they were a free gift and that he had no particular interest in Hilaria. She gives the jewels to Lord Exbury, and from them, presumably, the family debts may be paid-a dubious transaction, sorting ill with the moral that ends the play: “What is there of Fortune or distinction unattainable in Britain by Talents, probity, & Courage? … Has a Man hands, & shall he fear to work for the Wife of his choice?” (V.iV.233).

Independence achieved through work — this moral is similar to that of The Witlings … Love and Fashion reflects Burney’s own pride in the choice she had earlier made of “love in rural poverty” with General d’Arblay, and a “retort courteous” to those who mocked and cut her.” But the play also peculiarly validates the choice of Sally and James in 1798 99 (Frances half-sister and brother who eloped to live together), for they had chosen love, poverty, and “domestic life,” if not in a cottage then in a slum up Tottenham Court Road. Sally and James act like distorting reflectors of Burney’s own values (289-92).

The cast and scenes performed.

It seems to me (humbly do I say this of course), that Burney’s play reflects the experiences of her own family and its insecurity and ways of surviving in a patronage culture. There is the bad careless brother for whom all is sacrificed, who however would not be a bad person given some other asusumptions and alternatives: Mordaunt Exbury whose best moment is his last: “I have been the ruin of yuou all, — & I feel cursed queer. I’ll go and lie down again.” This time the father is evasive (in Cecilia he was simply a hectically active sycophant).

In rehearsing Act III, the Burney players noticed a Freudian blockage in a line of Miss Exbury’s, lamenting that she doesn’t know about pin money. Burney wrote “now how my uncle can be so cruel…” but it ought to be “father.”

The autobiographical is ever central to her text. The tone of the play recalls (to me) the benevolent comedy of the era, yet the threat is much harder than say School for Scandal: real poverty, the marriage of a young girl to an old man. Again we see much sycophancy. Innis the maid is a character worth study — she is another form of heroine Burney relates to (silent, an exchange item between male servants). I was amused to find that Burney was concerned to mock the uses of ghosts on the stage: consciously she was not a gothic fiction writer.

To conclude with Doody’s thoughts on this play: Burney (understandably) is sympathetic to the “abused sycophant.” We see what toadying costs, the psychic penalties that warp a personality: “Burney is always interested in, and resentful of, snobbery and condescension, and keenly observes what different effects social tyrannies have on different people” and some of the play’s best lines are given over to Litchburn, the “fragile humbly explanatory toady (292-93).”

The great actor, Clive Francis as Sir Roderick in a performance of Burney’s The Woman Hater at the Burney Center December-February 2007


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