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Frances Burney
by Claire Harman
 

It's hard for a contemporary reader to understand the kind of anxiety which Fanny Burney felt about being acknowledged as a writer. We see her with hindsight as the most successful woman writer of her day, author of a run-away bestseller (Evelina) and three other novels, and one of the all-time great diarists, an unrivalled chronicler of late 18th century society. Her friendships with Hester Thrale, Samuel Johnson, Garrick, Sheridan, Reynolds and Burke placed her at the heart of intellectual life, her connection with the Court, through her five year appointment on Queen Charlotte's staff, gave her insights into the highest layer of English social life. But instead of gaining confidence in herself and her remarkable achievements, Burney became more and more constrained by the identification of her private self with her public works. Her first novel was (and still is) praised for its naturalness and humour; by the end of her literary career Burney was writing in a style ridiculed for its impenetrability. What went wrong?

In the mid-eighteenth century, the novel was still a young form and not considered wholly respectable. It favoured unelevated emotions and knock-about picaresque plots, very often with violent or sexual undertones; even Samuel Richardson, the most refined novelist of the mid-century, dealt almost exclusively with sensational material. Novels were worldly, novels were fun, novels were thought to be leading young women astray into habits of indolence and were blamed for moral deterioration and bad posture alike. Novels – according to James Fordyce – whose Sermons to Young Women were well known in the Burney household – ‘carry on their very forehead the mark of the beast'.

Fanny Burney never shook off the influence of these views and as late as 1814 was still talking about the novel as ‘a species of writing […] never mentioned, even by its supporter, but with a look that fears contempt.' This was despite the fact that her own novels had proved to the world that you could write with spirit, intelligence and humour without being indecent, that you could present a romantic plot without descending into cloying sentiment, indeed that romance could be treated satirically. Her work was a revelation and an inspiration; it led directly to the sophistications of Austen and the rapidly widening parameters of the nineteenth century novel. Scott, Dickens and Thackeray all acknowledged Burney's genius; in the 20th century Virginia Woolf dubbed her ‘the mother of English fiction'. The only novelist not to benefit from her innovations, it seems, was herself.

At the start of her career Burney had overridden her fears of public humiliation by publishing Evelina anonymously. She managed to compose the novel in secret at home over a period of up to eight or ten years, solicit a publisher via a go-between and keep herself entirely removed from the process of publication, so successfully that she neither knew when the book was published nor possessed a copy. The manuscript went, quite literally, out of her hands, bought by Thomas Lowndes of Fleet Street for £30. Burney observed the book's progress with surreal detachment, hearing it discussed at dinner parties, in bookshops, even at the family breakfast table, where her step-mother read aloud from the newspaper an advertisement for Evelina on its publication day, unaware that the author was sitting opposite.

Her cover was blown within the first year, and Burney became a very nervous and reticent celebrity. Perhaps if she had remained anonymous, she would have turned out a series of delightful comedies in the Evelina manner – or poems or plays, or nothing at all. What she did do was become more and more concerned with being seen to be a writer of impeccable morality. While this was of course constraining for Burney, it wasn't the total disaster some critics have made it out to be. Her second novel, Cecilia (1782), is in my opinion her best. There had been pressure on the author to repeat the success of her first book, but she moved forward with Cecilia into more ambitious territory, less light-hearted, more thoughtful and analytical. Being under intense scrutiny stimulated her to prove that a novel by a female could be both weighty and entertaining. But there were real losses too: being publicly acknowledged as a writer made Burney lose confidence in her sense of humour, which had previously been rather salty, even acerbic.

Burney's diary, which she began in 1768 at the age of sixteen, was exempt from these self-imposed restraints. It was addressed to ‘Nobody', since ‘to Nobody can I be wholly unreserved' and it provided ‘participation or relief' for the author's strong feelings. Reading it now, anyone will be struck by its assured tone and fits of exuberant rhetoric: ‘the silent, observant Miss Fanny', as one friend called her, wasn't simply using her diary to record or comment on events but as a testing ground for different styles. She had been writing compulsively since the age of ten or eleven and had already disposed of her juvenilia in a bonfire which contained ‘Elegies, Odes, Plays, Songs, Stories, Farces, - nay, Tragedies and Epic Poems' and at least one full-length novel. There was a kind of professionalism to this which belies all her later claims to have been a merely ‘accidental' author.

Only the first few years of the diary were kept truly private and confidential. After 1773, it was hi-jacked by the demands of an old family friend, Samuel Crisp, with whom Burney had begun an absorbing and elaborate correspondence. Crisp was a connoisseur of the arts who had retired to the country; he craved news from town and encouraged Burney to send him long journal-letters which he could pass around his circle of friends. While it was gratifying to Burney to have a discerning and appreciative audience for what she dismissively referred to as her ‘scribbleration', there was a danger that these semi-public letters might become mannered and self-conscious. Crisp's advice to Burney in a letter of 1773 was timely:

If once You set about framing studied letters, that are to be correct, nicely grammatical & run in smooth Periods I shall mind them as no others than newspapers of intelligence; I make this preface because You have needlessly enjoin'd me to deal sincerely, & to tell you there is no fault in an Epistolary Correspondence, like stiffness, & study – Dash away, whatever comes uppermost – the sudden sallies of imagination, clap'd down on paper, Just as they arise, are worth Folios, & have all the warmth and merit of that sort of Nonsense, that Is Eloquent in Love – never think of it being correct, when you write to me.

Crisp encouraged Burney to entertain him, not with fanciful or worked-up subjects, but the events of her own life, written in her everyday language. She developed a style of journalism that was based on long patches of dialogue, apparently reconstructed from memory, quick character sketches and studiedly informal commentary. The formula was so successful that it suggested both the form and content of the novel Burney was writing during the same period: Evelina is a romantic satire written in letters between a young girl in London and her elderly country guardian.

What we now know as Burney's Journals and Letters (the complete edition of which will run to twenty-four volumes) was originally published soon after Burney's death in 1840 as The Diary and Letters of Madame D'Arblay (Burney's married name). But are they journals, or letters or diaries? The forms melt into each other, just as they do in Burney's more public writing: her epistolary novel, Evelina, was said by some people to be like a play; she wrote a play (‘The Witlings') that ended up re-fashioned into a novel (Cecilia), tragic dramas that were more like epic poems and a biography of her father that was in fact a third-person autobiography employing novel-writing techniques. This sort of fluidity seems surprising in a writer who was so rigid about the moral and intellectual content of her work, but fortunately Burney's fastidiousness had its limits; she was very free with her use of language, happy to use slang and even happier to coin words of her own. And she seized upon the events of her extraordinary life with relish; whether it was the intimate conversation of Samuel Johnson, David Garrick's horseplay, her father's famous musical evenings at St Martin's Street, the ravings of George III during his madness, the plight of French emigrés during the Revolution, the sights and sounds of Brussels in the aftermath of Waterloo; Burney recorded everything with avidity. Nothing seemed beyond bounds, even the mastectomy which she underwent (without anaesthetic) in 1811. The journal-letter which records the operation is one of the most extraordinary pieces of reportage ever committed to paper, not merely an account of a procedure but a verbal re-enactment of it. Like so much else in the journals, it gives us weirdly intimate access to the mind of this woman who may have dreaded the exposure of print but always relished the freedom of manuscript.

Journals and Letters: Frances Burney
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