Fanny Burney: Novelist and Diarist

Cover of Fanny Burney: a BiographyFor today’s post, I want to return to one of the books I mentioned in my summer 2017 round-up, a biography of Fanny Burney (1752-1840) to talk about her in a little more detail. I have had a long acquaintance the novelist and diarist. As I mentioned previously, a novel called A Coach for Fanny Burney by Florence Bone (1938) captured my interest as a teenager. At the time, I had no idea who she was, it was the title that caught my attention (I can’t say it was the cover as the hardback book had long since lost its dust jacket). That book was still tucked away on a shelf in my mum’s spare room, so it came to mind instantly when I spotted Claire Harman’s Fanny Burney: A Biography (Harper Collins, 2000) at last year’s Trinity Book Sale. We could digress at this point and discuss the inevitability of another of my TBS finds finding its way into a blog post, and how this is not actually tackling the TBR Pile proper, but we won’t.

As Fanny Burney came to know everyone who was anyone in eighteenth century literary society (see pictures of Hester Thrale and Samuel Johnson below), she has tended to pop up in other people’s biographies, but this is the first detailed account of her life that I have read. It is a veritable tome indeed but a very readable one at that, covering Burney’s eventful life and times. She could have been a heroine in a novel herself; she married an emigre French aristocrat and soldier Alexandre d’Arblay with whom she lived on a shoestring until d’Arblay had the opportunity to return home to attempt to serve the new regime and reclaim a portion of his property. This resulted in the couple being unable to leave post-revolutionary France for ten years. One story that most impressed me when I first heard it was that in her later years, Fanny heroically underwent a mastectomy without anaesthetic. It almost doesn’t bear thinking about, but the redoubtable Fanny lived to tell the tale and left an account of it for posterity into the bargain.Portraits of the Burney family

Fanny Burney wrote four novels, Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1782), Camilla (1796) and The Wanderer (1814), several plays and also edited her musician father’s memoirs (1832). Her letters and diaries were not published until after her death, the earliest edition edited by her niece Charlotte Barrett and running to six volumes (1842-6). A more recent and comprehensive edition comprises twelve volumes (edited by Joyce Hemlow et al, 1972-1984) in a project yet unfinished. Claire Harman discusses the reliability of Burney’s diaries, her editorship of her father’s papers and the vast quantity of the Burney family’s archives which include letters from her siblings. Harman talks about Fanny’s phenomenal recall for events and conversations, but also acknowledges that she carefully presented a certain image of herself and her family. The family came from relatively humble origins, as expressed in Hester Thrale’s damming comment, ‘The Burneys are I believe a very low Race of Mortals’, furthermore, Fanny was ‘not a Woman of Fashion’. At this point Dr Burney taught music to Mrs Thrale’s daughter, but in later years Fanny attempted to gloss over parts of her family history.

Claire Harman’s biography is so comprehensive that I thought I would take a quick look at one episode of Fanny Burney’s life for this blog post. As both the British and Irish press have been talking about British royal weddings lately, I decided to cast an eye over Burney’s brush with royalty. She was appointed Second Keep of the Robes to Queen Charlotte, a post that naturally was supposed to be seen as an honour to her and her family. Fanny was not initially keen and only agreed to the appointment for her family’s sake. The appointment came about after Fanny made the King and Queen’s acquaintance through Mrs Mary Delaney, a highly cultured woman who was well-regarded by the royal couple. The first time she met George III, he had called unannounced to visit Mrs Delaney and Fanny later described what happened in a letter, likening the incident to a scene in a drama,

It seemed to me we were acting in a play. There is something so little like common and real life, in everybody’s standing, while talking, in a room full of chairs, and standing, too, so aloof from each other, that I almost thought myself upon a stage, assisting in the representations of a tragedy, …

Fanny went on to describe the various roles in this drama, adding her own part as that of ‘a very solemn, sober, and decent mute’.

Even before Fanny was offered her court position, she was having fun with the niceties of court etiquette. This is a snippet from ‘Directions for coughing, sneezing, or moving, before the King and Queen’ which she wrote and sent to her sister Hetty in December 1785.

In the first place, you must not cough. If you find a cough tickling in your throat, you must arrest it from making any sound; if you find yourself choking with the forbearance, you must choke – but not cough.

In the second place, you must not sneeze. If you have vehement cold, you must take no notice of it; if you nose-membranes feel a great irritation, you must hold your breath; if a sneeze still insists upon making its way, you must oppose it, by keeping your teeth grinding together; if the violence of the repulse breaks some blood-vessel, you must break the blood-vessel – but not sneeze…

Fanny goes on to explain that you must not ‘stir either hand or foot’ even if by terrible bad luck ‘a black pin runs into your head, you must not take it out…’

Mrs Thrale & Dr Johnson

I suppose we can only assume that things have changed for the better in court circles since Fanny’s time. When her court appointment was offered, considered and reluctantly accepted, Fanny’s new position paid her £200 a year, she had apartments in Windsor Castle and a footman. Fanny was allowed to have family and close friends to visit but her own freedom to travel was curtailed. Fanny was to be at court for five years, before begging her father to arrange her release from duties. Fanny likened her new commitment to marriage in a letter to her sister Susan saying,

I was averse to forming the union, and I endeavoured to escape it, but my friends interfered – they prevailed – and the knot is tied. What then now remains but to make the best wife in my power? I am bound to it in duty, and I will strain every nerve to succeed.

Fanny’s tenure coincided with the period of George III’s ‘madness’, though that is too large a topic to cover in this post. Suffice to say that Fanny was a first-hand witness of signs of his imminent recovery, when she accidentally encountered him walking with Dr Willis and his attendants one morning. Fanny was apprehensive as the King had been violent at the height of his illness, but he greeted her and questioned her about recent news saying, ‘I have lived so long out of the world, I know nothing!’ as Fanny recorded it. He also kissed her on the cheek, a great lapse of protocol. The whole experience was the ‘severest personal terror’ to Fanny Burney who did not know what to expect. However, she was able to pass to the queen this encouraging report (though as Harman remarks, Fanny no doubt kept the royal embrace to herself).

I will leave Fanny Burney’s court life there, but I hope I have said enough to pique your interest in her life and work. I have to confess that despite reading about Fanny Burney and her literary circle over the years, I have not yet read one of her novels. Another item on my virtual TBR Pile, to go with the actual TBR Pile groaning upstairs!

I hope your 2018 reading is proving fruitful so far. Do let me know what you are reading!

 

 

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The Long Summer of Reading (but not Blogging…)

Well, my unintended summer break from The Landing has proved to be much longer than I would have wished. Somehow, just getting back into the blogging frame of mind has proved remarkably difficult. Not so, my book-reading frame of mind I am thankful to say. I would go so far as to say that reading wise, this has been a moderately profitable summer. A few longstanding members of the TBR pile have bitten the dust, most enjoyably I might add. This has also encouraged a couple of related re-reads to add to the literary tally.

I find that I can spend ages planning how to read more efficiently around the Landing Book Shelves, but then at other times (such as the last few months), the reading just flows without any thought or strategy. Maybe it was the influence of summer, but as I said, I have been having a reasonably prolific mow through the shelves and stacks of books at Landing Towers and I feel quite virtuous as a result. So what did I actually read then, I hear you cry. I will attempt to give a reasonably coherent run-down, unless you merely want to skip to the gallery below for a pictorial view. I will just give a brief over view of my summer’s reading (in two parts) then I hope to get back into the swing of TBR pile blogging properly.

A brief gallop through the shelves (part one)

After a few literary adventures in the 16th and 17th centuries, ending up you will recall with the dramatic execution of Sir Walter Ralegh, I have unintentionally continued to travel further in time. I was not planning this chronological direction, but after embarking on a biography of novelist and diarist Frances (Fanny) Burney (1752-1840), I simply went with the flow. The biography of Fanny Burney: A Biography (Claire Harman, 2000) was another of this year’s Trinity Book Sale purchases, so almost doesn’t qualify as an item on the TBR pile (not by my usual standards of longevity anyway). Reading this excellent biography prompted me to re-read a novelised version of Burney’s life that belongs to my mum (I know, this is not technically not on the TBR pile at all), A Coach for Fanny Burney (Florence Bone, 1938). Reading this as a teenager was the first time of encountering the redoubtable Fanny Burney, as well as literary luminaries Samuel Johnson and Hester Thrale who befriended the debut novelist. As you can see, the book is now somewhat ‘foxed’ in condition but still perfectly readable. Returning to it after all of this time, I found the author’s style rather flowery and sentimental, though the story was still an enjoyable read.

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A slim volume belonging to The Bookworm was my next choice, Lady Susan (Jane Austen, probably written in 1794 when she was still a teenager). This entertaining tale was a logical read to slip in here as Jane Austen was an admirer of Fanny Burney’s novels. From there, I moved on to Words & Pictures: Writers, Artists and a Peculiarly British Tradition (Jenny Uglow, Faber and Faber, 2008). I can’t remember buying this book, but it is a withdrawn library book so I must have bought it at a library sale. I do know that it has been awaiting perusal for some while. In three sections, Uglow looks at John Milton (1608-1674) and John Bunyan (1628-1688); William Hogarth (1697-1764) and Henry Fielding (1707-1754) and William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Thomas Berwick (1753-1828). I like Hogarth’s work, but  I had never come across Thomas Berwick, who developed new techniques in wood engraving (see the illustration for an example). Reading the first pair of studies reminded me that I have never read Pilgrim’s Progress, which I last thought of doing while writing a blog post about Little Women. If you recall, each sister received a copy from their mother as a Christmas gift. You see, no sooner do I get through a bit more of the TBR pile than I realise that there is still much more to read!

Here endeth the first catch-up post – more to follow soon (I hope!)