Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2281
From the first entry in the diary of a sixteen-year-old girl to the last letter written by an old lady seventy-one years later, Fanny Burney’s record of her experiences covers an enthralling range of personalities and events. As a daughter in the talented household of Dr. Charles Burney, the first music historian, a literary young woman in Dr. Johnson’s London, a lady-in-waiting at the court of King George III, the wife of a French exile after the Revolution, a resident in Paris during the Empire, and finally a lonely widow in Jane Austen’s Bath, Fanny Burney d’Arblay was a perceptive and witty observer behind the scenes that have become history. Her remarkable balance of passionate involvement and ironic detachment achieved a unique synthesis of autobiography and social history.
The diary begins with a young girl’s self-dramatization in its statement of purpose: “To have some account of my thoughts, manners, acquaintance and actions, when the hour arrives in which time is more nimble than memory, is the reason which induces me to keep a Journal. A Journal in which I must confess my every thought, must open my whole heart!” With innate literary discrimination, she realized that it would be more effective if addressed to an imaginary intimate; but the only confidante to whom she could reveal all her secrets was “Nobody.”To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal! since to Nobody can I be wholly unreserved—to Nobody can I reveal every thought, every wish of my heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity to the end of my life!
Her embarrassment when her father found her journal; her excitement at every meeting with Mr. Garrick, a frequent visitor in the Burney household; her admiration for Miss Linley, the singer who eloped with Sheridan—all were increasingly tempered by her sense of humor, as in her account of a sailing excursion:The waves foamed in little white mountains rising above the green surface of the sea; they dashed against the rocks off the coast of Brixham with monstrous fury; and really to own the truth, I felt no inclination to be boat wrecked, however pathetic and moving a Tale our adventure might have made.
Taking herself and her diary less seriously in her early twenties, she confessed that she had burned everything she had written up to her fifteenth year, “thinking I grew too old for scribbling nonsence, but as I am less young, I grow, I fear, less wise, for I cannot any longer resist what I find to be irresistible, the pleasure of popping down my thoughts from time to time on paper.”
The purpose and technique of Fanny’s early diary formed the basis of the novel which first brought her recognition: “I doubt not but this memorable affair [publication of EVELINA] will, in future times, mark the period whence chronologers will date the zenith of the polite arts in this island!” This characteristic of poking fun at herself reveals the objectivity with which the character of Evelina was created. The sentimental heroine, pouring out her heart in a long series of voluminous letters to her guardian, expresses not the author’s view of the world, but the author’s view of how the world appears to a naive girl of seventeen. Published first under a pseudonym, EVELINA became an immediate hit, and some of the most delightful passages in the diary are the accounts of Fanny Burney’s unaffected pride in its success and amusement at everyone’s attempts to guess the identity of the author. She seemed to enjoy the mystery more than the praise heaped upon her when the secret became known, but that too was sweet when it came from Dr. Johnson: “I almost poked myself under the table. Never did I feel so delicious a confusion since I was born!”
From 1777, when she first met Dr. Johnson, until 1784, when she visited him regularly during his last illness, Fanny Burney filled her journal with conversations which she claimed to remember almost verbatim. Although Johnson was often violent or overbearing in his arguments with fellow critics, his manner to Fanny was always kindly and courteous. The scenes in Mrs. Thrale’s drawing room, in Sir Joshua Reynolds’ dining room, or in Dr. Johnson’s own small parlor, where Fanny met the bluestocking ladies of Mrs. Thrale’s circle and the literary men of the doctor’s circle, sparkle with wit and polished repartee; but Dr. Johnson is more genial when seen through Fanny’s eyes than through Boswell’s. Five years after the death of their revered friend, just before the publication of Boswell’s THE LIFE OF SAMUEL JOHNSON, LL.D., Fanny met Boswell at Windsor and was embarrassed by his request for some of Johnson’s letters to herself, to show him in a new light as “gay Sam, agreeable Sam, pleasant Sam.” She refused his request, but she has performed the same service for Dr. Johnson in her own recollections of his talk.
During the summer before Dr. Johnson’s death, Fanny had lost another friend, Mrs. Hester Thrale, through opposition to her marriage to the Italian tenor, Gabriel Piozzi. With the literary circle thus broken, Fanny’s scope became socially wider, though intellectually narrower. She was introduced to Queen Charlotte, whom she found charming, and who was so impressed with the novelist that she offered her a position at court as a Keeper of the Wardrobes. Fanny felt too honored to refuse the appointment, but she had grave doubts about sacrificing her independence for the rigid routine of court life. Her doubts proved amply justified during her five-year stint, but even when her hours on duty were from six o’clock in the morning until after midnight, she usually found time to record some of her experiences. Her devotion to the royal family, her dislike of her German superior, her conscientious attitude about her duty, and her sharply observant eye and mocking wit combine to give a vivid picture of life at the court of King George III. In a letter to a sister, Fanny explained the etiquette of deportment in the royal presence:In the third place, you must not, upon any account, stir either hand or foot. If, by chance, a black pin runs into your head, you must be sure to bear it without wincing; if it brings tears into your eyes, you must not wipe them off; if they give you a tingling by running down your cheeks, you must look as if nothing was the matter. . . . If, however, the agony is very great, you may, privately, bite the inside of your cheek, or of your lips, for a little relief: taking care, meanwhile, to do it so cautiously as to make no apparent dent outwardly. And, with that precaution, if you even gnaw a piece out, it will not be minded, only be sure either to swallow it, or commit it to a corner of the inside of your mouth till they are gone—for you must not spit.
This whimsical cynicism was dubious for a beginner in court duties, but Fanny’s admiration for members of the royal family seemed unaffected by her impatience with formality. Her account of the assassination attempt in 1786 is typical. When she first heard the news she was “almost petrified with horror at the intelligence. If this King is not safe,—good, pious, beneficent as he is,—if his life is in danger, from his own subjects, what is to guard the Throne? and which way is a monarch to be secure?” She was particularly impressed by the fact that the king, on his return to his weeping family “. . . with the gayest good-humour, did his utmost to comfort them; and he gave a relation of the affair, with a calmness and unconcern that, had any one but himself been his hero, would have been regarded as totally unfeeling.” In giving her family an accurate account to correct the rumors they had heard, Fanny stressed the way in which the king stopped the crowd from attacking his mad assailant and insisted that she should be taken care of.
This emphasis on the king’s goodness was maintained throughout the record of the sad period of his own madness. After some months of illness he seemed greatly changed:I had a sort of conference with his Majesty, or rather I was the object to whom he spoke, with a manner so uncommon, that a high fever alone could account for it; a rapidity, a hoarseness of voice, a volubility, an earnestness—a vehemence, rather—it startled me inexpressibly; yet with a graciousness exceeding even all I ever met with before—it was almost kindness! Heaven—Heaven preserve him!”
Months later Fanny met him by accident in Kew gardens, tried to slip away, and was terrified when he ran after her. When both of them were stopped by his attendants, she was surprised to meet “all his wonted benignity of countenance, though something still of wildness in his eyes,” and even more astonished when he kissed her on the cheek. Her observation on this action reveals as much of her own character as of his: “. . . it was but the joy of a heart unbridled, now, by the forms and proprieties of established custom and sober reason. To see any of his household thus by accident seemed such a near approach to liberty and recovery that who can wonder it should serve rather to elate than lessen what yet remains of his disorder!” Seeing George III through Fanny Burney’s eyes alters more perspectives than does seeing Dr. Johnson in a different light.
One of Fanny’s most interesting assignments was to attend the trial of Warren Hastings in order to give the queen an accurate account of the proceedings. The long passages in her diary reveal her relief at this occasional freedom from formality of the court and her delight in the opportunity to see her London friends. Her comments on who was there and with whom, who spoke to whom and to whom one could not speak, are reminiscent of dialogue in Restoration comedy, but her reaction to Hastings himself was in terms of tragedy: “What an awful moment for such a man!—a man fallen from such a height of power to a situation so humiliating.” She also followed the main stages of the trial with alert intelligence, so that she was able to give the chancellor’s opening speech from memory: “The newspapers have printed it far less accurately than I have retained it, though I am by no means exact or secure.” Of the speech by Edmund Burke which she heard, she gave no particulars because she assumed it would be accurately printed, but she praised her friend’s eloquence while disagreeing with his views. She revealed the influence of Johnson when she wrote: “When he narrated, he was easy, flowing, and natural; when he declaimed, energetic, warm, and brilliant.”
Close though she was to the great affairs of her day, Fanny Burney was occupied for most of her five years at court with the domestic life of the royal family. Because of a demanding schedule, long hours, cold palace passages, and draughty carriages, her health declined. At last she resigned her post and went to live again with her father. But within a year, while staying with friends in the country, she was again drawn as by a magnet into an important circle, a group of French exiles which included Talleyrand and Madame de Stael. Engaged as their tutor in English, she soon married M. d’Arblay and thus began a new life when she was nearly forty. After 1800 her husband was able to go back to France, where they lived until 1815, when d’Arblay was appointed a commander of the king’s bodyguard and sent Fanny with other refugees to Brussels. Her narrative of the events of the Hundred Days, and particularly of Brussels during the Battle of Waterloo, though written some years later, preserved the balance of emotional involvement and critical detachment that characterizes the entire journal. During her last twenty-three years of life as a widow settled in Bath, she was busy editing her father’s paper, revising her own diaries, and sorting out her letters, in a spirit more critical than sentimental:For the rest of my life I shall take charge and save my own executor the discretionary labours that with myself are almost endless; for I now regularly destroy all letters that either may eventually do mischief, however clever, or that contain nothing of instruction or entertainment, however innocent. This, which I announce to all my correspondents who write confidentially, occasions my receiving letters that are real conversations.
Because Fanny Burney’s own diaries and letters were always real conversations, they provide an atmosphere as well as a record of her times. Her style was sometimes colloquial, sometimes Johnsonian, depending on her subject. The death of her old friend, Mrs. Hester Thrale Piozzi, led to a comparison between her and Madame de Stael in the manner of the LIVES OF THE POETS:Their conversation was equally luminous, from the sources of their own fertile minds, and from their splendid acquisitions from the works and acquirements of others. Both were zealous to serve, liberal to bestow, and graceful to oblige and praising whatever was admirable that came in their way.
In this passage, as throughout her journal, both in what she says and in the way she says it, Fanny Burney throws a light upon her times in which she herself stands clearly revealed.
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