The Diary and Letters of Mme. D'Arblay Critical Essays

Frances Burney


(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 2281 words.)