Fanny Burney, Grandmother of the English Novel


Arts & Culture

Here is the grandmother of the English novel, Fanny Burney:

Looks young in the picture, right? Well, that’s ’bout how young she was when her first novel came out, in 1778. She was twenty-five.

That novel (Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World) made her famous. I’m reading it right now. It’s nothing like what I thought it was gonna be. I thought it was gonna be comic; it’s realistic and intense.

She wrote only four novels: three hits and one dud, or so I’ve been told a hundred times. Very few people read any of ’em, unless you’re psycho for the history of the novel. Then you have to read all of ’em.

I think her name puts people off sometimes. It’s like her name is “Kimmy Peanut.” How can these books be any good if they were written by somebody named Kimmy Peanut.

Plus, just from that engraving, you can see how all these white-wigged literary guys (Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, et al.) would be dying to pat her on the head. Which basically gives you another excuse for skipping the books. (She must be overrated, right?)

I wasn’t gonna read her novels either. I just wanted to look at her journals and letters. I’d seen ’em quoted from time to time, and it looked to me like she had an eye for the telling detail. She was clearly witty and down to earth, and she knew everybody, including King George III.

Maybe you’ve read a famous essay by Virginia Woolf, called “Dr. Burney’s Evening Party”? It’s in The Common Reader. All the information in that thing is from Fanny Burney’s book about her dad, which, in turn, was written up mainly from her private papers. You read the Woolf and you figure—correctly—that Fanny must have been a smash of a diarist. And this is right where the case stood for me, a few years ago.

One barrier to reading Burney’s diary is the fact she kept it for seventy years. The modern edition of it started to appear in the early seventies, and they just finished the series this year. Here’s the last brick in the wall:

Twenty-four volumes, floor to ceiling. I own five. But you know what? There’s an easier way. Penguin Classics, baby. Frances Burney: Journals and Letters, selected, with an introduction, by Peter Sabor and Lars Troide, 2001. On page 1 she’s fifteen; on page 566 she’s eighty-seven.

I have to warn you, though. The diaries make you want to read the novels, bad. You just want to know if she can handle her fictional material as well as she handles her lived experience. My intuition was: no way. However, I gotta tell ya: Kimmy Peanut had some tricks up her sleeve.

Just to give you an idea how delightful she can be, lemme show you a good-size, juicy passage from her journal. This is her, writing on January 10, 1770, age seventeen, about a masquerade she had attended two days before. The Penguin footnote is helpful: “Participants in masquerades were expected to act completely ‘in character’ until the unmasking later on.”

Please pay special attention to the way young people in 1770 processed their homosocial desires and intimacies. I find this whole sequence positively Shakespearean. There’s just a lot goin’ on in every sentence. (The spelling and punctuation oddities are all authorial, but abbreviations have been expanded by her Penguin editors.)

I observed a Nun, Dressed in Black, who was speaking with great earnestness, and who discovered by her Voice to be a Miss Milne, a pretty Scotch Nymph I have met at Mrs Stranges. I stopt to listen to her. She turn’d about and took my Hand and led me into a Corner of the Room—‘Beautiful Creature!’ cried she, in a plaintive Voice, ‘with what pain do I see you here, beset by this Crowd of folly and deceit! O could I prevail on you to quit this wicked world, and all its vices, and to follow my footsteps!’

‘But how am I to account,’ said I, ‘for the reason that one who so much despises the world, should chuse to mix with the gayest part of it? What do you do here?’

‘I come but,’ said she, ‘to see and to save such innocent, beautiful, young Creatures as you from the snares of the Wicked. Listen to me, I was once such as you are; I mixed with the World; I was caressed by it, I loved it—I was deceived!—surrounded by an artful set of flattering, designing men, I fell but too easily into the net they spread for me; I am now convinced of the vanity of Life, and in this peaceful, tranquil state shall I pass the remainder of my Days.’

‘It is so impossible,’ said I, ‘to listen to you without being benefitted by your Conversation, that I shall to the utmost of my power imitate you, and always chuse to despise the World, and hold it in contempt.—At a masquerade!—.’

‘Alas,’ said she, ‘I am here meerly to contemplate on the strange follies and vices of mankind—this scene affords me only a subject of joy to think I have quitted it.’

We were here interrupted, and parted …

I seized the first opportunity that offered of again joining my sage monitor the fair Nun—who did not seem averse to honouring me with her Conversation. She renewed her former subject, expatiated on the wickedness and degeneracy of the World, dwelt with great energy and warmth on the deceit and craft of man, and pressed me to join her holy Order with the zeal of an Enthusiast. A pink Domino advanced, and charged her not to instill her preposterous sentiments into my mind; she answered him with so much contempt that he immediately quitted us.—We were then accosted by the shepherd, who would fain have appeared of some consequence, and aimed at being gallant and agreeable—Poor man! wofully was he the contrary. The Nun did not spare him. ‘Hence,’ cried she, ‘thou gaudy Animal, with thy trifling and ridiculous trappings away—Let not this fair Creature be corrupted by this Company. O fly the pernicious impertinence of these shadows which surround thee!—’ ‘The—the Lady—‘ stammered the poor swain—‘The Lady will be—will be more likely—to be hurt—by— —by you than—than—’ ‘Yes, yes,’ cried she, ‘she would be safe enough were she followed only by such as thee!’ Hetty just then bid me observe a very droll old Dutch man, who soon after joined us—He accosted us in High Dutch— —not that I would Quarrel with any one who told me it was Low Dutch!—it might be Arabick for ought I could tell! He was very completely Dressed, and had on an exceeding droll old man’s mask, and was smoaking a Pipe—He presented me with a Quid of Tobaco, I accepted it very cordially:—the Nun was not disposed to be pleased—she attacked poor Mynheer with much haughtiness—‘Thou savage!—hence to thy native Land of Brutes and Barbarians, smoak thy Pipe there, but pollute not us with thy dull and coarse attempts at Wit and pleasantry—’

The Dutch man however heeded her not, he amused himself with talking and making signs of devotion to me, while the Nun railed, and I Laughed.—At last she took my Hand, and led me to another part of the Room, where we renewed our former Conversation. ‘You see,’ she cried, ‘what a Herd of Danglers flutter around you; thus it was once with me; your form is elegant; your Face I Doubt not is beautiful; your sentiments are superior to both: regard these Vipers then with a proper disdain; they will follow you, will admire, Court, caress and flatter you—they will engage your affections— —and then they will desert you! it is not that you are less amiable, or that they cease to esteem you; but they are weary of you; novelty must attone in another for every loss they may regret in you:—it is not merit they seek, but variety. I speak from experience!’

‘’Tis rather surprising,’ said I, that one would speaks with such vigour of the World,—and professes having quitted it from knowing its degeneracy, and who talks of experience in the style of Age; should have a Voice which is a perpetual reminder of her own Youth; and should in all visible respects, be so formed to grace and adorn the World she holds in such contempt.’

‘Hold,’ cried she, ‘remember my sacred order, and remember that we Nuns can never admit to our Conferences that baleful Enemy of innocence, Flattery! Alas, you learn this from men! Would you but renounce them! what happiness would such a Convert give me!’

The Dutchman and the shepherd soon joined us again—the former was very liberal of his tobaco, and supported his character with much drollery, speaking no English, but a few Dutch words, and making signs. The shepherd seemed formed for all the stupidity of a Dutch man more than the man who assumed that Dress; but he aimed at something superior.—The Nun looking on her Veil and Habit as a sanction to the utmost liberty of speech, spoke to them both without the least ceremony.—All she said to me did honour to the Name she assumed—it was sensible and delicate, it was probably very true; it was certainly very well adapted to her apparent character: but when we were joined by men, her exhortation degenerated into railing; which though she might intend the better to support her part, by displaying her indignation against the sex, nevertheless seemed rather suited to the virulency and bitterness of a revengeful woman of the World, than the gentleness and dignity which were expected from the piety, patience and forbearance of a Cloister. ‘And what,’ said she to the Dutch man, ‘what can have induced such a savage to venture himself here? Go, seek thy fellow Brutes! the vulgar, bestial society thou art used to, is such alone as thou ought to mix with.’

He jabbered something in his defence, and seemed inclined to make his Court to me. ‘Perhaps,’ said she, ‘it may be in the power of this fair Creature to reform thee; she may civilize thy gross and barbarous manners.’ The Dutch man bowed, said yaw, and put his Hand on his Heart in token of approbation. ‘Ay,’ said the poor shepherd, whose eyes had the most marked expression of stupidity (if stupidity can be said to have any expression) that I ever saw, and his words and manner so exactly coincided with this appearance, that he was meerly an object for Laughter—he served only for such to me at least; for indeed my spirits were not very low.

Friends, can you not picture this whole thing, done to perfection, in a movie? The filmmakers would have to get across that the Fanny character is often crushingly shy, but is here inspired and enlivened by the urgent ministrations of this attractive older girl. And it’s important that the Fanny character recognizes her (Anne Mylne in real life, who, by the way, got married five years later to a baronet), but is not made so giddy by the banter that her critical intelligence relaxes. She is well aware of the discordant notes that creep into the nun’s performance under threat of male interference, and she handles this matter in a deliciously understated way. One thinks: Ah ha. A novelist.

Now, if you’re like me, you’re wondering “Does she indeed have a masquerade scene in any of her novels—?” Reader, she does. It’s in her second novel, Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress (1782): Book II, Chapter 3. However:

I guess you could skip to the chapter in question; it starts on page 103 in the above edition.

I’ll close on a tender note. I happen to own a stray volume of an early edition (the fourth, 1784) of Cecilia (it was five separate codices, when it came out). Mine is Volume III, which contains Books V and VI (the masquerade scene is in Volume I). It’s in its original boards. Who knows how many people have owned it.

That’s what 235 years does to a thing. But check it out. On the last page, there’s a recipe, in very old handwriting. My herbalist friend says it’s probably, given the ingredients, a home remedy for constipation.

Transcript: 1 quart French brandy, ¼ pound of white sugar, 1 ounce of Rhubarb in root, 1 ounce anniseed [sic]. For a grown person a tablespoon full daily but for a child 2 teaspoons full, daily taken one at a time except where the case is very bad when they may be increased to 3 teaspoon full daily.

Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.