February 24, 2018

"The Mother of English Fiction"

On this day in 1840 Fanny Burney died. If the literary histories do not go as far as Virginia Woolf's pronouncement that Burney is "the mother of English fiction," they are nonetheless full of praise for her four novels, especially the first two, Evelina (1778) and Cecilia (1782). As "the originator of the simple novel of home life," she is forerunner to and an influence on Jane Austen; her talent for storytelling is "not easily to be matched among English novelists"; her abundance and ability in caricature is "surpassed by Dickens only"; she has "the eye of the lynx" for the poser and the boor, and beside her lively creations "the figures of Smollett seem little better than stuffed birds in a museum." In 2002, the 250th anniversary of her birth, a memorial window to her was installed in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, and she is required reading on university courses, but it remains almost a secret today that Burney was one of the best-selling novelists of the 18th century.

One reason offered for the modern neglect of Burney the novelist is Burney the diarist. Burney's Evelina may have been "the Bridget Jones's Diary of her day," but in our day it is Burney's real diaries, journals and letters which have taken ascendancy. They too are lively reading, and as they range over some seventy years they provide a rare window on the 18th century. There are fascinating isolated moments -- being chased through Kew Gardens by madcap George III (a key scene in the recent movie, The Madness of King George), being trapped in Brussels on the eve of Waterloo, experiencing the horror of a mastectomy under the anesthetic of only one glass of wine -- but it is Burney's early years among the social and literary elite which are especially prized.

Fanny Burney's "entrance into the world" of fame was at the age of twenty-six, through a door opened by the revelation that she was the anonymous author of Evelina. Literally, the door belonged to Hester Thrale, who had discovered that the book which was the talk of London had been penned by the daughter of the music teacher she employed. Mrs. Thrale noted that Fanny was from "a low race of mortals," but she enjoyed and promoted the book among her coterie, and soon Fanny's life was "more like a romance than anything in the book that was the cause." However self-advancing this was for Mrs. Thrale, Fanny was soon spending weeks at the Thrale estate, and sitting to dinner beside Mrs. Thrale's permanent houseguest and prize literary catch, the venerated Dr. Johnson. He too liked and promoted Evelina -- "Harry Fielding never did anything equal" -- though Burney's memoirs portray a man who also liked to flirt. And Johnson had one other attraction to Burney: as the son of a bookseller become a national monument in his lifetime, Johnson saw something of himself in the young author. She was his "sly Young Rogue," his "spy," and ally in the larger battle between the witty and the wealthy. When he heard that Fanny was to be introduced to Elizabeth Montagu, the Queen of the bluestockings, he passed on the advice of an old lion:
    Dr. Johnson began to see-saw [on his chair], with a countenance strongly expressive of inward fun, and, after enjoying it some time in silence, he suddenly, and with great animation, turned to me and cried, "Down with her, Burney! -- down with her! -- spare her not! attack her, fight her, & down with her at once!"
This last is from Volume I of Burney's Early Journals and Letters, and it might persuade us to sometimes agree with her feeling that Boswell's Life of Johnson was written by a "memorandummer." Those wanting another taste before going to Burney directly could try her as retold by another great English diarist, Virginia Woolf: her "Dr. Burney's Evening Party" (The Common Reader, Second Series, available online) presents both Burney and Johnson in high form.

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