|. . . Fanny Burney|
|. . . 2004-11-15|
Fanny Burney wrote four full-length comedies, none performed or published in her lifetime.
Her first play, The Witlings, was drafted in 1779, a year after her first novel, Evelina. It had every hope of production — among her most enthusiastic admirers was Drury Lane's manager, Richard Brinsley Sheridan — until Burney's father lovingly lowered the boom:
Not only the Whole Piece, but the plot had best be kept secret, from everybody.
Her second comedy made it onto the Covent Garden schedule before, again, Burney's father forced its withdrawal. Thereafter, Burney drafted solely for herself.
If The Witlings had been delivered to Sheridan's company, the play would have undergone revision. Virtually all its asides are disposable, conveying no more than a facial expression or tone of voice would, and its curtain speech against the evils of dependency, although undoubtedly sincere, isn't exactly a rouser.
But who's to say that those would've been the cuts? In its rough form, The Witlings feels uniquely contemporary; it might well have been normalized back to the 18th century. The first act, for example, is unusual both in locale (a milliner's shop) and in its leisurely approach to exposition — and that latter objection might be extended to most of the play.
In lieu of a rigorously constructed storyline, Burney builds her play on a rigorously distributed social premise: Self-regard blocks communication.
No character can stop broadcasting long enough to receive any other character's signal. This discursive flaw impedes the play's hysterically overdramatizing young lovers as much as the play's vain and greedy fools. Even the admirable Censor repeatedly sabotages resolution by indulging his impatience and sharp tongue; insofar as resolution's finally won, he wins it by the promise of silence.
Most of Burney's targets are familiar to us: self-congratulatory book clubs, mutually sycophantic workshops, fraudulent freestyles, slow-leaking airbags, pretentious note-jotting moldy-joking obsequious thin-skinned self-styled writers, and culturally-encouraged A.D.D. (Jack would be an enthusiastic toter of cell phone, PDA, text messenger, wireless laptop, and iPod.)
For once, I'm not inclined to defamiliarize. This is not a finished printed work, but an unpolished manuscript made to be spoken aloud. And so I've taken the liberty of regularizing spelling, capitalization, and the formatting of stage directions. Burney used commas to indicate prosody rather than sentence structure; when that seemed too distracting, I also lightly revised punctuation.
A reader takes this opportunity to ask:
was muddy waters involved in any scandals
Let's just say his name wasn't exactly kept clean....
Another witling responds briefly:
And, referring back to this entry from 2001, but slightly appropriate to our present concerns:
you can take the girl out of the east end but you can't take the east end out of the girl
|. . . 2009-10-24|
... and to console her private Distress I called into the Room to her my own Bosom Friend, my beloved Fanny Burney; whose Interest as well as Judgment goes all against my Marriage — whose Skill in Life and Manners is superior to that of any Man or Woman in this Age or Nation; whose Knowledge of the World, ingenuity of Expedient, Delicacy of Conduct, & Zeal in the Cause will make her a Counsellor invaluable; & leave me destitute of every Comfort, of every Hope, of every Expectation.- Hester Lynch Thrale's Thraliana, November 1782
|. . . 2011-12-03|
For thirty years I've shelved William Congreve's comedies near the center of my personal canon, and it shames me that I can't contort myself to enter what contemporaries considered his most serious work: monotonic blank verse tragedy, heroically coupleted epistles and translations, sheepish elegies, and authentically bootlicking Pindaric odes. I gaze and glaze and it's as if Preston Sturges spent the 1950s filming CinemaScope epics about Mamie Eisenhower.
Congreve's shorter lyrics, many meant for singing, go down more easily, like vodka punch at a dull party. They push a glossy, genial cynicism — or, since most of the singers are male, genial misogyny — unencumbered by Herrick's manic invention or Rochester's Black Jack medical calling.
Tell me no more I am deceiv’d;
That Cloe’s false and common:
I always knew (at least believ’d)
She was a very Woman;
As such, I lik’d, as such, caress’d,
She still was constant when possess’d,
She could do more for no Man.
But oh! her Thoughts on others ran,
And, that, you think a hard thing;
Perhaps, she fancy’d you the Man,
And what care I one Farthing?
You think she’s false, I'm sure she’s kind;
I take her Body, you her Mind,
Who has the better Bargain?
Indicating how little in this thin-blooded vein sparks Congreve's interest, three of the better poems share a closing (and maybe a germinal) image: the sun, lost without regret.
Doris, a Nymph of riper Age,
Has ev’ry Grace and Art;
A wise Observer to engage,
Or wound, a heedless Heart.
Of Native Blush, and Rosie Dye,
Time has her Cheek bereft;
Which makes the prudent Nymph supply,
With Paint, th’injurious Theft.
Her sparkling Eyes she still retains,
And Teeth in good Repair;
And her well-furnish’d Front disdains
To grace with borrow’d Hair.
Of Size, she is nor short, nor tall,
And does to Fat incline
No more, than what the French wou’d call,
Farther, her Person to disclose
I leave — let it suffice,
She has few Faults, but what she knows,
And can with Skill disguise.
She many Lovers has refus’d,
With many more comply’d;
Which, like her Cloaths, when little us’d,
She always lays aside.
She’s one, who looks with great Contempt
On each affected Creature,
Whose Nicety would seem exempt,
From Appetites of Nature.
She thinks they want or Health or Sense,
Who want an Inclination;
And therefore never takes Offence
At him who pleads his Passion.
Whom she refuses, she treats still
With so much sweet Behaviour,
That her Refusal, through her Skill,
Looks almost like a Favour.
Since she this Softness can express
To those whom she rejects,
She must be very fond, you’ll guess,
Of such whom she affects.
But here our Doris far outgoes,
All that her Sex have done;
She no Regard for Custom knows,
Which Reason bids her shun.
By Reason, her own Reason’s meant,
Or if you please, her Will:
For when this last is Discontent,
The first is serv’d but ill.
Peculiar therefore is her Way;
Whether by Nature taught,
I shall not undertake to say,
Or by Experience bought.
But who o’er-night obtain’d her Grace,
She can next Day disown,
And stare upon the Strange-Man’s Face,
As one she ne’er had known.
So well she can the Truth disguise,
Such artful Wonder frame,
The Lover or distrusts his Eyes,
Or thinks ’twas all a Dream.
Some, Censure this as Lewd and Low,
Who are to Bounty blind;
For to forget what we bestow,
Bespeaks a noble Mind.
Doris, our Thanks nor asks, nor needs,
For all her Favours done
From her Love flows, as Light proceeds
Spontaneous from the Sun.
On one or other, still her Fires
Display their Genial Force;
And she, like Sol, alone retires,
To shine elsewhere of Course.
To a Candle. Elegy.
Thou watchful Taper, by whose silent Light,
I lonely pass the melancholly Night;
Thou faithful Witness of my secret Pain,
To whom alone I venture to complain;
O learn with me, my hopeless Love to moan;
Commiserate a Life so like thy own.
Like thine, my Flames to my Destruction turn,
Wasting that Heart, by which supply’d they burn.
Like thine, my Joy and Suffering they display,
At once, are Signs of Life, and Symptoms of Decay,
And as thy fearful Flames the Day decline,
And only during Night presume to shine;
Their humble Rays not daring to aspire
Before the Sun, the Fountain of their Fire:
So mine, with conscious Shame, and equal Awe,
To Shades obscure and Solitude withdraw;
Nor dare their Light before her Eyes disclose,
From whose bright Beams their Being first arose.
The Decay. A Song.
Say not, Olinda, I despise
The faded Glories of your Face,
The languish’d Vigour, of your Eyes,
And that once, only lov’d Embrace.
In vain, in vain, my constant Heart,
On aged Wings, attempts to meet
With wonted speed, those Flames you dart,
It faints and flutters at your Feet.
I blame not your decay of Pow’r,
You may have pointed Beauties still,
Though me alas, they wound no more,
You cannot hurt what cannot feel.
On youthful Climes your Beams display,
There, you may cherish with your Heat,
And rise the Sun to gild their Day,
To me benighted, when you set.
Probably I only noticed this reuse because the image was presented so plainly, and always with the same associations. They could easily have been varied, by, for example, cautioning against flights too near the sun. (In Congreve's two myth-based libretti, Apollo appears only to lead the audience in a drinking song after a heroine's tragic death.) Or by referencing the use of pinhole projection to view sun-spots.
The era's new-found sense of propriety likely snuffed any such impulse. 1 Congreve wouldn't want to risk The Double Dealer's workshop scene:
LADY FROTH. [Reads]For as the sun shines every day,
So, of our coachman I may say —
BRISK. I’m afraid that simile won’t do in wet weather; because you say the sun shines every day.
LADY FROTH. No, for the sun it won’t, but it will do for the coachman: for you know there’s most occasion for a coach in wet weather.
BRISK. Right, right, that saves all.
LADY FROTH. Then, I don’t say the sun shines all the day, but that he peeps now and then; yet he does shine all the day too, you know, though we don’t see him.
BRISK. Right, but the vulgar will never comprehend that.
His casts included no author's mouthpiece; each part's in its place and he in his, the untouched retoucher. His gifts were observational and structural, not egocentric — the impulses of a novelist, just a few years too early for novels. His teenage romance 2, Incognita, thrills to the sound of its own voice 3 and the sight of its own Tinkertoy mechanics, but must respect generic proprieties with traditional characters of wood.
Which confined Congreve-the-observer to the wicked stage, Puritan bait. Congreve's sense of the proper was dear to him, and he seems to have felt genuinely wounded when an increasingly stringent hypocrisy turned against his plays. His damning response was a defense of his craft, not his faith. And by the end of the century, Fanny Burney's Evelina would feel properly scandalized by Love for Love, despite novel-deep submersion in a wickeder plot.
Out of the light, Congreve can see rather than be seen. In lyric first person, he displays a cabinet of withdrawal; he has nothing to show except what he's found. The only verse in which a Romantically-schooled reader might recognize human feeling is an exsanguinated Keatsian swoon:
On Mrs. Arabella Hunt, Singing.
Let all be husht, each softest Motion cease,
Be ev’ry loud tumultuous Thought at Peace,
And ev’ry ruder Gasp of Breath
Be calm, as in the Arms of Death.
And thou most fickle, most uneasie Part,
Thou restless Wanderer, my Heart,
Be still; gently, ah gently, leave,
Thou busie, idle thing, to heave.
Stir not a Pulse; and let my Blood,
That turbulent, unruly Flood,
Be softly staid:
Let me be all, but my Attention, dead.
Go, rest, unnecessary Springs of Life,
Leave your officious Toil and Strife;
For I would hear her Voice, and try
If it be possible to die.
Suicide by appreciation: the liebestod of the critic.
1 Donald McKenzie helpfully cites James Boaden's later praise for "To a Candle": "Here we have none of the perverse ingenuity of the metaphysical poets. The points of contact seem obvious, and not to be missed; but such a parallel, so continued and so exact, was never made out before."
2 By which I mean a romance written by a teenager.
3 This aside seems made to footnote:
Now the Reader I suppose to be upon Thorns at this and the like impertinent Digressions, but let him alone and he’ll come to himself; at which time I think fit to acquaint him, that when I digress, I am at that time writing to please my self, when I continue the Thread of the Story, I write to please him; supposing him a reasonable Man, I conclude him satisfied to allow me this liberty, and so I proceed.
Tsui Hark? Well, I haven't myself read his lyric poetry, but I doubt it's as interesting as Peking Opera Blues.
|. . . 2013-03-18|
Mrs. Paradise,1 leaning over the Kirwans 2 & Charlotte, who hardly got a seat all Night for the crowd, said she begged to speak to me. I squeezed my great Person out, & she then said ‘Miss Burney, Lady Say & Seal3 desires the Honour of being introduced to you.’
Her Ladyship stood by her side. She seems pretty near 50, at least turned 40,— her Head was full of Feathers, Flowers, Jewels, & gew gaws, & as high as Lady Archers,4 her Dress was trimmed with Beads, silver, persian, sashes, & all sort of fine fancies; her Face is thin & fiery, & her whole manner spoke a lady all alive.
‘Miss Burney, cried she, with great quickness & a look all curiosity, I am very happy to see you,— I have longed to see you a great while,— I have read your Performance, & I am quite delighted with it! I think it’s the most elegant Novel I ever read in my life. Such a style!— I am quite surprised at it: I can’t think where you got so much invention.’
You may believe this was a reception not to make me very loquacious!— good Heaven! I did not know which way to turn my Head.
‘I must introduce you, continued her Ladyship, to my sister,— she’ll be quite delighted to see you,— she has written a Novel herself!— so you are sister Authoresses! A most elegant thing it is, I assure you,— almost as pretty as yours,— only not quite so elegant. She has written two Novels,— only one is not so pretty as the other. But I shall insist upon your seeing them. One is in Letters, like yours, only yours is prettiest. It’s called the Mausoleum of Julia!’5
What unfeeling things, thought I, are my sisters! I’m sure I never heard them go about thus praising me!
Mrs. Paradise then again came forward, & taking my Hand, led me up to her Ladyship’s sister, Lady Hawke, saying aloud, & with a courteous smirk ‘Miss Burney, Ma’am, Authoress of Evelina.’
‘Yes, cried my friend Lady Say & Seal, who followed me close, it’s the Authoress of Evelina! So you are sister Authoresses!’
Lady Hawke arose & Curtsied. She is much younger than her sister, & rather pretty; extremely languishing, delicate, & pathetic; apparently accustomed to be reckoned the Genius of her Family, & well contented to be looked upon as a Creature dropt from the Clouds!
I was then seated between their Ladyships, & Lady S. & S., drawing as near to me as possible, said,— ‘Well,— & so you wrote this pretty Book!— & pray did your Papa know of it?’
‘No, Ma’am, not till some months after the Publication.’
‘So I’ve heard!— it’s surprising!— I can’t think how you invented it! there’s a vast deal of invention in it! And you’ve got so much humour, too!— now my sister has no humour,— her’s is all sentiment,— you can’t think how I was entertained with that old Grandmother & her son!— ’
I suppose she meant Tom Branghton for the son.
‘Lord, how much pleasure you must have had in writing it!— had not you?’
‘Y — e — s, Ma’am.’
‘So has my sister,— she’s never without a Pen in her Hand,— she can’t help writing for her Life,— when Lord Hawke is Travelling about with her, she keeps writing all the way!’
‘Yes, said Lady Hawke, I really can’t help writing. One has great pleasure in writing the things,— has not one, Miss Burney?’
‘Y — e — s, Ma’am.’
‘But your Novel, cried Lady Say & Seal, is in such a style!— so elegant!— I am vastly glad you made it end happily. I hate a Novel that don’t end happy.’
‘Yes, said Lady Hawke, with a languid smile, I was vastly glad when she married Lord Orville! I was sadly afraid it would not have been.’
‘My sister intends, said Lady Say & Seal, to print her Mauseoleum, just for her own friends & acquaintances.’
‘Yes, said Lady Hawke, I have never printed yet.’
‘I saw Lady Hawke’s name, quoth I to my first friend, ascribed to the play of “Variety”.’6
‘Did you indeed! cried Lady Say, in an extacy,— sister!— do you know Miss Burney saw your name in the news papers about the Play!— ’
‘Did she? said Lady Hawke, smiling complacently, But I really did not write it: I never writ a Play in my life.’
‘Well, cried Lady Say, but do pray repeat that sweet part that I am so fond of,— you know what I mean,— Miss Burney must hear it,— out of your Novel, you know!’
Ly H. ‘No, I can’t,— I have forgot it.’
Ly S. ‘O no,— I am sure you have not,— I insist upon it.’
Ly H. ‘But I know you can repeat it yourself,— you have so fine a memory,— I am sure you can repeat it.’
Ly S. ‘O but I should not do it Justice!— that’s all, I should not do it Justice!’
Lady Hawke then bent forward, & repeated ‘If when he made the declaration of his Love, the sensibility that beamed in his Eyes was felt in his Heart, what pleasing sensations, & soft alarms might not that tender avowal awaken!’
‘And from what, Ma’am, cried I, astonished, & imagining I had mistaken them, is this taken?’
‘From my sister’s Novel! answered the delighted Lady Say & Seal, expecting my raptures to be equal, it’s in the Mausoleum!— did not you know that!— Well, I can’t think how you can write these sweet Novels!— And it’s all just like that part!— Lord Hawke himself says it’s all Poetry!— For my part, I’m sure I never could write so. I suppose, Miss Burney, you are producing another? A’n’t you?’
‘O, I dare say you are! I dare say you are writing one at this very minute!’7
Mrs. Paradise now came up to me again, followed by a square man, middle aged, & hum drum, who, I found, was Lord Say & Seal,8 afterwards from the Kirwans, for though they introduced him to me, I was so confounded by their vehemence & their manners, that I did not hear his Name.
‘Miss Burney, said Mrs. P. — , Authoress of Evelina!’
‘Yes, cried Lady Say & Seal, starting up, ’tis the Authoress of Evelina!’
‘Of what?’ cried he.
‘Of Evelina!— You’d never think it!— she looks so young!— to have so much invention, & such an I elegant style! — Well, I could write a Play, I think, but I’m sure I could never write a Novel.’
‘O yes, You could if you would try; said Lady Hawke, ‘I assure you.’ ‘O no, I could not! answered she, I could not get a style! — that’s the thing, I could not tell how to get a style! — & a Novel’s nothing without a style, you know!’
‘Why no, said Lady Hawke, that’s true But then you write such charming Letters, you know!’
‘Letters? repeated Lady S. & S. simpering,— do you think so? — do you know I wrote a long Letter to Mrs. Ray just before I came here!— this very afternoon!— quite a long Letter!— I did, I assure you!’
Here Mrs. Paradise came forward with another Gentleman, younger, slimmer, & smarter, & saying to me ‘Sir Gregory Page Turner,’9 said to him, ‘Miss Burney,— Authoress of Evelina.’ At which Lady Say & Seal, in fresh transport, again arose, & rapturously again repeated ‘Yes,— she’s Authoress of Evelina! Have you read it?’
‘No,— is it to be had?’
‘O dear yes!— it‘s been printed these 2 years!— You’d never think it!— But it’s the most elegant Novel I ever read in my life! writ in such a style!’
‘Certainly, said he, very civilly, I have every inducement to get it. Pray where is it to be had? every where, I suppose?’
‘O no where, I hope!’ cried I, wishing at that moment it had been never in human ken.
My square friend, Lord Say & Seal, then putting his Head forward, said very solemnly, ‘I’ll purchase it.’
Lady Say & Seal then mentioned to me an hundred Novels that I had never heard of, asking my opinion of them, & whether I knew the Authors: Lady Hawke only occasionally & languidly joining in the discourse. And then, Lady S. & S., suddenly arising, begged me not to move, for she should be back again in a minute, & flew to the next Room.
I took, however, the first opportunity of Lady Hawke’s casting down her Eyes, & reclining her delicate Head, to make away from this terrible set,— & just as I was got by the Piano Forte, where I hoped Pacchierotti would soon present himself, Mrs. Paradise again came to me, & said, ‘Miss Burney, Lady Say & Seal wishes vastly to cultivate your acquaintance, & begs to know if she may have the Honour of your Company to an Assembly at her House next Friday? And I will do myself the pleasure to call for you, if you will give me leave.’
‘Her Ladyship does me much honour, but I am unfortunately engaged.’ was my answer, with as much promptness, as if it had been true!10— FB.
- Frances Burney to her sister, Susanna Burney Phillips,
February or March, 1782,
from The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney: Vol. 5 1782-1783,
ed. Lars E. Troide & Stewart J. Cooke
|. . . 2013-03-31|
There are two pictures of Venice side by side in the house where I am writing this, a Canaletto that has little but careful drawing and a not very emotional pleasure in clean bright air, and a Franz Francken, where the blue water, that in the other stirs one so little, can make one long to plunge into the green depth where a cloud shadow falls.- William Butler Yeats, Discoveries
Her new Novel called Cecilia is the Picture of Life such as the Author sees it: while therefore this Mode of Life lasts, her Book will be of value, as the Representation is astonishingly perfect: but as nothing in the Book is derived from Study, so it can have no Principle of duration — Burney’s Cecilia is to Richardson’s Clarrisa — what a Camera Obscura in the Window of a London parlour,— is to a view of Venice by the clear Pencil of Cannaletti.- Hester Thrale, c. 1782, Thraliana,
extracted from that mammoth lump of flarf
by Burney editors Troide & Cooke
As always, Thrale's of her time. And at that time objection was most often made to Cecilia's untraditionally mixed conclusion, defended by Burney as naturalism:
With respect, however, to the great point of Cecilia's fortune, I have much to urge in my own defence, only now I can spare no time, & I must frankly confess I shall think I have rather written a farce than a serious history, if the whole is to end, like the hack Italian operas, with a jolly chorus that makes all parties good & all parties happy! [...] Besides, I think the Book, in its present conclusion, somewhat original, for the Hero & Heroine are neither plunged in the depths of misery, nor exalted to unhuman happiness,—Is not such a middle state more natural? more according to real life, & less resembling every other book of fiction?
[Edmund Burke] wished the conclusion either more happy or more miserable: ‘for in a work of imagination, said he, there is no medium.’ I was not easy enough to answer him, or I have much, though perhaps not good for much, to say in defence of following Life & Nature as much in the conclusion as in the progress of a Tale; & when is Life & Nature completely happy or miserable?
A taste for what is permanent would prove as transient as any other taste, and a century after Thrale's bon mot, even Cecilia wasn't real enough to satisfy:
Fanny’s Diaries are now much more studied than her novels. Few of us would wish to exchange the journal of her life at Court for another fiction from her pen.- Leonard Benton Seeley, Fanny Burney and Her Friends:
Select Passages from Her Diary and Other Writings (1892)
Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.