This essay first appeared in the Burney Letter, Vol 8 No 2, (Fall 2002), p. 13-15.
By Ellen Moody
It was in November 2001 that I and two friends, Joanne Pope and Joan Wall, opened "Eighteenth Century", a cyberspace list. Within a couple of weeks, we found ourselves and fifteen other people planning to read Fanny Burney D'Arblay's journals and letters together. When the group had grown to about thirty people and we began posting in January 2002, we soon discovered that that while many were just reading Lars E. Troide and Peter Sabor's abridged Penguin Frances Burney: Journals and Letters, some were reading Charlotte Barrett's The Diary and Letters of Madame d'Arblay or the unabridged The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney; when the group reached the later years of Fanny's life, a few people read Joyce Hemlow's one-volume abridgement of, or some of the unabridged The Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney (Madame d'Arblay).2 In today's literary marketplace the more recent editions of Fanny Burney d'Arblay's life-writings have not superceded the older editions.3
It should come as no surprize that active participants often focused on the divergent impressions of Fanny imparted by our differing texts. Although postings were more frequent, emotionally involved and interesting when we first began, and during the phases of Fanny's life that the Penguin designates "Evelina and Streatham Park" and "The Court Years," active participants were frustrated by the small amount of space allotted to Alexandre d'Arblay's courtship of Fanny, and the year 1815 in Barrett and the 2001 Penguin abridgement. People complained that we hadn't anywhere near enough of Fanny's time in Brussels and her journey across the war-zone of Europe to reach her ill husband in Trèves. I posted commentary from Hemlow's Courtship and Marriage (1793) (JL:2) , fleshed out the episodes in Bath and estrangement from Hester Thrale Piozzi with commentary from Maggie Lane's A City of Palaces and translations of Fanny's retrospective French memoir written (JL:7:522- 46).4 Joan Wall described the courtship section and the description of Brussels and Fanny's journey in Hemlow's abridgement (pp. 1-38, 189-293). Each week Susan Hoyle who was reading Barrett's volumes posted copious commentary on these. While for 1781 - 1782 Barrett devoted pages to Fanny's strained relationship with Jeremy Crutchley, the 2001 Penguin abridgement highlighted the seemingly imbecilic suitor Barlowe (who resembled Orme in Sir Charles Grandison). I summarized an essay in which Stewart Cooke told how the young man who frustrated and disappointed the younger Burney's real yearnings for a husband was George Owen Cambridge.5 Susan then reported that in Barrett the year 1791 was represented by extracts from letters by the French émigrés at Juniper Hall (Barrett, 5:286-370; 6:1-28). Barrett's edition made readers like Fanny better; to me they read like a 19th century novel intended as charming and sentimental entertainment; she and Hemlow ended the story of Fanny's life with a choice of plangent material that the 2001 Penguin curtailed or omitted.6 The Penguin throughout seemed to select for grotesqueries and hard social comedy, and while some people laughed at the scapegoating of people at Streatham, others voiced distaste and connected these scenes to the cool brutalities of Evelina. Todd Yelrom wrote:
"because she is writing from life I don't hold her responsible for what goes on around her, which she is merely describing. (I do hold her responsible for the role she plays in the scene with Miss Waldron, though.) If this were a piece of fiction, Fanny the author would be responsible for it all, including the behavior of Fanny the character, and interpretation would become all the more important. Considered as fiction the work leads to a much more complex set of questions, it seems to me. This piece is tough enough as non- fiction."
Although Burney d'Arblay's own decisions on what to write up at length and what to omit prevent abridgers and editors from assigning space in her books in a "page-to year ratio," the proportioning of documents to years in the Penguin leaves frustrating lacunae and produces a somewhat distorted view of her.7
A corollary continual subject was how Burney d'Arblay continually retreats from exploring or denies her feelings and the realities she is coping with which her texts exist to dramatize. People also wrote about how difficult it was to interpret what we were reading since whatever Fanny we had, hers was a partial view, one she assumed her own imagined readers would enter into sympathetically without her having to persuade them or explain a context. Several people wrote of how they were dismayed or "repelled" by Burney's "self-abasement" and "fear" of her father. Elizabeth Ellington wrote of how much grief Fanny experienced when coerced into suppressing her plays. Susan Hoyle remarked of the many scenes of compliments over Evelina which Fanny tells us were an ordeal for her that "there are people who seem convinced that they are the centre of attention when they are no more so than anyone else in the room; this is harder to cope with, and at its extreme is sometimes hard to distinguish from an egotistical ploy -- 'oh pray do not notice insignificant little me!' -- which draws more attention to the 'shy' person than would have otherwise have occurred." Jill Spriggs quoted from Fanny's long loving description of her dress at a masquerade ("a close pink persian Vest, with long close sleeves . . . "), of how "absolutely tantalising" two other people seemed to her -- and the record of the "bottom of the page cut away" just as the sisters left the house so we don't know what happened "when [in Fanny's words] the Captain handed us into the Coach, & away we drove (EJL, 1:100-1) I described the plays in which Fanny took lead parts (Arthur Murphy's The Way to Keep Him and Fielding's Tom Thumb). At this Joan Wall questioned how shy Fanny was: this self-characterization didn't fit her conduct. While we were reading her Court letters and diaries, Joanne Pope broached the idea that Burney couldn't get herself to relinquish her niche because "For her, to leave was to admit defeat." Joanne quoted Doody's comment that the tragic plays Burney was writing at the time show a "suicidal streak," but rather than agree that Fanny was merely weak, talked of Fanny's feelings of obligation towards her family, and asked if to be "a successful novelist or playwright" was anywhere near as "respectable as being a servant to a Queen."8 I suggested it was not. Susan Hoyle then moved the discussion onto "the marginal status of women:" "whatever FB did she was at a disadvantage . . . we need to account for the relatively large numbers of women who took up their pens at this time, marginal beings who chose marginal occupations." Later the conversation returned to Fanny's professed motive for writing the Ilfracombe episode (Penguin, No. 227, p. 510), and people asked when she wrote and rewrote her retrospective memoirs. We found it the most romantic of Fanny's texts, Byronic in feel, and talked about the failure and comparatively stilted and strange style of The Wanderer. To me the most stunning and moving instance of Fanny's wilful obtuseness was in her depiction of her slow covering of her husband's body as it went into rigor mortis: she was fighting death with a roll of flannel: "I took new flannel to roll over his feet -- the stillness grew more awful -- the skin became colder" (Penguin, No. 232, p. 541).
Fanny's journals and letters make enjoyable and compelling reading: most of the people
who began the read stayed the course, and the words "loaded" and "vibrant" came up more than
once as single words by which to capture the quality of the material.9 When it
came to talking in a cyberspace public forum, since Burney D'Arblay's explicit values are also
conventional, and the layer of experience she carves out most of the time is one most readers
do not shy away from and can recognize or make analogies with their own, her texts provide just
the right amount and kind of bafflement. Conversations most often turned on questions people
were comfortable asking.10 Nonetheless, even when (like Fanny herself) skirting
"unremitting sincerity," this group of readers showed how many obstacles there are to realizing
what Fanny Burney D'Ablay was within since, like those of so many women, her autobiographical
writings were first published after her death, in forms first censored by herself and then further
censored and now shaped by others.11
1 From Break of Day, cited by Nancy K. Miller, "Writing Fictions: Women's Autobiography in France," Subject to Change (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), pp. 47 and 62, Note 1.
2 The full citations for these are: Frances Burney: Journals and Letters, edd. Peter Sabor and Lars E. Troide, with the assistance of Stewart Cooke and Victoria Kortes-Papp (New York: Penguin, 2001), hereinafter called the Penguin; Diary and Letters of Madame D'Arblay, edited by her niece [Charlotte Barrett], 7 volumes (London, 1842-47), hereinafter called Barrett; The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney, edd. Lars E. Troide and Peter Sabor, Volumes 1 - 3 of a projected 12 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University, 1988-1994), hereinafter called EJL; Fanny Burney: Journals and Letters, gen. ed. Joyce Hemlow, 12 volumes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972 - 1984), hereinafter called JL (Volumes 7 was edited by Edward A. and Lillian D. Bloom; Volume 8, by Peter Hughes, with Joyce Hemlow, Althea Douglas and Patricia Hawkins); and Fanny Burney: Selected Letters and Journals, ed. Joyce Hemlow (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), hereinafter called Hemlow. I and at least one other member of the list (Diana Birchalls) own the 3 volume 1892 abridgement of Barrett: The Diary and Letters of Madame d'Arblay (Frances Burney), ed, notes W. C. Ward, prefaced by Macaulay's essay, 3 volumes (London: Frederick Warne, 1892), hereinafter called Ward.
3 The readers on this list read and quoted equally from (I place them in chronological order) Emily Hahn's A Degree of Prudery (New York: Doubleday, 1950), Joyce Hemlow's The History of Fanny Burney (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), and Claire Harman, Fanny Burney: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 2001). I was not surprized by the citations from Hahn; experience on other lists has shown me she is still being read.
4 Maggie Lane, A City of Palaces: Bath Through the Eyes of Fanny Burney (Bath: Millstream, 1999).
5 Stewart Cooke, "Sweet Cecilia and Brown George: Editing Volume 5 of Burney's Early Journals and Letters, 1782 - 1783", The Burney Journal, 3 (2000), pp. 28-48. Cf. Barrett, 2:22-43, 50-74, 77-81, 86-91, and 94-107; Ward, I:106-8, 203-23; 2:101-2; and Penguin, No. 30- No. 79, pp. 45-56; No. 93, pp. 196-97, No. 98, pp. 209-10.
6 The Penguin omits poignant references by Burney D'Arblay to her dead son and the differing records of her last words; see Barrett 7:300 ("you want rest" to which her reply as recorded was "I shall have it soon, my dear"); Ward 3:456-58 (a moving meditation in a notebook on the death of her son); Hemlow, pp. 335-36.
7 I noted onlist that the emphasis on grotesquerie, comedy, scapegoating, violence and awkward social experiences coheres with what Doody and Epstein have argued are among Fanny's most subversive and valuable veins; see Margaret Anne Doody, Francis Burney: The Life in the Works (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1988), p. 3, 48-49 and elsewhere; Julia Epstein, The Iron Pen: Frances Burney and the Politics of Women's Writing (Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), passim.
8 Doody, pp. 178-98; see also Harman, pp. 219-22.
9 By "loaded" readers referred to the diversity of incident, cornucopia of detail, and, especially, to the well-known people and events included in the Penguin. Some readers wrote that as a young woman growing up in a house where such excellent music was heard led a privileged life we can't know today. Shelley Mactyre was among those who talked about different notions of civility and behavioral norms at the time.
10 I wrote a couple of postings *written* [Erratum] about Fanny's depiction of her mastectomy (by me), but could get no reply beyond a bare acknowledgement she had written this document.
11 See Penguin, No 1, p. 1 and Miller, pp. 56-9, 64, note 16.