By Adam Stevenson
Meeting in the Dr Johnson House on a January evening is inherently cosy. The house stands on a square filled with legal offices, so at six o’clock it is the only lit building shining into the street. Inside there is a hubbub of engaged conversation and the pouring of wine and elderflower. On this evening, the cosiness was amplified by the snow swirling outside.
We met to discuss the selected journals and journal letters of Francis Burney and were aided by Peter Sabor, one of the two editors who selected them. The group had loved Burney’s first novel, Evelina and the reaction to the journals was equally positive.
The events in her life fall into a number of definite sections. The first was her initial celebrity after the publication of Evelina. The novel was written in secret, as she was terrified of being exposed as a boastful ‘scribbler’ and paranoid about her father’s disapproval. She claimed she had it published on a whim but she was genuinely surprised when it became the talk of the literary world. Following the success of Evelina, she was invited to join the court of Queen Caroline. She was there for five years and appeared to have hated most of it. For someone who was overly (even sensitively) keen on propriety, she has an inner streak of independence that wouldn’t be contained by court life. As usual, her snippets of court personalities are full of vigour – George III is full of energy and life, perhaps even more so during one his ‘mad’ periods where he chases her around the gardens of Windsor.
Released from court, she finished the book Cecilia. I loved hearing her friends discussing it, how one managed to read it four times whilst Sir Joshua Reynolds was still on the first volume. The best part was when she met Mrs Delaney and the Duchess of Portland. They gossip about the characters as if they are friends and (thrillingly for me) describe Richardson’s Clarissa as long and boring.
Then she fell in love with Alexandre D’Arblay, a penniless emigré from the Revolutionary France. Using her court pension and the sales of her third novel, she bought a little cottage, renaming it Camilla Cottage, where she had a son. In the lull between Anglo-French wars, the three of them went to visit family in France and were subsequently trapped in there for ten years. She suffered a mastectomy without anaesthesia, reported on the effect of Waterloo from Brussels and moved back to England.
As she grew older she lost family members (including her father, husband and son), sorted through her father’s next-to-useless memoirs, wrote another novel and got trapped in a cave filling with sea-water. Then she died, aged 87.
Burney is remarkably perceptive about those around her, with an almost pitch-perfect ear for how people spoke. While her visual and behavioural descriptions of people follow some pretty ordinary 18th century phrasings and forms, her ability to create a real voice is astounding. Whether it is King George III’s little tag phrases (“what, what”), Paoli’s peculiar manipulation of English (“I was a baby to him”) or an Irish peer’s odd, scattered chat (“boys here, boys there, boys all over”). She manages to bring the people into the room. Interestingly, she also has Johnson starting many of his utterances with a barked ‘Sir!’, so it wasn’t just Boswell’s affectation. (Incidentally, she avoids Boswell because of his own listening ear and ready notebook).
Burney also has a playful attitude to her language, creating nicknames and parodying poems, mixing in snatches of different languages and even creating words of her own. We learnt that ‘agreeableness’ and ‘shopping’ are both Burney originals.
As a person, we reflected that Francis Burney was not the most empathetic of people. She was perfectly prepared to cut people off if they upset her and was often more concerned with her own smaller dilemmas, such as when she was embarrassed that people at the trial of Warren Hastings might spot her there and think she condoned the trial. As clear-sighted as she reported others, she often saw herself as fragile, especially in her younger years where she is both delighted and mortified by any praise. Whether she recognised it or not, Francis Burney had a core of steel which could steer her through war, shipwreck and agonising surgery, outlasting pretty much everyone around her, right into the era of Queen Victoria.
The Penguin Selected Journals and Letters (currently out-of-print: look to it, Penguin!) were only about ten percent of the full twenty-five volumes, the last one currently to be published this year. Ask how he made the selection, Peter Sabor said there were obvious set-piece parts to include but the rest were essentially chosen for taste and space. Apparently, although Francis Burney wrote letters about the same topics to different people, she rarely repeated herself or acted as if she was working off a central script. Although an undeniably big task, it must have been a highly rewarding one, as each of the letters we read contained some gem or detail. We even agreed that the writing in the letters was probably more gripping than the novels, as they were devoid of the sentimental fluff that novels were expected to have.
This is a book I would highly recommend: there are so many small and incidental details that were fascinating. We get to really hear Johnson at his most frighteningly vitriolic and his most tender. We are trapped in the stuffy royal court where she spends the long evenings looking at coffee because she doesn’t like to drink it. We get gossip about people with big noses, Corsican generals meeting Irish Giants and Tahitian adventurers eying up beautiful women in Hyde Park… and so much more.