Frances [Fanny] Burney

Peter Sabor (ed.), The Court Journals and Letters of Frances Burney, Vol. 1: 1786

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Kew.Wednesday, Novr. 29th.

Miss Cambridge was with me the whole Morning, & made me very happy in her account of her Brother Charles & his prospects of speedily settling with Miss Edwards;774 chiefly, almost entirely, by the kind & zealous interposition of her Brother George. I rejoice to hear good of Those from whom I early expected it:—& I can never look back here without peculiar pleasure in hearing it, because here I peculiarly believed in it.—In breaking off that acquaintance, I have broken off all the ill thoughts that at times accompanied it, as well as all those which you have thought too elevated:—but I don't know why I return to this.

The Queen in looking over some Books while I was in waiting one Morning, met with The Mysterious Mother, Mr. Walpole's Tragedy: which he printed at Strawberry Hill & gave to a few friends, but has never pg 268suffered to be published.775 I expressed, by looks, I suppose, my wishes, for she most graciously offered to lend it me. I had long desired to read it, from so well knowing, & so much liking the Author: & he had promised me, if I would come a second time to Strawberry Hill,776 that I should have it: excursions of that sort being now totally over for me!—I was particularly glad of this only chance for gratifying my curiosity.

I had had it in my possession some Days, without reading it;—I had named it to Mr. & Mrs. Smelt, & they were eager to see it: the loan, however, being private, & the Book, having been lent to her Majesty by Lord Harcourt,777 I knew not under what restrictions, I could not produce it without leave: This Morning I asked, & obtained it; & promised to my two Guests, who dined with me, that as soon as the party broke up after Tea, it should be forth coming.

We waited, however, in vain to be alone: neither Mr. De Guiffardiere nor Mr, De Luc were summoned, & neither of them seemed disposed to retire to their own affairs. They are both, nevertheless, so high in favour, that I ventured to extend my Licence to them, & proposed concluding our Evening with my Tragedy.

Mr. De Guiffardiere seemed delighted with the proposal: Mr. De Luc made a wry face, & declared he loved not all that pretence to unhappiness;—but his objections were over-ruled by a large majority, & I brought forth the Play.

A difficulty now arose about the Reader, which had not presented itself to me before. My intention had all been for Mr. Smelt, to whom I instantly offered the Book: but he declared the deserved fame of Mr, Guiffardiere for reading, especially any thing Dramatic made it not pleasant to him to exhibit in his presence. Mr. De Guiffardiere instantly applied to me, protesting he would not read English while I was by:—& frankly adding that if the play were French he would make no scruple.

pg 269This excuse was allowed him by no one, as his pronunciation of our Language is such as to have persuaded almost every body that, though of a foreign family, he is English Born. Before a Reader whom I had heard famed by the highest Powers, I assured them all, in my turn, I could not prevail with myself to stand foremost, & I entreated Mr. Smelt to accept the office at once. He pleaded the natural hoarseness of his voice as a defect not to be overcome in Dramatic reading:—& thus we went on, losing the best part of our Evening, by mutual fears of one another, till at last Mrs. Smelt, with a sensible & good-humoured scold, told her Husband that if he resisted any longer, she would read herself, in defiance of her ahstmatic complaints.

This determined him, & the Curtain drew up.

The opening of the play contains a description of Superstitious fear extremely well, & feelingly, & naturally depicted:778 it begins, too, in an uncommon style, promising of interest & novelty:—but my praise will soon be done! swallowed up all in the heaviest censure.

A few Scenes only had we read, when a summons by a Page called away Mr. Smelt to the King. For once I saw him sorry to go; & sorry myself I am always to lose him. I now begged Mr, De Guiffardiere to take the Play: He protested he would not; urging me to read it myself, & pretending that—notwithstanding his Daily habits of reading, in many Languages, to their Majesties & their Circle, he could not possibly bring himself to read English to little me!—

I next proposed shutting up the Play for another opportunity, when we could again have Mr. Smelt.

Mrs. Smelt would not listen to this; &, at length, we came, most unwillingly on both sides, to a compromise: Mr. De Guiffardiere was to take the men, & myself the females.

"Who would believe it, cried he, laughing, as he took the Book, that I should dare undertake to read an English Play before Miss Burney!—" Yet he acknowledged, afterwards, that in preaching an English Sermon pg 270upon some occasion abroad, he had been taken for an English Man by all the congregation.

His reluctance, however, was real, though so unnecessary, for I soon found he did not do himself justice, giving none of the energy of his own Character to any of the Personages of the Piece.

When the "fair Females"779 appeared,—I used every possible means to induce him to go on; but all in vain; he was positive in his claim,— uncontrollable in his desire.

Thus compelled, I took the Book: & I read through the first female Scene;780 very ill & tamely; but, with all his Englishising, he is still too much of a Foreigner not to be civil where occasion is inviting, And Who else therefore, he said, could have read that?—But I was now relieved, for honest Mrs. Smelt confessed my voice was so low, that she had not heard a word!—Mr. De Guiffardière was now compelled in his turn, & he kept close to his task till Mr. Smelt was allowed to come back to us.

They then read in turn till the whole was finished.

Dreadful was the whole! truly dreadful! a story of so much horror, from attrocious & voluntary guilt, never did I hear!781 Mrs. Smelt & myself heartily regretted that it had come in our way, & mutually agreed that we felt ourselves ill-used in having ever heard it. She protested she would never do herself so much wrong as to acknowledge she had suffered the hearing so wicked a tale, & declared she would drive it from her thoughts as she would the recollection of what-ever was most baneful to them.

For myself, I felt a sort of indignant aversion rise fast & warm in my mind against the wilful Author of a story so horrible: all the entertainment & pleasure I had received from Mr. Walpole seemed extinguished by this lecture, which almost made me regard him as the Patron of the vices he had been pleased to record.782

Mr. De Luc had escaped from the latter part of this hateful Tragedy, protesting, afterwards, he saw what was coming, & would not stay to hear it out.

pg 271Mr. Smelt confessed, with me, it was a lasting Disgrace to Mr. Walpole to have chosen such a Subject, & thought him deserving even of punishment for such a painting of Human wickedness: & the more, as the story through-out was forced & improbable.

But the whole of all that could be said on this subject was summed up in one sentence by Mr. Guiffardiere, which, for its masterly strength & justice brought to my mind my ever revered Dr. Johnson.—"Mr. Walpole, cried he, has chosen a plan of which nothing can equal the abomination—but the absurdity!—"783

And now I think you have enough of it! & when I returned it to the Queen, I professed myself earnest in my hopes that she would never deign to cast her Eye upon it.

The next Day [30 November], the last of this Month, I received a very sensible pleasure in my first visit, at this my now Home, from my truly maternal Friend Mrs. Ord.

It was at the Queen's House in Town, whither we went for the Drawing Room. Miss Planta & Mr. De Luc accompanied me to St. James's, whither, from Kew, we drove at once, ready Dressed, & bitterly cold!— rising at 6 in the Morn to be full Dressed at once is indeed a wearisome fatigue for the last Day of November. Were it inflicted upon me as a punishment instead of being simply ordained as a ceremony, I should consider it as ample penance for most of the sins upon my conscience.— especially when a cold Journey, without the power of even wearing a Cloak, is to take place immediately after: for, as I have no Assistant at St. James's for myself, I am necessitated to finish my Dress entirely at Kew: I cannot, therefore, risk

[Part of the Berg MS is missing. The lacuna in the text is supplied by a fragment from Barrett.]

mantling784 my poor Neck & shoulders, lest I make a derangement which I have nobody to set to rights for me.—The Queen & the Princesses, here as at the Queen's House in Town, only have their heads dressed before the journey, & put on their Court Robes at St. James's.

Here let me rest—for this Day,—this Month,—& the opening of the next—I was happy, as I have said, to see Mrs. Ord, but it was her pg 272happiness I borrowed, which made me so;—I saw men my so far-far dearer yet Mr. & Mrs. Lock,—but I felt not happy in that!785 —O no! the sight of my too feeling—too penetrating Fredy was a sort of electric sensation, that thrilled me through-out with an agony of distress I never dared fully vent—never could even aparently disguise!—In writing Facts & circumstances, I have wholly omitted the state of my Mind,—& let me omit it still—omit—Good God!—I cannot write about that time!— Forget it too, my beloved Susan—forget it, my sweet simpathising Fredy!—to recollect what You suffered for me then,—for me & by me,— is of all my recollections the most painful!—Anarchy & wretchedness had then the whole of my Mind to themselves;—all that was calm, decent, or momentarily chearful, was constraint, force, self-violence!—Let me let me have done—forgive but its effect—& its baneful influence, my two sweetest & most tender of Friends, & tell me that, both, & let us drop this ill-fated & wretched period—if possible—for-ever!—

I should mention that I had paved the way for the power of receiving Mrs. Ord by the means of Mr. Smelt.

Notes Settings

Notes

Editor’s Note
774 Charles Owen Cambridge (1754–1847), m. (1787) Mary Edwards (d. 1788). He was the second son of Richard Owen Cambridge and brother to George Owen Cambridge.
Editor’s Note
775 FB first met Horace Walpole (1717–97)—writer, wit, and connoisseur in—1783. In 1768, he had printed fifty copies of his blank-verse tragedy The Mysterious Mother at his private press at Strawberry Hill, his famous neo-Gothic castle in Twickenham, for distribution to his friends. In 1781, another edition was printed by james Dodsley, but Walpole withheld this edition from publication too, again distributing copies to favoured friends. See Peter Sabor, '"An old tragedy on a disgusting subject": Horace Walpole and The Mysterious Mother', in Writing and Censorship in Britain, ed. Paul Hyland and Neil Sammells (London: Routledge, 1992), 91–106.
Editor’s Note
776 FB had visited Walpole at Strawberry Hill in September 1784 and again, with CB, in September 1785. In Memoirs, she misdates the second visit as 1786 (iii. 65).
Editor’s Note
777 Perhaps during the royal visit to Oxford, when the Royal Family stayed with Lord and Lady Harcourt at Nuneham Courtenay. Lord Harcourt's presentation copy of The Mysterious Mother is mentioned by A. T. Hazen, who also notes that Lord Harcourt received several other Strawberry Hill publications (A Bibliography of the Strawberry Hill Press (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1942), 85, 285).
Editor’s Note
778 The first scene of The Mysterious Mother, which FB admired, is a soliloquy by Florian, a friend of the hero, Count Edmund. The opening lines create an atmosphere of 'Superstitious fear':
  • What awfull silence! How these antique towers
  • And vacant courts chill the suspended soul,
  • Till expectation wears the cast of fear;
  • And fear, half-ready to become devotion,
  • Mumbles a kind of mental orison,
  • It knows not wherefore. (1.1.1–6)
Editor’s Note
779 A favourite phrase of FB's Irish acquaintance John Blakeney (FJL iii. 416–18). It is also used by Charlotte Burney in a letter of 16 January 1784 to SBP (ED ii. 313).
Editor’s Note
780 Act 3, scene 2, in which the heroine and her daughter Adeliza are together on stage for the first time. FB apparently read both parts.
Editor’s Note
781 Set in medieval Narbonne, the play features double incest: between the Countess of Narbonne and her son, Edmund (unwitting on the part of the son), and between Edmund and his sister-daughter, Adeliza (unwitting on both parts).
Editor’s Note
782 In Memoirs, FB redoubles her attack, describing The Mysterious Mother as 'a tragedy that seems written upon a plan as revolting to probability as to nature; and that violates good taste as forcible as good feeling. It seems written, indeed, as if in epigrammatic scorn of the horrors of the Greek drama' (iii. 67).
Editor’s Note
783 De Guiffardière's summation of The Mysterious Mother has, as FB notes, a Johnsonian ring.
Editor’s Note
784 i.e. placing a mantle over, for warmth.
Editor’s Note
785 On 'the opening of the next' month, Friday 1 December, FB had a meeting with the Lockes, at which, for the first time, Frederica understood the extent of FB's unhappiness. FB returns to this subject in her letter to SBP of 26 December, below.
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