Betty Rizzo (ed.), The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney, Vol. 4: The Streatham Years, Part II, 1780-1781

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For Fanny Burney the years 1780 and 1781 were a time of social and professional success unprecedented for a woman author. Evelina was famous; she herself was courted and feted by fashionable society. This was a situation quite unknown to the women authors who had preceded her and whose literary fame as it increased only brought with it increased notoriety and rejection. At best respectable women writers like Charlotte Lennox, whom Hester Thrale disliked, or like Mrs Bowdler and Mrs Dobson in Bath, were judged vulgar or inelegant. Fanny was constrained to invent and perform a new role in the world, that of the thoroughly decorous, respectable, and refined maiden who carefully guarded her genius and her wit. In public her role demanded she flash only very occasional tantalizing glimpses of the satirical wit which increased only in proportion to the intimacy of her audience. She was most herself, funniest and most wickedly witty, with her sister Susan. The discrepancy between the romping humour and the trenchant satire of Evelina and the demure Miss Burney teased and impelled the curious to test and retest her; and the consequence of a flaw in her social performance could have been disastrous for both herself and her family. (It would also have been disastrous for those respectable women authors, like Charlotte Smith and Jane Austen, who would be enabled through her example to follow her.) Certainly Hester Thrale was right when in early times she charged that Fanny's was

the Grace of an Actress not a Woman of Fashion—how should it? The Burneys are I believe a very low Race of Mortals. Her Conversation would be more pleasing if She thought less of herself; but her early Reputation embarrasses her Talk, and clouds her Mind with scruples about Elegancies which either come uncalled for or will not come at all.1

pg xIn fact Fanny's elegance was generally assumed to be acted. Her acceptance as a polite author probably proceeded in great part from society's acceptance of her father as a low-born but polite servitor of the rich who had assimilated their manners (without their independence) and who was fit to mingle with and instruct them—as his father, the dancer, musician and portrait painter, had been before him. Happiest with the concept of class stability, Fanny's public could easily fit her, as novelist, into the same middling social niche with other polite artists fit to associate with. She was by heredity designed to amuse and instruct them; but none of them would marry her. To her credit, soon enough Fanny got the manner right, and in 1785 Elizabeth Carter wrote of her, 'She is perfectly free from all Appearance of Affectation & Conceit: & the Simplicity & Modesty of her Behaviour are worthy of so uncommon & great a Genius'.2

On the one hand, at Streatham Fanny needed to display her wit—what the Streathamites called flash. At Bath in 1780 Fanny and Hester Thrale were to reject Christopher Anstey for his lack of it. When she was gay, Fanny would later write in her French exercise book, Queeney Thrale loved her 'à la folie'. To amuse Queeney she had only to babble all that passed through her head: 'Tout ce qu'était bizarre lui plaissait hors de tout expression; et moi, dans ce temps, j'avais souverainement le don de la bizarrerie, de la gaieté grotesque, burlesque, et ridicule'.3 On the other hand in great society she had to be demure, had always to be prepared to rebuff any impertinences. There were sometimes lively attractive young men who considered themselves entitled to pay the author of Evelina attentions they could not have paid plain Miss Frances Burney without inquiry into their intentions; these same young men never considered marrying a penniless woman author. She had, even more than other women, to be socially amusing, yet to be pg xion the defensive. People purported to watch their manners and tongues around Miss Burney for fear of being put in a book, but there were scenes, like the facetious conversation of Crutchley and Seward (pp. 376–7), that one suspects were deliberately concocted by the participants for her refined enjoyment and possible future use.

Despite, therefore, the gaiety of her hours in the sun, often played up in the journals, Fanny's continuing success in society entailed anxiety enough. But in these years this was not the chief of her anxieties. She had others which often forced gaiety to be assumed as a role.

First there was the economic necessity to follow Evelina with another successful work. Fanny did not have the option to retire that other genteel authors might have enjoyed; she had already refused one good offer of marriage and knew that if she were to remain at home with her father, she ought to do something to relieve him of a burden with which her stepmother could reproach them both. The money from Evelina had been meager; she had to make another cast. In these years she worked hard, first at the comedy which, had her father and her Daddy Crisp allowed it, would probably have been another success (after being edited and tightened by Arthur Murphy or Richard Sheridan). Then, when they had pulled The Witlings from the boards, she waited for Crisp's approval of Cecilia and set to work again. Being an obedient daughter was part of the enactment of the role of acceptable woman author. Crisp chose the new project; her father mandated the time frame. Her attempt to finish the five-volume work to order caused two serious illnesses in 1781.

Nor was it easy for Fanny to find time and a place to write. Given the many demands on her, it is quite astonishing that she had produced both The Witlings and Cecilia by 1782. She could not write at Streatham, where Hester Thrale, surrounded by an unsympathetic and ailing husband, his loyal defender Samuel Johnson, and a clever disapproving daughter, had found in Fanny both a real friend and a very convenient lion. Fanny had proved to be the very support Hester needed to reintroduce herself into the fashionable society she had forsaken at marriage to a Southwark brewer who had instigated, without passion or even love, a long and pg xiialmost seamless series of pregnancies. Charles Burney, too, basked in Fanny's social success and approved of her presence at Streatham. But she herself often longed to be at home with him and her sisters where she could be her familiar old self. Her stepmother's demands, however, made it impossible for her to write in St Martin's Street. In the retirement of Chessington she could both work and most deeply be herself. In the years 1780 and 1781 she was torn by the various demands that she be in all of these three places and by the overriding necessity of producing another successful work to provide herself with some degree of independence and autonomy.

A compelling reason to spend time at home was the unsatisfactory and often threatening behavior of her brothers James and Charles. The livelihood of Dr Burney, who instructed the young of the rich and the fashionable, depended upon his complete respectability. While his elder four daughters adored, aided, and protected him and the family reputation, the two elder sons acted out destructively to abort the projects their father conceived for their successful establishment, and even to disgrace the family. This gendered difference of the siblings' response to the family situation is an important component of the family dynamic and a result, probably, of the early death of the children's mother. The sisters encouraged their father's projects and tried to reconcile the angry and often authoritarian parent to his rebellious sons, just as they tried gently to encourage and regulate the sons. During the years 1780 and 1781 the Burney family agonized over James and Charles, and also worried about young Richard, Dr Burney's son by his second wife, who would later himself go disastrously astray. In 1780 James, at sea with the third Cook round-the-globe expedition, failed to notify his family of his continuing existence even when at the Cape of Good Hope he had had the opportunity. When at sea he was generally remiss in notifying the family of his health and his prospects, but in this case he may have been ashamed to explain that a characteristic conflict with Capt. Clerke, his immediate superior, early in the voyage had caused him to be twice passed over for promotion. By missing an ample opportunity to return pg xiiia captain in 1780, James missed his chance to command a large ship and grow rich on prizes while Britain was still at war, and he was retired from active service for yet another act of insubordination in 1785. His father might legitimately accuse him in 1808 of an unfortunate Painism (below, p. 247 n. 42). Moreover, on his return in 1780, James would embarrass two families by jilting Patty Payne, the young woman with whom he had had an understanding, in favor of her younger sister Sally.

Charles had been sent down in disgrace from Cambridge for stealing library books. After his dismissal and the seeming finish to family plans to see him ordained, he had gone to Aberdeen to study. There he piled up debts and attempted to cultivate friends with influence as the shortest way to success. Having attained his MA degree in March 1781, he unaccountably and without explanation failed to return home for months, leaving his sisters and his father to imagine every conceivable scandal. In fact Charles had made a friend of the Earl of Fife and had tarried in Scotland, compounding more debts, possibly in an unsuccessful effort to solve his problems by marrying the Earl's cousin. On his return he was refused ordination and had to become a lowly school master.

Beautiful Richard, son of the second Mrs Burney, was a great and over-indulged favorite who already in 1781 had muffed a hard-won opportunity to study at Winchester and embroiled himself in a childish love affair with the Thrales' 10-year-old daughter Susan. At the end of 1781 when there seemed nothing else to do with him, he was sent off to 'finish' his education at Geneva under the supervision of his half-sister Bessy Allen Meeke, a young woman demonstrably unable to superintend herself. The eventual end result was predictable.

As if all this were not enough, by 1781 Fanny was threatened with the loss of her confidante and closest friend, her sister Susan. Susan's romance with James's shipmate Molesworth Phillips was of great concern to Fanny, who, forewarned by the penurious life her elder sister Esther lived, worried about the possible deficiencies of the charming Phillips. Nor could she confide her fears about Phillips' pg xivreliability to Susan; she was constrained, for fear of alienating Phillips and thus losing her sister, to support Susan in her movement toward what would in fact prove an injudicious marriage.

A final strain resulted from the illness, deterioration, and death of Henry Thrale. His state of health made it difficult for Fanny to elude Hester Thrale's demands on her, and when she was not with the Thrales, she supported her friend through a correspondence which made a very considerable demand on her time and her emotions.

Fanny knew her journals would be read, first by her sister, then by other members of her family, after that by Samuel Crisp and his circle, and finally (since she deliberately edited and preserved them) by the circle which we, her current readers, comprise. In society she was an actress. In her journals she could not refrain from being novelist and playwright. She kept up that same gay amiability and badinage which women were supposed to supply, all the time suppressing as much as possible the worries and concerns which nevertheless consistently and persistently emerge.4 She was composing a version of her life for public consumption almost from the outset, and frequently, following her own hints, we must guess at the subtext and fill in the omissions. Many obliterated passages have been restored here; but other passages have been destroyed or were never even committed to paper. We have here the history of another Evelina entering the great world, interpreted largely as comedy, all complications perhaps intended to be happily resolved. If James's sadly wavering affections cannot supply romance, the love affair of Susan and Phillips can, at this stage, supply a little. But it is Henry Thrale and the two daddies who provide stability; a hero is lacking among the younger men. Fuller and Boissier flirt and move on, Crutchley never declares himself (if he had ever thought to), James and Charles return revealed in all their imperfections, the gluttonous Henry Thrale dies almost, one might say, by his own hand. The best romance in the book pg xvis that between Fanny and Hester Thrale; but finally we are left, as the author soldiers on, headed for the triumph of Cecilia in 1782. And in the end the true romance lies in the successful struggle of the young author toward the realization of her book.


In this volume the following editorial symbols and abbreviations are employed:


A break in the manuscript pages

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Uncertain readings

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Text or information supplied by the editor; also insertions or substitutions by Madame d'Arblay, identified as such by a footnote

Matter overscored by Madame d'Arblay but recovered

[xxxxx 3 lines]

[xxxxx 2 words]

Matter overscored by Madame d'Arblay; not recovered

The head-notes use or reproduce the following biblio-graphic abbreviations and signs:


Autograph journal


Autograph journal letter signed


Autograph letter


Autograph letter signed


Postmarks, of which only the essential are abstracted, e.g., 23 IV

Madame d'Arblay's symbol for manuscripts 'Examined & Amalgamated with others'; also, for manuscripts released for publication in a second category of interest

Other symbols of Madame d'Arblay for manuscripts in a second category of interest

The reader is also referred to the editorial principles outlined in EJL i, pp. xxix–xxxiii.


1 Thralian., ed. Katherine C. Balderston (Oxford, 1951), i. 368.

2 British Library, Althorp Papers, F 58, letter of Elizabeth Carter to Mrs Howe of 25 Dec. 1785.

3 New York Public Library, Berg Collection, Fanny Burney's manuscript French Exercise Book III, under date 10 June 1804: 'Anything bizarre pleased her beyond expression; and at that time I had a superlative gift for the bizarre, for grotesque gaiety, burlesque, and ridicule.'

4 For examples of a dissimulated carefree mood when she was deeply worried about James and Charles, see the letters to Charlotte of 14 February and to Susan of 2–3 July 1781 (pp. 295–7, 389–91).

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