Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
Frances (Fanny) Burney (Madame d’Arblay) (1752–1840)
 
[Frances Burney (Madame d’Arblay) was the daughter of Dr. Charles Burney, a musician of some note, and was born in London in 1752. Her education was neglected, and she was left to develop herself by her own acuteness of observation—for which the society in her father’s house gave her ample opportunities—and by reading, of which she was passionately fond, but which did not begin early, and was carried on without guidance. Even in her childhood her imagination was busy upon the construction of stories; but these were written without the knowledge of, and with no encouragement from, her relations. In 1778 she managed to publish, under a strict anonymity, her first novel, Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World. It obtained a rapid popularity, and earned praises from those whose praise was most valuable; and the secret of authorship soon leaking out, Frances Burney, at the age of twenty-seven, found herself suddenly famous, and was surrounded by the flattering attention of such men as Johnson, Burke, Reynolds, Sheridan, and Windham. In 1782 she published her second novel, Cecilia, or the Memoirs of an Heiress, which raised her fame still higher. Having formed a friendship for Mrs. Delany, she was by her means brought into the service of the Queen as keeper of the robes, and remained in that service for five miserable years, during which her pen was idle and her health seriously injured. She retired in 1791, and, residing in the society of the French refugees at Mickleham, she married the French General d’Arblay, with whom she afterwards spent many years in France. In 1796 she published her third novel, Camilla, or a Picture of Youth. Its success was far less than that of its predecessors, and the Wanderer, which followed in 1814, is a book which, fortunately for her reputation, is forgotten. She published the Memoirs of her father in 1832, and died in 1840. Her Diaries and Letters, which are full of liveliness and interest, were published in 1842.]  1
 
MEN who are now in middle life could hear accounts of the success of Frances Burney’s novels from the lips of those to whom that success was a personal experience, and who could recall the time when they were seized with avidity, were the subject of conversation in every literary circle, and were accepted by society as a faithful mirror of its own humours. They are now read only by the curious, and they fail to attract any of that ardent admiration which a comparatively limited, but thoroughly appreciative audience still give to Jane Austen. It may be doubted whether the oblivion will be perpetual, and whether an accident or whim may not send readers back to Evelina and Cecilia in greater numbers, and whether, when fashion has revived them, there may not be found in them some elements of enduring interest. If for no other reason, Frances Burney has a secure place in our literature as the forerunner of Jane Austen; but this is not her only claim. Her plots are without interest; but we feel that her men and women live as those only can who are created by imagination working upon a quick and lively observation. She paints in strong colours, and her drawing exaggerates the features. As Macaulay has pointed out she deals with the “humours” of society, rather than with subtle delineations of character. The exaggeration to which she is prone makes her characters wear a certain monotony of contrast, often stamps them as caricatures, and not infrequently degrades her comedy into farce, and swells her tragedy into bombast. But all this need not blind us to the essential excellence of her work. Her two first books were her best, and it would be well for her fame if no others were preserved. In these her observation is most keenly awake, her fancy is most quick and lively, her perception of passionate feeling most clear, and her grasp of character most strong. From first to last, even when to our mental habit she seems to verge towards rhodomontade, there is no trace of affectation. She is not without that rarest of gifts, a sense of real humour. But the quality which is most likely to give permanence to these books is the presence of one strong and consistent vein of passion, never relaxed, round which her story groups itself, and to the delineation of which each incident is subordinated with the skill of an artist. To the variety and lightness of a picture of everyday life she adds the enduring dignity of romance, with the largeness of drawing which idealises passion. The absence of this element of romantic idealism is the chief injury to such modern fiction as most naturally suggests a comparison with Frances Burney or Jane Austen; and it is because the modern realistic novel gives so much attention to a strict accuracy in infinitesimal details, and so constantly neglects the welding element of romantic passion, that it seems to crumble into a series of disjointed fragments, without any permanence of cohesion, and fails to retain a lasting impression on the memory. We cannot pretend to feel that all her sentiment has the true ring of pathos; but if it is often exaggerated and overstrained, it is never affected or false. We cannot deny that her situations often rest upon effete conventions, that her comic scenes are often childish and absurd. We cannot follow without impatience the plot of Cecilia, which bases the happiness of hero and heroine upon a ridiculous punctilio as to the surrender of a family name—the condition attached to the heroine’s fortune. But we must accept the conventions which were actual a hundred years ago, though they are now only ludicrous: we have only to ask whether, given those conditions, she has made her personages act with truth to nature in their presence, and we must answer in the affirmative. Evelina and Cecilia remain as types of perfect womanhood; their surroundings are to us out of joint, but their hearts are absolutely true to nature. The cumbersome convention makes the growth of interest in them slow; but once roused the interest does not wane, and carries us with the strong current of feeling to the end of each novel. Frances Burney was the first in her kind. She handed on the tradition of her art to Jane Austen, in whose hands the portraiture became more delicate, the shades of discrimination more subtle, the current of the story ran in a more secure and well-cut channel, and its interest was developed with greater art. But Frances Burney made Jane Austen possible; and if her touch was less delicate, it was perhaps more bold, and the colours were laid on with a stronger brush.  2
  The story of Evelina is told by a series of letters, and this is one reason why the style is better than in the later novels. The authoress was then in all the freshness of her genius. She wrote by herself and for herself, troubled herself little about models, and was hampered by no advice. She looked upon authorship as something at which she might make a girlish attempt, but which she could never seriously profess. But the simplicity of style is helped also by the epistolary form. Most of the letters are written by a girl of seventeen, and the author never forgets how such a heroine would write. Of the rest the chief are written by the girl’s guardian, and in their kind they are perfect, as expressions of tender and delicate affection. Four years later, when Cecilia was written, the epistolary style was abandoned. The narrative style came in its place, and fashion in that day almost forced narrative to adopt a solemn and inflated style. Frances Burney had in the interval become a literary character. She was never left to herself, and was surrounded day after day by the most finished talkers of the time, whose talk was above all things literary in form. Her most cherished friend was Johnson: and Johnson’s style was far too dominant in every sphere of literature to permit his chosen favourite, the playmate of his easier hours, to escape its influence. Macaulay rightly perceives the impression of his style in Cecilia; but his inference that Johnson’s hand was present in many passages is not so certainly true. His pervading influence was so great that no direct interference of his was necessary to make that influence felt.  3
  Unfortunately Miss Burney neither retained her own early simplicity, nor did she adhere to that measured formality which she had learned from Johnson. By whatever aberration of taste, or under whatever stress of circumstance—it may well be, as Macaulay surmises, by association with the French refugees and her subsequent residence in France—she fell into a style the most intricate, the most laboured, and the most affected that could be conceived. Her later novels had no qualities that could enable them to take their place with Evelina and Cecilia; but even if their other merits had been greater they would have been crushed into oblivion under the weight of such a style as is seen in the Wanderer and in the Memoirs of Dr. Burney.  4
  It is interesting to observe that in one of the passages quoted below, in which Miss Burney sums up the lesson of Cecilia, Jane Austen has found the title of what some hold to be her finest novel. The note is caught by one genius from the other, and it serves as a link between these two—the earliest, but not the least memorable, of our women novelists.  5
 
 
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