Infamous Scribblers

women writers of the long eighteenth century

More than a “No Body”: Frances Burney and the Infamy of Being a Somebody

Frances Burney, 1752-1840

So, once upon a time, when I was a little undergrad English major dreaming of graduate school, I was convinced I’d be a Victorianist and applied to schools as such.

Then a professor required that I read Evelina (1778) by this chick I had never heard of: Frances who? I was resentful. I wanted to read some more Austen…because clearly six novels weren’t enough of her.

And then I read Burney. And she changed my life.

Now I’m a hardcore student of the eighteenth century and would be satisfied to read Burney for the rest of my life. This is a necessary story, because below you will find a whole lot of gushing, and I just wanted to explain why.

While Burney is ever depicted as a meek, reserved, tiny woman who knew the ups and downs of polite society, her foray into authorship was actually quite infamous. She wrote and published Evelina entirely without her father’s knowledge–which is fitting if we consider that the novel is story of a young woman who leaves her male guardian to venture into the complex, fascinating, and dangerous world of society. And, like Burney herself, Evelina adopts a surname that makes her quite anonymous. I don’t go so far as to call Burney (who I refuse to call “Fanny”) the living version of Evelina, as so many of her friends and literary acquaintances were apt to do; rather, I think part of Burney’s sparkling brilliance and daring rubs off in her witty debut novel, though her powers are quite muted compared to her later works.

Evelina and Sir Clement Willoughby

Achieving blockbuster success with her first novel, Burney warmed to the thought of becoming a playwright, since she exhibited a deep regard and penchant for theatre and performance. Just as Evelina claims she nearly jumps on stage to join David Garrick, so too did Burney strive to succeed in the tumultuous theatre culture in London. After writing a great piece of satire, The Witlings (1779), Burney’s father and one of her mentors, Samuel “Daddy” Crisp, stepped in to put a stop to her play. Speculations abound: in their letters they claimed it was indelicate for a polite lady to write plays of all things, though especially comedies; yet some scholars suspect another motive more in line with the fact that Burney satirizes the Bluestocking group, particularly Elizabeth Montagu. As a powerful literary patron and member of society, Montagu’s displeasure would be most displeasing indeed to incur.

With a heavy heart, Burney suppressed the play and in many ways re-formulated it through writing her next novel, Cecilia (1782), which happens to be my favorite novel. Ever. In many ways a Burneyian retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Cecilia is yet another example of her poignant wit, social prowess, and her concern for the dangers and violences enacted upon women by both the men who are supposed to guide them and society at large. (PS Lady Honoria is delightful. As is Fidel the Spaniel. Everything is better with a dog.) Burney went on to write two other novels: Camilla (1796)–a novel frequently referenced in the nineteenth century as a favorite, especially by Austen, though it is perhaps her most frustrating novel– and The Wanderer (1814)–tragically a too often neglected novel of the French Revolution that deserves much more attention as it is, in many ways, her most intriguing, especially where gender politics are concerned.

And we cannot forget about Burney’s brilliant journal writing–though she wrote them “to no body,” it seems that nowadays everybody is reading them. And rightfully so.

Inspiring to the likes of Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth, beloved by Samuel Johnson and more, Frances Burney is far more complex and enigmatic than she has previously been constructed. Her life is just as fascinating, perhaps, as the novels she creates. Entering the world anonymously, Burney quickly turned from being a no body to a substantial some body in the literary world. Despite the constant portrayals of her as meek, proper, and snobbish, she has her moments of energetic defiance of social norms and customs that make her endlessly intriguing as both a figure and author.

Thank you Burney, for making me an eighteenth centuryist!

Recommended Readings:

On Burney

Doody, Margaret Anne. Frances Burney: The Life in The Works. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1988.

Epstein, Julia. The Iron Pen: Frances Burney and the Politics of Women’s Writing. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

By Burney

Journals & Letters
The Wanderer
The Witlings

From Journal 1768-1777

To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal! since To Nobody can I be wholly unreserved–to Nobody can I reveal every thought, every wish of my Heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity to the end of my Life! For what chance, what accident can end my connections with Nobody?

From The Witlings 

LADY SMATTER. O, I am among the critics. I love criticism passionately, though it is really laborious work, for it obliges one to read with a vast deal of attention. I declare I am sometimes so immensely fatigued with the toil of studying for faults & objections that I am ready to fling all my books behind the fire.
CECILIA. And what authors have you chiefly criticized?
LADY SMATTER. Pope & Shakespeare . . . I have not cut them up regularly through; indeed, I have not, yet, read above half their works, so how they will fare as I go on, I can’t determine.

From Cecilia

Whereas a crazy young lady, tall, fair complexioned, with blue eyes and light hair, ran into the Three Blue Balls, in—street, on Thursday night, the 2d instant, and has been kept there since out of charity. She was dressed in a riding habit. Whoever she belongs to is desired to send after her immediately. She has been treated with the utmost care and tenderness. She talks much of some person by the name of Delvile.

N.B. She had no money about her. 


About Rachel

Doctoral Candidate in Literature

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This entry was posted on March 11, 2013 by .

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