Dedicated to classics and hits.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


by Frances Burney
Oxford's World Classics Edition p. 2009
Originally Published 1796

   Frances Burney had hits for days.  As I've observed here, Artist biography's tend to fall into hagiographic or psychological modes of analysis.  Rare is the Artist biography to address the market conditions that shaped Artist output in any significant way.  Certainly, as one proceeds back through time, this fact becomes more, rather then less true.

   Burney was one of the novel's first hit makers. (!)  She is most known today for her direct, proximate influence on Jane Austen. (@)  Camilla was her last (of 3) novels.  Her break out was Evelina (BOOK REVIEW) and then she followed it up with Cecilia (BOOK REVIEW).  Both Cecilia and Camilla are 900 pages long, and that is A LOT of what you need to know about both the strengths and weaknesses for Burney as a novelist, but someone who inspired excellent Art, rather then one who created great Art for herself.  I venture that only as a fan- the truth is that she had hits for days, and she was the first really popular female novelist and that counts for a lot.

   Her biographical details are interesting and relevant, even if they don't tell the whole story.  She was the daughter of Charles Burney- who is himself a pivotal figure in the history of Music.  She got married at 42 and had a kid at 43... in 1793.  Burney wrote Camilla, her last novel, to secure the position of her family after her child was born.  She did not right another novel afterwards.

  If Evelina represents the "first record" of Burney's Artistic career, Cecilia represents the perfection of her form, and then Camilla is a re-iteration of that success, in the same way that successful movies bear sequels.   Burney wrote Camilla with her existing Audience in mind, and the Audience responded predictably(favorably).  In a very real sense, Cecilia and Camilla are basically the same character: A young woman on the border of wealth and poverty, needing to secure a husband and very enmeshed in the well-being of her extended family.

  Both novels clearly belong to a mixed 18th century/19th century tradition.  Compare Evelina, which is an epistolary novel- and thus clearly a work from the 18th century- with Cecilia/Camilla, which both feature a more modern narrative technique while keeping the lengthy, plot-heavy form of the 18th century novel.  The endless machination of plot that characterize Burney's later two novels clearly catered to the mode of publishing for the Novel at the time she was writing.

    The Publishers then (late 18th century) wanted books to come out in multi-volume editions.  In the case of Camilla, the form consisted of five volumes- i.e. separate books published in sequence.  Each Volume had two "Books,"  and then there enumerated Chapters within each book.

 Broadly speaking, Cecilia dealt with a young woman who could only inherit on a specified condition, and Camilla dealt with a young woman who everyone thought to be a heiress, but was not.  The function of the inheritance in both novels is as an instrument for literary alienation of the main characters. It is fair to say that both plots are entirely driven by complications related to inheritance and marriage.

 One completely insane note from the perspective of the modern reader is that literally none of the main characters are older then 18.  This is a book avowedly about very young women getting married to much older men who were often behaving in a manner that would land them in prison for the rest of their lives in "modern times."

  Burneys characters are emphatically of the 18th century, particularly her feckless, spend-thrift men.  Whether they were modeled on her father or people she met as the daughter of a Court Musician in late 18th century British society, they are well observed, and represent an enduring contribution to the encyclopedia of literary depiction.

  The 18th century definitely had an edge of danger in England that the Victorian period somewhat evened out, but the men in her books are almost to a man literally sociopaths.  I believe that this likely appealed to her immediate Audience, and perhaps prevented her from gaining the kind of acclaim that she deserved.  Personally, I think her male characters are fascinating, the 18th century of American Psycho's Patrick Bateman.

  I would submit that female Audience members still respond to this kind of male character.  I suspect that the Lifetime Network movie catalog is chock a fill with them, as are Romance novels and other kind of art forms with a primarily female Audience.  To talk of the Authors enduring success here  is to talk of the depiction of social space and character: Burney excelled at doing both, and it was something that her followers amplified with great success. Clearly, they did not amplify the practice of writing two 900 page plus novels with 50 odd characters each- other Authors did that, but not her female succesors.


!  Burney was the one of the first woman to score a hit number one novel.  And she did it at 26.  Back in 2010, I observed of her first novel, Evelina, "You can’t write about Evelina without commenting on what a success the book was.  The mere fact of Evelina’s endurance, in print, for over 200 years speaks to that success.  The more 18th century literature I read, the more I find myself drawn to the market place for that literature.  I wonder whether, ultimately, there is anything particularly interesting about 18th century novels other then their relationship with the readers."

@  Jane Austen may be the most successful novelist of all time.  Certainly, when you add in the Bronte sisters, you have an Artistic tradition being developed along aesthetically advanced and market savvy lines.   If a reader is interested in the larger pan-Artistic field of "Asethetics," the woman novelists of the late 18th and early 19th century are a worthwhile territory in which to pan for inspirational and thematic gold.

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