Dedicated to classics and hits.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012


Book Review
Margaret Anne Doody
p. 1988

  I like writing about 18th century literature because it's a legitimate cultural subject, and it's pretty much impossible to offend anyone with your opinion.  Five years of blogging about music and literature have taught me that the easiest thing to do with a blog is offend someone with your opinion.

 The stand out figure in my recent audit of 18th century British literature was Frances Burney.  She is an appealing Author/Artist for several reasons:

 2. Daughter of well know 18th century musician/author Charles Burney.
 3. HAD PLENTY OF HITS: Evelina, Cecilia, Camilla.

  Burney published Evelina, her first book, in 1778- she was 26.  It was a hit, though the combination of Burney's status as a single woman and the nascent state of the development of the market for literature combined to deprive her of financial rewards that would have equaled her critical success.

  Evelina was published anonymously, but that only lasted until the critics made their positive statements and the initial press of 2500 copies sold out.  An important biographical fact of Frances Burney's life was her relationships with her "Daddies"(her words, not mine)- her actual father Charles Burney- court musician and author of the path breaking History of Music- and her "Uncle"- Samuel Crisp.  It is Crisp whom Burney most often referred to as "Daddy" in her correspondence.  Burney and Crisp played a crucial role in her career- a role best illustrated after the success of Evelina, when Frances decided to write a play.

   The play (never produced) was called The Witlings, and it was essentially a satire on modern life.   Doody wrote this book before Seinfeld aired, but the over all tenor of the play would have to be described as Seinfeldian since it is essentially a "play about nothing."

   Even after reading an entire chapter on the subject, it's still unclear to me why Crisp and Burney pere conspired to suppress The Witlings.  The common take on this circumstances is that Burney/Crisp thought it was too "unladylike" for Frances to be writing plays, but if that was the case, they didn't put it like that.  Rather they told her that the play was terrible, and too imitative of antecedent plays, and that she would, essentially, ruin her literary reputation as a result of its performance.

  By the time The Witlings had been suppressed it was 1781, and she was pressured to write a follow up- a book which became Cecilia.  Burney wrote Cecilia for an existing Audience, one that anticipated the release.  Cecilia was published in summer of 1782- either 30 or close to it- was the "age of spinster" in late 18th century London.

  In December of 1782, Burney met Owen Cambridge, a minister from a good family.  They spent the next couple years in a halting court ship that resulted in no proposal. OUCH.  After the Cambridge fiasco, Burney secured a job- via her father- as a lady in waiting to the Queen of England.  She took her position in July of 1786- having wasted a full four years with Owen Cambridge.   She was not excited to take the gig- it involved being "on call" day and night, and spending many an hour standing around and doing nothing at all.

  Ironically, it was her journals during this period of servitude that proved to be Burney's most enduring work before her late 20th century revival at the hands of feminist inspired literary scholars.   She had a front seat to what we now of as "THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE"- she was right there, and taking notes the whole time.   She managed to escape the clutches of the Queen, essentially by feigning severe illness, and was released with a 100 guinea a year life pension in 1791.

  She was now 39, unmarried, childless. So what does she do? She goes out and lands an exiled French military man and has a kid.  Boom.  Then to secure her lively hood she writes Camilia:  Also a hit. BOOM.  Eventually she ends up in France with her husband and her child, and never writes another hit, but lives up until 1840.  She was... 88? When she died.

  There must be some interest in Burney- since Cambridge University just republished this book.  I find Burney interesting because of her unique perspective on 18th century social practices and her status as an early successful Author/Artist.  What's interesting is she was simultaneously an outsider (a young woman) and an insider (daughter of Charles Burney, court musician.)

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