Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 11. Fanny Burney (Mme. d’ Arblay): her Early Diary, and her Diary and Letters

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XI. Letter-Writers

§ 11. Fanny Burney (Mme. d’ Arblay): her Early Diary, and her Diary and Letters

Fanny Burney bore two surnames in succession; but her maiden name is that by which all true lovers know her, because it was when she had no right to any but this that she wrote and gained her fame. She may be Madame d’Arblay on certain formal occasions; but the author of Evelina is far too English for a foreign name to sit easy upon her. The pictures of important events and the intimate records of Fanny’s distinguished friends in her diaries and letters place these writings on a very high plane, entitling them to rank as reproductions of eighteenth century life not very far below the volumes of Walpole and Boswell. She relates all she saw and did with so much spirit and vivacity, filling in the blanks of other writers, that the reading of the various incidents is an inexhaustible pleasure. It may, indeed, be said that she discloses the inner life of three different worlds. In her Early Diary (1768–78), edited by Mrs. Ellis (1889), the doings of her family are fully displayed, and the professional world of Dr. Burney (“that clever dog,” as Johnson called him) is brightly sketched; Garrick, too, is constantly gliding over the scene and playing the fool in his inimitable way. But the most popular character of all is the eccentric “daddy” Crisp—Samuel Crisp, the recluse of Chessington hall near Epsom—who was the special friend and correspondent of his “Fannikin.” In the later Diary and Letters (1778–1840), edited by Mrs. Charlotte Barrett (1842–6), there is more about the larger literary and political world, including the great event of the Hastings trial. The full and particular account of court life is of the greatest interest and value. On 6 July, 1786, Fanny Burney was appointed second keeper of the robes to queen Charlotte, a position she held for five years. She received much kindness from the king and queen, who were fond of her; and, although, by reason of the rigid etiquette, the service was hard, she had much pleasant intercourse with her companions in the palace, whose portraits she painted with spirit. Her great and incessant trouble, however, was her inevitable long and close association with the terrible Mrs. Schwellenberg, otherwise Cerbera. In course of time, the confinement which Fanny had to undergo affected her health, and her friends cried out for her release, even Walpole uttering complaints. Windham threatened to set “The Club” on Dr. Burney to induce him to obtain her freedom, and Boswell threatened to interfere—much to Fanny’s annoyance, for she did not love the “memorandummer” as she called him. Eventually, arrangements were made, and she finally left court in July, 1791, the queen granting out of her own privy purse a pension or retiring allowance.

A most interesting feature of these diaries and letters is the introduction of clear-cut portraits of the people whom the writer knew and met. Johnson alluded to her powers in this respect when he addressed her as “You little character-monger”; and, here, her early novel writing stood her in good stead. The description of Boswell’s persecution of her at Windsor, while pressing unsuccessfully for the use of Johnson’s letters, and reading to her, at the gates of the castle which she would not let him enter, bits from the forthcoming Life, is a fine bit of high comedy. Among Fanny Burney’s later friends were the Lockes, owners of Norbury park, above the vale of Mickleham. On her frequent visits to her hospitable friends, she became intimate with the French émigrés at Juniper hall; and, on 31 July, 1793 she was married to one of them—d’Arblay—at Mickleham church. The pair had but little upon which to set up house; but Locke gave them a site, and the handsome subscription of generous friends for the novel Camilla produced sufficient funds for building a cottage, which was named Camilla Lacey. The marriage was a happy one in spite of lack of means; but, in 1801, d’Arblay determined to return to France, and his wife followed him. The restoration of Louis XVIII brought better times, but, in July, 1815, general d’Arblay met with an accident and was placed on the retired list of the French army. Austin Dobson describes him as one of the most delightful figures in his wife’s Diary. On 3 May, 1818, he died at Bath. This sad event virtually closes the work, and, although Madame d’Arblay lived until 1840, there are few letters left after her husband’s death.