The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 13. Spontaneity a leading characteristic of these Novels; Proof of this in the Diary of Mme. dArblay
Spontaneity is among the best gifts of the novelist. And few novelists are more spontaneous than Fanny Burney. We should have guessed this from the novels themselves. The Diary, in some ways a yet greater masterpiece, puts it beyond doubt. It is evident that all she saw and all she heard presented itself to her instinctively in dramatic form; that all the incidents through which she passed naturally wove themselves into a story—one might almost say, into a novel—before her eyes. In the Diary, as in the novels, the two gifts are intertwined beyond possibility of separation. The observation which enabled her to take in the passing scene, to seize the distinctive features of every man and woman she met, may have put the material in her hands. But the material would have lost half its effect, it would have lost more than half its charm, if the genius of the born story-teller had not been there to weave it into a coherent whole, to give it life and movement. The Diary is a better test of this even than the novels. The incidents recorded in it are, for the most part, what might happen to any of us. The men and women it brings before us are, with some marked exceptions, such as might be met at any party. Who but themselves would have cared a straw for Miss Streatfield or M. de Guiffardière, for colonel Blakeney or even the “sweet Queen”? Yet, through the magic glass of the Diary, each of them takes distinct form and feature; all have gestures, mannerisms, gesticulations of their own; and each, without the smallest effort, fits into a drama as lively as any that could be put upon the stage. It is of course, perfectly true, and it is as it should be, that, when she has an incident of intrinsic interest to record, the portrait of a really marked figure to paint, she surpasses herself. Her portraits of Johnson and Mrs. Thrale, of George III and the French émigrés, are among the best ever drawn. Her account of the king’s madness, of the escape of the duc de Liancourt, is as good as anything in Saint-Simon or Carlyle. These, however, were the chances of a lifetime. And it is in her more level work that her peculiar talent is most readily to be traced. There we can almost see the portrait growing, the incidents moving each into its own place, under the hand of the diarist. And we know that the same process must lie behind the triumphs of the novelist.