The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 14. Her best qualities as surviving in her later stories
It is an injustice that her last two books, Camilla in particular, should have been allowed utterly to drop out. The old brilliance is, doubtless, largely gone. But the more solid qualities remain almost untouched. There is the old keenness of observation, the old narrative genius, the old power of contriving ingenious and, in the main, natural situations. The secondary figures are certainly less laughable, but that, as Macaulay hints, is largely because they are less freakish and more human; because their humour is often next door to pathos and the laughter they call out, to tears. This is true even of The Wanderer, when we can once forget the grotesque opening—the writer can think of no better machinery for introducing her heroine, a beautiful English girl, than the make-up of a negress—and the woeful touches of grandiloquence—the heroine is described as “a female Robinson Crusoe”—which the authoress of Evelina would have been the first to laugh out of court. Such lapses, however, give no fair impression of the book; and, with the best will in the world, Macaulay has made them bulk for more than they are worth. Strike out a few paragraphs, and The Wanderer is not written in “jargon”—any more than, with the exception of a few pages, the language of Cecilia is Johnsonese.
To the end Miss Burney remains what she was at the begining: a keen observer, a great “character-monger,” a supreme story-teller, the first writer to see that the ordinary embarrassments of a girl’s life would bear to be taken for the main theme of a novel. “To her we owe not only Evelina, Cecilia and Camilla, but also Mansfield Park and The Absentee.” When Macaulay ended his estimate of Miss Burney with these words, he said better than he knew. He was thinking of her as the first of a long line of woman novelists. He forgot that the innovation applied not only to her sex, but to her theme.