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Book Review

Lively Portrait of the First Respectable Female English Novelist

FANNY BURNEY A Biography; By Claire Harman; Alfred A. Knopf; $30, 404 pages

November 05, 2001|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the age of 8, Fanny Burney, the future author of four exceedingly long novels, several plays and oceans of diaries and journals, was still unable to read. Her family, fond of her though they were, had begun to regard her as the "little dunce." (Her sister Susan, three years her junior, was more advanced than Fanny, while her older sister Hetty was already perusing the "Aeneid" and the works of Alexander Pope.) But, as was also evident, the "little dunce" loved making up stories and had an unusually sharp aural memory that enabled her to repeat almost verbatim long snatches of conversations she had heard, abilities that would serve her well as a chronicler of her era.

Burney (1752-1840) was not quite the first female English novelist (the honor probably should go to the dashing, scandal-plagued 17th century writer Aphra Behn), but she was certainly the first respectable English woman novelist. Her socially observant novels--"Evelina" (1778), "Cecilia" (1782), "Camilla" (1796)--featuring intelligent, decent, but inexperienced young heroines trying to find their way in a confusing, often dangerous world, were a major influence on Jane Austen. Thanks largely to the revivalist efforts of feminist scholars and critics, Burney's novels are still being read, even if it seems unlikely they will ever again command the immense popularity and high critical esteem they enjoyed in the 18th and 19th centuries. Burney's voluminous papers and journals are also of perpetual interest, both for their author's vivid powers of observation and for the sheer wealth of material they cover, including portraits of Dr. Johnson, David Garrick and Joshua Reynolds; records of Burney's experiences as a lady-in-waiting to George III's wife, Queen Charlotte; and Burney's harrowing, excruciatingly detailed account of her own mastectomy in 1811, an even more terrifying experience back in those days before anesthetics and antisepsis.

Claire Harman's biography of Burney offers a lively and often acute portrait of the woman and the turbulent times in which she lived. Harman also has some perceptive things to say about Burney's novels, their strengths and weaknesses, and about Burney's place in literary history. Burney was not a feminist like Mary Wollstonecraft, but by presenting a woman's perspective on the crassly masculinist 18th century society, her fiction, Harman suggests, helped set the stage for the elevation of certain feminine values in the 19th century. "Before 'Evelina,"' Harman reminds us, "the comic novel had been raucous and the novel of sentimentality cloying; both types of book had tended towards obscenity, either through the sort of explicit sexuality displayed in Fielding, Smollett and Sterne, or Richardson's more insidious brand of prurience....The novel, [Burney] proved, could be decent and amusing; indeed, Burney's moral satire derives a great deal of its power from the author's feelings of propriety...."

Although Burney's heroines try to behave both properly and virtuously, the world in which they find themselves is full of vulgarians, villains, affected fops and heartless cads. Burney herself was disappointed by a promising admirer who turned out not to be interested in marrying her after all. As her prospects for marriage dimmed, she agreed to become a royal courtier, a stiflingly dull job she held for five years (Bored though she was, Burney felt she could have done without the most exciting part, witnessing the madness of poor King George). Then, at age 40, Burney found true love in the person of Alexandre d'Arblay, one of a circle of French Constitutionalist emigres who had fled to England in the wake of the Reign of Terror. The D'Arblays' marriage of 25 years, taking them from England to France and back to England again, was a loving, if financially challenged one, with Fanny the major breadwinner.

Harman's chronicle of Burney's eventful life is marred by a somewhat prosecutorial tone that frequently creeps into the narrative. Although at times she portrays her subject with empathy and insight, at other times she seems almost to dislike her.

With an accusatory zeal less suited to a biographer than to a district attorney cross-examining a hostile witness, she seizes upon the discrepancies among the versions of events that Burney wrote, rewrote and edited over the course of her long life as if she were uncovering evidence of a crime. Useful as it may be for a scholar to point out such changes and inconsistencies, one cannot help feeling not only that Harman makes too much of them, but that her attitude towards her subject has been jaundiced by this approach. But, despite this not inconsiderable drawback, Harman's crisply written, fluently told biography does manage to convey a sense of Burney's complexity as a woman and value as a writer.

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