The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 12. Fanny Burney as a Novelist: Evelina; Cecilia; Camilla; The Wanderer
Frances Burney (1752–1840), the last novelist of note belonging to our period, was daughter of Dr. Burney, the historian of music. During her youth, and until some years after the publication of her second novel, Cecilia (1782), she lived in the most brilliant literary society of her day, including that of Johnson, Mrs. Thrale and Burke. In 1786 she was appointed second keeper of the robes to queen Charlotte, a post which she held for four years, to her own great discomfort, but to the delight of those who read her fascinating Diary. After her release, she married (1793) a French officer of the name of d’Arblay, one of the emigrants who gathered at Juniper hall and of whom her Diary contains many striking and amusing notices. From 1802 to 1812 she lived in France, returning only to publish her last novel, The Wanderer (1814). The later years of her life (1815–40) were passed peacefully in England.
With the novels of Fanny Burney we pass into another world. They stand far nearer to the novel as we know it than anything which had yet appeared. The picaresque scaffolding, the obtrusive moral, the deliberate sentiment—much more the marvellous and the medievalism—of the writers who had immediately gone before her are thrown to the winds. She sets herself to tell a plain story—enlivened, doubtless, with strange adventures, with characters still stranger—and that is all.
Yet in this very simplicity is contained a new and, as time has proved, a very fruitful conception of what the novel might achieve. Starting from the general plan laid down by Richardson, she limits, she adds, she modifies, until the result is something entirely different. The tragic element is the first to go. This, with other modifications, leaves her with a story of home life for the groundwork of her picture. And the introduction of a whole gallery of oddities, dogging the steps of the heroine at every turn, gives variety, zest and sparkle to what otherwise would have been a humdrum, and, perhaps, a slightly sentimental, tale. The novel of home life, it is not too much to say, is the creation of Fanny Burney. There is a great deal else, and a great deal more brilliant, in her creations. But it is this that makes them a landmark in the history of fiction.
Her method is simplicity itself. Evelina is the “History of a young lady’s entrance into the world.” And the same description would apply to every one of the stories which followed. Her unvarying plan is to take a young girl “with a virtuous mind, a cultivated understanding and a feeling heart,” but wholly “ignorant of the forms and inexperienced in the manners of the world”; to provide her with a guardian instead of parents and so throw her on her own resources; to place her in circumstances unusual but not, except in The Wanderer, unnatural; and, with an inexhaustible fertility of invention, to devise incidents and situations such as will draw out her character and keep the interest of the reader on the stretch. In Cecilia, no doubt, she added to this something of the tragic purpose, the solemn moral, of Richardson; and very few are likely to regard the addition as an improvement. But, with this partial exception, her aim was always what has been said; and she had two gifts which enabled her triumphantly to attain it.
The first is a talent, not easily to be matched among English novelists, for telling a story; an unaffected delight in telling it, which wakens a like pleasure in the reader. The second is an amazing power—a power in which she is surpassed by Dickens only—of giving flesh and blood to caricature. “My little character-monger” was Johnson’s pet name for her; and, in the sense just hinted at, she earned it ten times over. With infectious zest, she adds touch after touch of absurdity to her portrait, until the reader is fairly swept off his feet by the drollery of the figure she has conjured up. This particular talent is, no doubt, most conspicuous in her earliest two works, Evelina (1778) and Cecilia (1782). But it flashes out often enough in Camilla (1796), and, on occasion, even in The Wanderer (1814). In all this gallery of “humourists” the most laughable is Mr. Briggs, the ill-bred but not unkindly skinflint of Cecila. But he is hard run by the Branghtons, still harder perhaps by Mr. Smith, the “gentleman manqué,” as Mrs. Thrale called him, of Evelina; while Sir Hugh Tyrold and Dr. Orkborne, the Admiral, Sir Jasper Herrington and Mr. Tedman keep up the succession not quite unworthily, in the two later novels. But even to mention instances is to do injustice. For, after all, the most surprising thing is their unlimited abundance; the way in which they start up from every corner, from each rung of the social ladder, at the bidding of the author. For vulgarity, in particular, she has the eye of a lynx. Right and left, high or low, she unmasks it with unflagging delight, tearing off the countless disguises under which it lurks and holding it up, naked but not ashamed, to the laughter, and, sometimes, though not often, to the contempt of the reader. By the side of these lively beings, the figures of Smollett seem little better than stuffed birds in a museum.