Page images
PDF
EPUB

MISS BURNEY'S OWN STORY.*

Memoirs of Dr. Buniey. By his Daughter, Madame 1/abulay. Three volumes. London: Moion.

Diary and Letter* of Madame D'Arblay. Edited by her Niece. New edition, four volumes. Loudou: Cliatto and Windus.

AFTER reading " Camilla," and liking it less than he cared to say, Horace Walpole wrote: "This author knew the world and penetrated character before she had stepped over the threshold, and now she has seen so much of it she has little or no insight at all: perhaps she apprehended having seen too much, and kept the hags of foul air that she brought from the Cave of Tempests too closely tied." The criticism was just, however it may have been with the explanation. Time added nothing to Miss Burney's talent; as she felt more, her style only became more and more involved; as the interests of her life thickened, the interest of her books evaporated. During the four years that elapsed between the publication of " Cecilia " and her appointment at Court, she wrote nothing; and, when asked the reason of her silence, she could only answer that she supposed she was exhausted. So it was. She had invested her whole stock of original fancy in "Evelina" and " Cecilia," and by the time she had gained experience of real life, she had nothing left to work it up with. It is tempting to go a little in detail into the story of this rapid spending of such unusually rich and promising gifts, and to consider whether it might have been avoided by a different course of circumstances. It might, perhaps, have been better for Miss Burney's later work if her first book had received more moderate admiration; if it had been read with indifference at Streatham, and Fanny had remained unknown to Johnson save as the second daughter of Dr. Burney, who rarely said more than "Yes" and "No" when there was company in St. Martin's Street. She might then have written a second novel in the same desultory way in which she wrote "Evelina," and, feeling less bound to produce something marvellous, she would perhaps have * See "Misa Burney's Novels :" Contemporary Review, December, 1S82.

been content with a simpler construction and fewer characters, and material would thus have been saved for the next venture. Or, again, had she written nothing for several years after "Evelina," but contented herself with seeing the world and reading, then perhaps, when the marriage of Mrs. Thrale and the death of Johnson brought the Streatham episode to a natural conclusion; when society was beginning to pall upon her, and the importance of providing for future independence to make itself felt, she might (instead of going to Court) have settled down quietly in her father's house, and made herself an income by writing one good novel after another out of her mingled intuition and experience. But such speculations are necessarily vain, and it is more profitable to seek the explanation of what puzzled her contemporaries quite as much as the inferiority of her later works— the extraordinary knowledge of life shown in the early ones. Her own fear, when she heard that Mrs. Thrale was reading " Evelina," was lest that lady should think she had kept very queer company. And, though nobody put the point quite in that way, the general wonder was how a modest and carefully brought up girl could have written "so boisterous a book." The explanation is found in her Memoirs of her father : she knew the world by inheritance. For at least three generations before Fanny, the Burney family had been making itself at home in a variety of social grades. Her great-grandfather, James MacBurney, managed, nobody knows how, to get rid of a considerable patrimony, and to sink from the position of a country gentleman of property to that of laud-steward to the Earl of Ashburnham. His son (Fanny's grandfather) married an actress, and was punished for his indiscretion by being disinherited of whatever remained of the family fortune. He dropped the Mac, and called himself James Buruey. By-and-by the father married a maid-servant, and had a son, who became a dancing-master. James Burney's first wife dying, he, too, married again, and this time made an entirely discreet choice. Mistress Anne Cooper was virtuous, clever, beautiful, and rich; she enjoyed, moreover, the fame of having been courted by Wycherley in the last years of his life. Several children, of whom the youngest was Charles (afterwards Dr. Burney), were born of this marriage; and James Burney settled down to the profession of portrait-painting in the town of Chester. Madame D'Arblay mentions with astonishment that when the family removed to Chester, they left Charles behind them at Condover, a village near Shrewsbury, where he spent all his childhood and boyhood under the care of an ignorant but kindly nurse. She declares herself unable to account for this singular arrangement, which, however, seems sufficiently accounted for by the fact that Charles received his first musical instruction from a half-brother, who was organist of St. Margaret's Church, Shrewsbury. Charles's taste for music showed itself earlv, and there can be little doubt that his father left him at Condover with a view to its cultivation : it ran in the Burney blood to look to the arts rather than to trade or business for the means of living. Except the musiche got from his brother, the boy had no regular teaching till he went, at sixteen or seventeen, to the Chester Free School. But he saw a great deal of life and character, and stored his memory with odd anecdotes and adventures, which he delighted in after years to relate to his children. From the terms in which Fanny speaks of these often-told tales of her father's childhood, it is clear that to them she owed much of her power of painting circumstances of which she could have no personal experience. And here is a beginning of an autobiography, never completed, which, had it appeared as a preface to ■" Evelina," would have answered to everybody's conception of the anonymous author :—

"Perhaps few have been better enabled to describe, from an actual survey the manners and customs of the age in which he lived than myself; ascending from those of the most humble cottagers, and lowest mechanics, to the first nobility, and most elevated personages, with whom circumstances, situation, and accident, at different periods of my life, have rendered me familiar. Oppressed and laborious husbandmen; insolent and illiberal yeomanry; overgrown farmers; generous and hospitable merchants; men of business and men of pleasure; men of letters; men of science; artists; sportsmen and country squires; dissipated and extravagant voluptuaries; gamesters; ambassadors; statesmen; and even sovereign princes, I have had opportunities of examining in almost every point of view: all these it is my intention to display in their respective situations; and to delineate their virtues, vices, and apparent degrees of happiness and misery."

This fragment, it need hardly be said, is not by Fanny Burney, but by Fanny's father. Miss Ellis, in her preface to "Cecilia," hazards an opinion, in opposition to the authorities, that it was not from Johnson but from Dr. Burney that the elaborate pomposities of Madame D'Arblay's later style came. To me it seems that she got them from Dr. Johnson through her father. Charles Burney was an enthusiastic admirer of the Rambler papers, which were appearing at the time of Fanny's birth. "Evelina," written at a time when she was constantly in requisition as her father's amanuensis, has its share of Johnsonianisms; and that its share is not larger is simply due to the epistolary form in which the book is cast. At the time "Cecilia" was written, when Fanny was uuder Johnson's direct influence, he had left the Johnsonian style behind, and was writing the "Lives of the Poets," and reading the proof-sheets aloud at Mrs. Thrale's breakfast table. But if, as I think, it was to her father that Fanny owed the material of her best novels (and assuredly there was no source to which she would more gladly have confessed herself indebted for everything), we may the more readily forgive Dr. Burney for having given a false direction to her efforts to improve her style. She certainly inherited from him the extraordinary personal charm that made Johnson say, "It is natural to love Burney." His friendships descended to her. She adopted his political convictions and his code of social proprieties. It is difficult to lay one's finger on anything in her whole composition that did not come from him, except, perhaps, the excessive sensitiveness that made the identification of herself and her work a constant puzzle to her friends, and the self-consciousness that resulted from her own sense of the contradiction they involved.

While Charles .Burney was attending the free school at Chester, Dr. Arne, the popular composer of the day, paid a visit to the town, and, struck by the boy's musical talent, persuaded his father to let him accompany him to London on the footing of an apprentice. Dr. Arne was brother to Mrs. Cibber, the actress; and at her house young Burney found himself " in a constellation of wits, poets, actors, authors, and men of letters." It was there that some of the friendships began of which we read in the Diary of Madame D'Arblay—the brotherly relation with Garrick, the less affectionate, but hardly less close, intimacy with Christopher Smart, the acquaintance with William Mason. Burney was kindly noticed by the poet Thomson, then ■within a few years of death, and he attached himself admiringly to Dr. Hawkesworth, editor, a little later, of the Adventurer, who had just published a didactic poem on the " Art of Preserving Health," of which Burney approved both the verse and the sense. At the same time, that magnificent fine gentleman and dilettante, Fulke Greville, was inquiring of his harpsichord-maker whether there was to be found in London a young musician capable of giving instruction in his art, and fit to associate with a gentleman. The harpsichord-maker replied that he knew many who answered to the description, and one in particular, Charles Burney, who was as fit company for a prince as for an orchestra. An introduction was arranged, and Greville invited Burney to live with him. Burney hesitated on the ground that the term of his apprenticeship to Arne was not expired; and Greville cancelled the articles by paying down a sum of .£300; but Charles Burney began a new life, with Greville for his mentor. It is plain that Greville cared more for Burney's company than for his music. He associated him with all his pleasures, and introduced him to every haunt of fashionable amusement—White's, Brooks's, Newmarket,. Bath. But through all Burney preserved a remarkable independence; lie kept clear of gambling, and continued to cultivate music with professional devotion. At Wilbury, Greville's house in Wiltshire, he first met Samuel Crisp, and began the most sacred friendship of his life, and that in which his daughter most completely shared.

When Mr. Greville made a runaway marriage with the beautiful Misa Fanny Macartney, Charles Burney gave away the bride, and a year later he stood proxy for the Duke of Beaufort at the baptism of their first child—a daughter, who afterwards, as Mrs. Crewe, was one of the most active friends of Madame D'Arblay's middle life. The Grevilles next planned a tour on the Continent, and wanted Charles to accompany them. But he had fallen in love with Miss Esther Sleepe, a young lady he had met at the house of his halfbrother in Hatton Garden, and could not bear the thought of leaving her. There was a time of uncomfortable constraint and uncertainty. Miss Sleepe insisted that her lover should not break with his patrons on her account, and Burney resigned himself to the separation. But his reluctance was too evident to escape notice and inquiry on the part of the Grevilles; and on their pressing him to explain it, he confessed his attachment, and showed them a miniature of Miss Sleepe. Greville, seeing the portrait of an exceedingly pretty girl, exclaimed, "But why don't you marry her?" Burney cried "May I ?" and all difficulty vanished. The Grevilles went abroad, and Burney married Esther Sleepe, and began housekeeping somewhere in the City.

Madame D'Arblay describes her mother as small and delicate, though not diminutive in figure, with a face of fine oval outline, light blue eyes, and a " rosy hue." Charles Burney met her in a ball-room, and fell in love with her at first sight. But she had other qualities besides those which shine in ball-rooms:—

;' With no advantage save the simple one of early learning, or rather imbibing, the French language, from her maternal grandfather who was a native of France, but had been forced from his country by the Edict of Nantes, this gifted young creature was one of the most pleasing, well-mannered, well-read, elegant, and even cultivated of her sex."

Madame D'Arblay does not tell us what was the calling of her mother's father, but she mentions that the "lovely Esther was born in the city," and "not in those dwellings of the hospitable English merchants of early days who rivalled the nobles in the accomplishments of their progeny, till by mingling in acquirements they mingled in blood." In plain English, Esther's parents were plebeian and poor; and, moreover, her father was a bad character. Her mother, on the other hand, was a good woman, for whom Fanny, when her time came, had a peculiar affection and reverence.

About a year after his marriage, Charles Burney's health broke down, and he was ordered by his physician to remove into the country. By the interest of friends, the post of organist to the Royal Borough of Lynn was obtained for him on flattering and advantageous terms. And at Lynn, on the 13th of June, 1752, his second daughter, Frances, was born.

Madame D'Arblay's account of the society of Lynn reminds us that everything does not change in a hundred and twenty years. After speaking of the dulness of the place and her father's sense of

« EelmineJätka »