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The Protean Frances Burney
Peter Sabor and Geoffrey Sill, eds. The Witlings and The Woman-Hater (London: Pickering and Chatto, 1997). Pp. 207. $60.00.
Janice Farrar Thaddeus. Frances Burney: A Literary Life (New York: St. Martins, 2000). Pp. 224. $45.00.
As a young writer, Frances Burney fostered a dramatic secrecy around her writing, corresponding with printers in a disguised hand, instructing her sister, Susanna, to steal paper, and, for purposes of copyediting, only allowing her aunts to read her manuscript. With the renewed interest in Burney, the very privacy that she so deeply cherished is but a young girl's dream. Her own pasting over and blotting out of her journals and letters near the end of her life only causes biographers to dig more deeply in pursuit of the 'real' Frances Burney. The result is a rich assortment of perspectives through which to interpret her vibrant and vexed literary career. Janice Farrar Thaddeus' Frances Burney: A Literary Life and an edition of The Witlings and The Woman-Hater, by Peter Sabor and Geoffrey Sill, are both indispensable additions to these perspectives, emphasizing the complexity of Burney's character and encouraging a rethinking of her works.
Over a recent three-year span four biographies of Frances Burney were published. Hester Davenport (Faithful Handmaid: Fanny Burney at the Court of King George, 2000) centers her attention on the five grueling years in which Burney served in the court. Claire Harman (Fanny Burney: A Biography, 2000) and Kate Chisholm (Fanny Burney: Her Life, 1752-1840, 1998) rely more heavily on Burney's letters and diaries. Yet, Thaddeus is distinct in two important ways. First she insists on using Burney's full name, "Frances," to maintain her professionalism. [End Page 135] She joins Margaret Doody (Frances Burney: The Life in the Works, 1988) in her assertion that Burney would have been horrified to be referred to in the diminutive. Thaddeus is also hesitant to make too much of Burney's personal writings and, therefore, describes the course of Burney's life around each of her works. The only biographer who knew Burney firsthand, her niece Frances Raper, describes Burney as a woman with "every power of heart and intellect" (223), and Thaddeus skillfully conveys this powerful spirit and mind as it surfaces in Burney's works. As Thaddeus notes in her introduction, Burney wrote in multiple discourses, forming competing voices, which "were more important than the plot." Her capacious writing style—Thaddeus notes that Burney herself once described her own writing as a "strange medley"(9)—was evident in Burney's own character throughout her lifetime (8-9). Biographies of Burney tend to accentuate a particular aspect of her character. Instead Thaddeus uses Burney's own drama and fiction to present a female author who is courageous, strong and confident, while also shy and reserved. In her chronological assessment, Thaddeus resists reducing Burney to a woman who is "fearful of doing wrong [which] has been always the leading principle of my internal guidance," a generalizing statement that many of Burney's biographers have accentuated; or to a female author who derives her narrative strategy from a combination of repressed rage and desire (5). In contrast, Thaddeus illustrates how Burney constantly changes, calling her subject "the protean Burney," one who is "always shifting from one body to another" (8).
Thaddeus begins by highlighting two incidents with police officers that illustrate the public Burney, who was a master at reading people and negotiating difficult situations. First she describes a scene at Dunkirk, where Burney is stopped by a police officer. She is determined to bring her Wanderer manuscript from Paris to England, in spite of the restricted passage required of those leaving post-revolutionary, war-torn France. Thaddeus depicts Burney's calm taciturnity and ability to handle this infuriated public official, who could have easily confiscated an entire portmanteau full of manuscript pages of The Wanderer. The second incident reveals a compassionate and courageous Burney who nearly escapes arrest because she is accused of fraternizing with Spanish prisoners...