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ELH 68.4 (2001) 965-989



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How The Wanderer Works:
Reading Burney and Bourdieu

Helen Thompson


Frances Burney's The Wanderer; Or, Female Difficulties was published in March 1814, having been "planned and begun," Burney writes, "before the end of the last century!" 1 The novel provoked an elaborately hostile critical response. Not content to classify it as another of "the thousand-and-one volumes with which the Minerva Press inundates the shelves of circulating libraries," several prominent reviews held up The Wanderer as the bloated reapparition of Burney's youthful success Evelina--"her best novel," William Hazlitt states, "because it is the shortest." 2 The Wanderer emerges from these reviews a botched double of Evelina, offering a labored demonstration of generic female difficulties where Evelina had restricted itself to the particularities of "comic dialogue and repartee, without the tediousness of the story." 3

The Wanderer's reviewers pay less attention to its story--whereby a female protagonist flees revolutionary France and attempts in England to maintain a paradoxically anonymous and ladylike sustenance--than to its bulk, to the peculiarly irritating disproportion between the novel's manifest content and its apparently endless recursivity. John Wilson Croker offers an analogy between the body of the book and that of its "old," "dim," "furrowed," and "withered" author; Burney's predilection to "self-imitation and tautology" has, in The Wanderer, "increased in size and deformity exactly in the same degree that the beauties have vanished." 4 For Croker, The Wanderer figures Evelina's blowsy endpoint, something like the textual equivalent of Evelina's grandmother Madame Duval. For Hazlitt, the novel increases in size because Newtonian laws of force have failed to stop it:

The difficulties in which she [Burney] involves her heroines are indeed "Female Difficulties";--they are difficulties created out of nothing . . . Because a vulgar country Miss would answer "yes" to a proposal of marriage in the first page, Mad. d'Arblay makes it a proof of an excess of refinement, and an indispensible point of etiquette in her young ladies, to postpone the answer to the end of five volumes. [End Page 965] . . . They will not abate an ace of their punctilio in any circumstances, or on any emergency. They would consider it as quite indecorous to run down stairs though the house were in flames, or to move off the pavement though a scaffolding was falling. She has formed to herself an abstract idea of perfection in common behavior, which is quite as romantic and impracticable as any other sort. . . .

. . . TheWanderer raises obstacles, lighter than "the gossamer that idles in the wanton summer air," into insurmountable barriers . . . the perversity of her conduct is in proportion to its levity--as the lightness of a feather baffles the force of the impulse that is given to it, and the slightest breath of air turns it back on the hand from which it is launched. 5

In this cartoonish transcription of The Wanderer's plot, Hazlitt aggressively animates the "circumstances" that extend the wanderer's distress into five volumes. Submitting The Wanderer to the laws of gravity, or those of combustion, exposes the flimsiness of etiquette in the face of physics, a contest whose resolution would finish Burney's novel on page one. The Wanderer's central improbability lies in its deferral of the wanderer's "yes," a mechanism of plot that, once assigned to properly moving bodies, would convert Burney's dilatory novel into what it should have been all along--"nothing."

Insofar as "refinement" does not enter into Hazlitt's calculus of cause and effect, Burney's novel is most gravely implicated not in a physics, but in a metaphysics, of something and nothing. For Hazlitt, The Wanderer signals Burney's "perverse" attempt to lend nothing the density of something; his attribution of a corrective materiality to the drama of feminine decision-making under patriarchy locates the novel's antidote in another physical constant, the invariably precipitant "vulgar country Miss."

Hazlitt's claim for the insubstantiality of feminine punctilio amplifies the critical and historical interest of Burney's long novel. In the wake of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6547
Print ISSN
0013-8304
Pages
pp. 965-989
Launched on MUSE
2001-12-01
Open Access
No
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