- The Romance of Private Life
A 'poor little apprentice girl' struggles to keep pace as her employers bustle through town on a stormy night, thinking about the play they [End Page 354] have attended and not thinking about the young orphan who is their charge. Agnes stumbles, and then, as she rises to run after her companions, her steps are arrested 'by the firm grasp of a powerful hand.' A stranger whispers in the child's ear, 'Silence - or you die!' and then hustles her under cover of darkness into an entirely new life. What befalls Agnes next is a loss of her guardians and of her name, identity, and language. This is the electrifying opening with which Sarah Harriet Burney (1772-1844) equipped 'The Renunciation,' the first of the two 'tales' comprising The Romance of Private Life (1839). It is fascinating to think that this work appeared just a year after Oliver Twist, a more celebrated treatment of child neglect and child abduction that likewise casts those crimes as the outgrowth of a fraudulent attempt to redraw the lines of inheritance. Lorna Clark, who has previously edited Sarah Harriet Burney's correspondence, deserves our thanks for recovering this text for the Chawton House Library series of Women's Novels and so helping scholars apprehend better the strange, under-studied interval in the history of fiction that falls between Jane Austen's death and Charles Dickens's debut.
'The Renunciation' ends up the story of how Agnes's abductor makes her the stand-in for a dead girl and how, when she grows up, she renounces his fraud and the fortune and status it has brought her, only to recover that fortune and status once more when she discovers her true family. Its companion piece in Romance, 'The Hermitage' is also plotted so that readers are jolted abruptly, in this case from the polite drawing rooms of the courtship plot, to a scene of violence: Clark identifies this tale (maybe not entirely convincingly) as the first female-authored murder mystery. With this reissue of Burney's final fiction, scholars have acquired a new set of materials to use as they investigate the afterlife of the tropes gothic fiction had developed for plots centring on disputed inheritances. In 'The Renunciation' Agnes's kidnapper is a Count Montoni for the nineteenth century, suggesting Burney's role in renovating gothic conventions to accommodate the materials of contemporary English life. The Romance of Private Life also makes intriguingly evident something scholars of narrative tend to forget: how early in the nineteenth century 'tales' jostled with 'novels' for literary centrality and claimed the triple-decker format that by the high Victorian period would be the novel's alone.
Contemporary reviews of Sarah Harriet Burney's fictions habitually compared them to the novels of her elder, more famous half-sister, Frances Burney: '[M]ore than once we could scarcely persuade ourselves but that we had taken up an odd volume of Cecilia instead of Traits of Nature,' commented the reviewer for the Critical in 1812. In her annotations to The Romance of Private Life Clark sometimes appears too eager to follow suit; Burney's novels, alongside Austen's, make frequent or [End Page 355] over-frequent appearances in her endnotes. I sensed, by contrast, that Burney also numbered Charlotte Smith, Ann Radcliffe, and Walter Scott among her influences. (The 'ill-advised Will' that is the source of tremendous plot complication in 'The Hermitage' is the posthumous contrivance of a certain Sir Everard, who shares his forename and rank with another dubious representative of an older generation, Scott's Sir Everard Waverley.) Had Clark committed herself to a wider-ranging project of contextualization in her notes and introduction, she might have been better able to take up the other questions that her edition poses to the field: the question of the tale, as noted, or the particular claim about generic identity Burney makes through her titular reference to 'romance,' or the relationship between these narratives and the 'silver-fork novels' that...