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  • "Living Proof ":Frances Burney's Court Journals and Letters, Volumes 1 and 2
  • Susan K. Howard
Frances Burney . Court Journals and Letters (Oxford: Clarendon, 2011).
Vol. 1: (1786), ed. Peter Sabor. Pp. xlix + 343. 8 ills.;
vol. 2: (1787), ed. Stewart Cooke. Pp. xxiii + 334. 5 ills. $185 each

"A simple account of inoffensive actions"—such was Frances Burney's description of the journal she was about to begin for her sister, Susan, in July, 1786, shortly after accepting an appointment as joint keeper of the robes to the queen. Burney goes on to declare that she will "never make the most distant allusion to politics, to the Royal family's private transactions or opinions, nor to any state affairs of any kind" (1:1-2), but, as Peter Sabor's annotation of this passage suggests, Burney's journal chronicling her five years at the court of King George III did just that, and more. The recently published editions of the first two volumes of the journals and letters written during this time by Burney to her family and friends certainly allow us a fascinating glimpse into major political events of the day, such as the attempted assassination of the king, as well as the daily routines and domestic relations of the royal family. But the journal and letters also reveal Burney's response to this change in her life: her [End Page 115] deep sense of deprivation at losing family, friends, and profession; her continued despair over the life sentence she perceives her servitude to be; her resistance to the dehumanizing effects of court service and her persistent attempts to carve time out of the day for herself; and her keen awareness, even through the miasma of her own unhappiness, of the absurdities of her new world. They also reveal the aspects of this world that sustain her: her friendship with Mary Granville Delany, whose correspondence with such writers as Swift, Burney helped to edit while at court; her respect and affection for the royal family; her love of her family; and the conversations she enjoys with the interesting people she meets at court, such as the artist Benjamin West, astronomers William Herschel and Caroline Herschel, caricaturist Henry Bunbury, and botanist John Lightfoot, among others.

Burney came to court unwillingly, having been recommended not because of any aptitude she may have had, but because of the kindness of her influential friends, Mrs. Delany and Leonard Smelt. Also, the honor done her by the queen's choosing her over the many who wished for such a position, and her father's approbation, may have persuaded her to accept. She was thirty-four, and although she lived still with her father, the musicologist Charles Burney, and aided him in his research, she had achieved celebrity status as the author of Evelina (1778), and then Cecilia (1782). Indeed, she points out in her journal that unlike her predecessor, Mrs. Hagedorn, who never went out in the evening because she "had no connections," Burney has connections "such as no one, I believe, ever had before" (1:54), including her family of married brothers and sisters, with their children, as well as her extended family. Though unmarried at this time—she would marry General d'Arblay in 1793—Burney had had a four-year long relationship with George Owen Cambridge that had recently ended when he failed to propose to her. This disappointment, which she revisits several times in the journal and letters for 1786 and 1787, oppresses Burney as she commences her duties to the queen, and she begins the journal as much to take her mind off her emotional pain at this loss as to reach out to her sister, and later to her friend, Fredy Locke, in her homesickness. Perhaps more than any of the journals she had written since 1768, those of 1786 were a coping mechanism. Though she often composed these many days, even months, after the events, relying, as she says, on "Pocket Book memorandums, which are minutely faithful, and which I set down every Morning from the events, or the no events, of the preceding Day" (1:86), they, in tandem with her letters, offer her the...