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FANNY BURNEY: PLAYWRIGHT JovcE HEMLow But we are different kind of folk. We think not tragic fire & smoak Equal to comic wit & Joke. -ADMIRAL BuRNEY's Prologue M ANY items about Fanny Burney's dramatic ventures may be . excerpted from the printed diaries and letters, and most of her biographers have known about a tragedy Edwy and Elgiva~ produced at Drury Lane in 1795; a comedy Love and Fashion, accepted by the manager of Covent Garden in 1800; and an earlier comedy The Witlings~ written at the encouragement of Murphy and Sheridan, but condemned by Dr. Burney and Mr. Crisp. What is less generally known is that Cerulia, mentioned in the di~ry of 1797, refers to the five-act play Hubert De Vere, two manuscripts of which still exist; that besides the tragedies Hubert De Vere and Edwy and Elgiva, she completed the five-act blank-verse tragedy The Siege of Pevensey and had drafted out Elberta; and finally, that be.sides The vVitlings and Love and Fashion, she had constructed two five-act comedies, A BusJ' Day and The Woman-Hater, and had begun another dramatic piece about Fanny Simper. None of these plays has been printed, but they survive in neat, perfectly legible holograph manuscripts, sometimes in one, often in two, drafts.1 These, together with some 700 scraps of paper showing various stages of composition, throw a vivid light on Fanny Burney's methods of work, and on her mind, purposes, and abilities. The situations, characters, and plots are of absorbing interest as corollaries to her novel(j, though the first and most pertinent question must be, are they or are they not good plays? Would they have succeeded on the stage? Can they now be read in the study? In short, if edited and printed, would they augment the "gaiety of nations" and increase "the public stock of harmless pleasure"? Presently an affirmative answer will be given to some of these questions, though they suggest counter questions about the popular fare of the eighteenth-century stage. The people who we.nt repeatedly to see fane Shore and The Clandestine Marriage were the spectators Fanny Burney hoped to interest and please. Her biographers have longed to arbitrate on the desaccords among her advisers about the merits of her plays, yet lJn the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. I am grateful to the Lib1·ary for permission to read the plays, to describe them, and to make short quotations from them. 170 FANNY BURNEY: PLAYWRIGHT 171 many critics must be disturbed to find that even Dr.· Johnson hesitated to give a final verdict on Fanny Burney's first dramatic piece. "It would be well to make Murphy the last judge,n he told Fanny, "for he knows the stage and I am quite ignorant of it."2 What readers of Evelina hoped and expected to see in Fanny Burney's comedies were scenes like those in which the Branghtons, Mr. Brown, the Holborn beau, or Mr. Lovel revealed, in rapid idiomatic dialogue, aberrations from the accepted norms of behaviour, thought, or speech, becoming thus comic figures in the comedy of manners. According to contemporary testimony, the manners thus delineated were faithful photographs of the mores of the time. The comic characters were transcripts from life. They are not copies from nature, but ((Impressions or Facsimiles/' wrote Susan Burney.3 Fanny Burney's books, said Mrs. Thrale, "are an exact and perfect Copy of those Manners· which at this moment prevail in this Nation." "Her Novels ... are the truest representations of the very commonest Life."4 Finally, the pictures of existent incongruities in behaviour were satiric and, like all satire, corrective in purpose and in effect.5 Fanny Burney was an attentive observer, and as she contemplated men, the Comic Spirit somewhere overhead looked, as Meredith described it, "humanely malign, and cast an oblique light on them, followed by volleys of silvery laughter."6 Delineations of the ridiculous, characteristic of the writings of all the Burneys, did not fail to appear· in Fanny's comedies. In The Witlings, however, there are fewer comic transcripts of life than readers of Evelina might have...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 170-189
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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