Monday, January 6, 2020

The eve of some fever

‘Meanwhile, a stillness the most uncommon reigned over the whole house. Nobody stirred; not a voice was heard; not a step, not a motion. I could do nothing but watch, without knowing for what: there seemed a strangeness in the house most extraordinary.’ So wrote Frances (Fanny) Burney in her journal about the royal household where she was employed when King George III was ill, suffering from what later would be deemed a first mental episode. Indeed, with some insight she called the King’s illness the ‘eve of some fever’. Today, it’s worth remembering Fanny, one of Britain’s earliest female novelists and diarists, for it is the 180th anniversary of her death.

Fanny was born in 1752 at King’s Lynn, Norfolk, the daughter of Charles Burney, a musician and man of letters. The family moved to London in 1760, where Charles was part of a busy literary circle. Fanny was a precocious child (although her mother died when she was just 10). She was educated at home with the help of her father’s extensive library and of his friends, in particular Samuel Crisp who encouraged her to write journal-letters, in which she carefully reported on the social world around her family. And, it was writing of this ilk that led to her first novel, Evelina, published anonymously when she was only 26.

Evelina was an instant success and led London society to speculate on the identity of the writer - widely assumed to be a man. The Burney Centre biography says Fanny ‘became the first woman to make writing novels respectable’. With Evelina, it adds, she created a new school of fiction in English - a ‘comedy of manners’ - one in which women in society were portrayed in realistic, contemporary circumstances. This new genre then paved the way for Jane Austen and other 19th century writers. Fanny wrote three other novels which were published. She also penned a number of satirical plays, but her father and Crisp thought they might offend the public and they were not therefore produced. Only one was ever performed in her lifetime, and the rest had to wait until the 20th century for a critical assessment.

When discovered as the author of Evelina, Fanny was taken up in her own right by literary and high society, in particular she became very friendly with the Thrales and Dr Johnson. But the success of her second novel, Cecilia, was overshadowed by the deaths of friends and her mentor Crisp in the first half of the 1780s. During the second half of the same decade, she entered the royal household as a Keeper of the Robes for Queen Charlotte; but they were unhappy years and she was allowed to resign in 1791. Two years later, she married Alexandre d’Arblay, and they had one son.

Hoping to recover property lost during the French Revolution, d’Arblay moved his family to France in 1802, but the resumption of the Napoleonic War left them stranded there for a decade. While there, Fanny made medical history by writing about her mastectomy without anaesthesia. Later, she also remained with her husband on the Continent while he was still fighting with French Royalists. He died in 1818, and thereafter Fanny focused on editing the memoirs of her father and her own writings, especially her diary and letters. She died 170 years ago today on 6 January 1840. Apart from The Burney Centre, further information can be found at Wikipedia, The Diary Junction, The British Library, and Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Although Evelina is now considered a classic and is still in print, Fanny Burney is more celebrated today because of her extraordinary diaries, famed not only for their literary quality but for their social content. Here is more from The Burney Centre biography:

‘Although heavily bowdlerized versions of the diaries and letters were published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it wasn’t until Joyce Hemlow published her landmark biography, The History of Fanny Burney, in 1958 that the full impact of Burney’s contribution to literature and letters began to be better appreciated. Dr Hemlow’s 12-volume Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney (Madame d’Arblay), which covers the years from 1791 to 1840, also made a great contribution to the contemporary recognition of Burney’s canonical status. The remainder of Frances Burney’s journals, complete for the first time, are currently being published in two series. The Early Journals and Letters (1768-1786) is under the general editorship of Lars Troide and The Court Journals and Letters (1786-1791) is under the general editorship of Peter Sabor.’

All seven volumes of the original Diary and Letters of Madame d’Arblay, edited by her niece and published by Henry Colburn in 1842, are available online at Internet Archive. Fanny’s own introduction to her diary, written when just 15, is worth reproducing:

‘To have some account of my thoughts, manners, acquaintance and actions, when the hour arrives at which time is more nimble than memory, is the reason which induces me to keep a Journal - a Journal in which I must confess my every thought, must open my whole heart.

But a thing of the kind ought to be addressed to somebody - I must imagine myself to be talking - talking to the most intimate of friends - to one in whom I should take delight in confiding, and feel remorse in concealment: but who must this friend be? To make choice of one in whom I can but half rely, would be to frustrate entirely the intention of my plan. The only one I could wholly, totally confide in, lives in the same house with me, and not only never has, but never will leave me one secret to tell her. To whom then must I dedicate my wonderful, surprising, and interesting adventures? - to whom dare I reveal my private opinion of my nearest relations? my secret thoughts of my dearest friends? my own hopes, fears, reflections, and dislikes? - Nobody.

To NOBODY, then, will I write my Journal? - since to Nobody can I be wholly unreserved, to Nobody can I reveal every thought, every wish of my heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity, to the end of my life! For what chance, what accident, can end my connexions with Nobody? No secret can I conceal from Nobody, and to Nobody can I be ever unreserved. Disagreement cannot stop our affection - time itself has no power to end our friendship. The love, the esteem I entertain for Nobody, Nobody’s self has not power to destroy. From Nobody I have nothing to fear. The secrets sacred to friendship Nobody will not reveal; when the affair is doubtful, Nobody will not look towards the side least favourable.’

And here are a few of her diary entries from a time when King George III was beginning to have a ‘sanity crisis’ (a phrase from the Burney Society biography). In fact this was one of the King’s very first episodes in what would later become his chronic mental illness. (See Wikipedia’s entry on George III for a correlation of the dates - ‘in November [1788] he became seriously deranged . . .’).

3 November 1788
‘. . . However, we are all here in a most uneasy state. The King is better and worse so frequently, and changes so, daily, backwards and forwards, that everything is to be apprehended, if his nerves are not some way quieted. I dreadfully fear he is on the eve of some severe fever. The Queen is almost overpowered with some secret terror. I am affected beyond all expression in her presence, to see what struggles she makes to support serenity. To-day she gave up the conflict when I was alone with her, and burst into a violent fit of tears. It was very, very terrible to see! How did I wish her a Susan or a Fredy! To unburthen her loaded mind would be to relieve it from all but inevitable affliction. Oh, may Heaven in its mercy never, never drive me to that solitary anguish more! - I have tried what it would do; I speak from bitter recollection of past melancholy experience.

Sometimes she walks up and down the room without uttering a word, but shaking her head frequently, and in evident distress and irresolution. She is often closeted with Miss Goldsworthy, of whom, I believe, she makes inquiry how her brother has found the King, from time to time.

The Princes both came to Kew, in several visits to the King. The Duke of York has also been here, and his fond father could hardly bear the pleasure of thinking him anxious for his health. ‘So good,’ he says, ‘is Frederick!’

To-night, indeed, at tea-time, I felt a great shock, in hearing, from General Bude, that Dr. Heberden had been called in. It is true more assistance seemed much wanting, yet the King’s rooted aversion to physicians makes any newcomer tremendous. They said, too, it was merely for counsel, not that His Majesty was worse.

Ah, my dearest friends! I have no more fair running journal: I kept not now even a memorandum for some time, but I made them by recollection afterwards, and very fully, for not a circumstance could escape a memory that seems now to retain nothing but present events.

I will copy the sad period, however, for my Susan and Fredy will wish to know how it passed; and, though the very prospect of the task involuntarily dejects me, a thousand things are connected with it that must make all that can follow unintelligible without it.’

4 November 1788
‘Passed much the same as the days preceding it; the Queen in deep distress, the King in a state almost incomprehensible, and all the house uneasy and alarmed. The drawing-room was again put off, and a steady residence seemed fixed at Windsor.’

5 November 1788
‘Oh, dreadful day! My very heart has so sickened in looking over my memorandums, that I was forced to go to other employments. I will not, however, omit its narration. ‘Tis too interesting ever to escape my own memory, and my dear friends have never yet had the beginning of the thread which led to all the terrible scenes of which they have variously heard.

I found my poor Royal Mistress, in the morning, sad and sadder still; something horrible seemed impending, and I saw her whole resource was in religion. We had talked lately much upon solemn subjects, and she appeared already preparing herself to be resigned for whatever might happen.

I was still wholly unsuspicious of the greatness of the cause she had for dread. Illness, a breaking up of the constitution, the payment of sudden infirmity and premature old age for the waste of unguarded health and strength, - these seemed to me the threats awaiting her; and great and grievous enough, yet how short of the fact!

I had given up my walks some days; I was too uneasy to quit the house while the Queen remained at home, and she now never left it. Even Lady Effingham, the last two days, could not obtain admission; she could only hear from a page how the Royal Family went on.

At noon the King went out in his chaise, with the Princess Royal, for an airing. I looked from my window to see him; he was all smiling benignity, but gave so many orders to the postillions, and got in and out of the carriage twice, with such agitation, that again my fear of a great fever hanging over him grew more and more powerful. Alas! how little did I imagine I should see him no more for so long - so black a period!

When I went to my poor Queen, still worse and worse I found her spirits. She had been greatly offended by some anecdote in a newspaper - the Morning Herald - relative to the King’s indisposition. She declared the printer should be called to account. She bid me burn the paper, and ruminated upon who could be employed to represent to the editor that he must answer at his peril any further such treasonable paragraphs. I named to her Mr Fairly, her own servant, and one so peculiarly fitted for any office requiring honour and discretion. ‘Is he here, then?’ she cried. ‘No,’ I answered, but he was expected in a few days.

I saw her concurrence with this proposal. The Princess Royal soon returned. She came m cheerfully, and gave, in German, a history of the airing, and one that seemed comforting.

Soon after, suddenly arrived the Prince of Wales. He came into the room. He had just quitted Brighthelmstone. Something passing within seemed to render this meeting awfully distant on both sides. She asked if he should not return to Brighthelmstone? He answered yes, the next day. He desired to speak with her; they retired together.

I had but just reached my own room, deeply musing on the state of things, when a chaise stopped at the rails; and I saw Mr. Fairly and his son Charles alight, and enter the house. He walked lamely, and seemed not yet recovered from his late attack.

Though most happy to see him at this alarming time when I knew he could be most useful, as tliere is no one to whom the Queen opens so confidentially upon her affairs, I had yet a fresh start to see, by his anticipated arrival, though still lame, that he must have been sent for, and hurried hither.

Only Miss Planta dined with me. We were both nearly silent: I was shocked at I scarcely knew what, and she seemed to know too much for speech. She stayed with me till six o’clock, but nothing passed, beyond general solicitude that the King might get better. . .

Meanwhile, a stillness the most uncommon reigned over the whole house. Nobody stirred; not a voice was heard; not a step, not a motion. I could do nothing but watch, without knowing for what: there seemed a strangeness in the house most extraordinary.

At seven o’clock Columb came to tell me that the music was all forbid, and the musicians ordered away!

This was the last step to be expected, so fond as His Majesty is of his Concert, and I thought it might have rather soothed him: I could not understand the prohibition; all seemed stranger and stranger.’

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 6 January 2010

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