Miss Burney - PA Criticism Archive

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SCARCELY any name, if any, stands higher in the list of novel-writers than that of Miss Burney, now Mrs. D'Arblay, daughter of the ingenious Dr. Burney. She has given to the world three productions of this kind; Evelina, in three vols., Cecilia, in five vols., and, after a long interval, in which, however honourable her employment might be deemed, she was completely lost to the literary world, Camilla, also in five vols. This latter was published by subscription in 1796.

It is necessary to speak of living authors with that temperance of praise which may not offend their delicacy; and though this lady by marriage with a foreigner, and her residence abroad, is in a manner lost to this her native country, the writer of these remarks does not feel herself at liberty to search for anecdotes which might gratify curiosity, or endeavour to detail the events of a life which every admirer of genius will wish prolonged to many succeeding years. One anecdote, however, may be mentioned, which is current, and she believes has never been contradicted. Miss Burney composed her Evelina

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when she was in the early bloom of youth, about seventeen. She wrote it without the knowledge of any of her friends. With the modesty of a young woman, and the diffidence of a young author, she contrived to throw it into the press anonymously, and, when published, laid the volumes in the way of her friends, whose impartial plaudits soon encouraged her to confess to whom they were obliged for their entertainment. There is perhaps no purer or higher pleasure than the young mind enjoys in the first burst of praise and admiration which attends a successful performance. To be lifted up at once into the favourite of the public; to be sensible that the name, hitherto pronounced only in the circle of family connexions, is become familiar to all that read, through every province of a large kingdom; to feel in the glow of genius and freshness of invention powers to continue that admiration to future years;—to feel all this, and at the same time to be happily ignorant of all the chills and mortifications, the impossibility not to flag in a long work, the ridicule and censure which fasten on vulnerable parts, and the apathy or diffidence which generally seizes an author before his literary race is run;—this is happiness for youth, and youth alone.

Evelina became at once a fashionable novel: there are even those who still prefer it to Cecilia, though that preference is probably owing to the partiality inspired by a first performance. Evelina is a young lady, amiable and inexperienced, who is continually getting into difficulties from not knowing or not observing the established


etiquettes of society, and from being unluckily connected with a number of vulgar characters, by whom she is involved in a series of adventures both ludicrous and mortifying. Some of these are certainly carried to a very extravagant excess, particularly the tricks played upon the poor Frenchwoman; but the fondness for humour, and low humour, which Miss Burney discovered in this piece, runs through all her subsequent works, and strongly characterizes, sometimes perhaps blemishes, her genius. Lord Orville is a generous and pleasing lover; and the conclusion is so wrought, as to leave upon the mind that glow of happiness which is not found in her subsequent works. The meeting between Evelina and her father is pathetic. The agonizing remorse and perturbation of the man who is about to see, for the first time, his child whom he had deserted, and whose mother had fallen a sacrifice to his unkindness; the struggles between the affection which impels him towards her, and the dread he feels of seeing in her the image of his injured wife; are described with many touches of nature and strong effect.—Other characters in the piece are, Mrs. Selwyn, a wit and an oddity; a gay insolent baronet; a group of vulgar cits; a number of young bucks, whose coldness, carelessness, rudeness, and impertinent gallantry, serve as a foil to the delicate attentions of Lord Orville.

Upon the whole, Evelina greatly pleased; and the interest the public took in the young writer was rewarded with fresh pleasure by the publication of Cecilia, than which it would be difficult

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to find a novel with more various and striking beauties. Among these may be reckoned the style, which is so varied, according to the characters introduced, that, without any information from the names, the reader would readily distinguish the witty loquacity of Lady Honoria Pemberton, the unmeaning volubility of Miss Larolles, the jargon of the captain, the affected indifference of Meadows, the stiff pomposity of Delville senior, the flighty heroics of Albany, the innocent simplicity of Miss Belfield, the coarse vulgarity of her mother, the familiar address and low comic of Briggs, and the cool finesse of the artful attorney, with many others,—all expressed in language appropriate to the character, and all pointedly distinguished from the elegant and dignified style of the author herself. The character of the miser Briggs is pushed, perhaps, to a degree of extravagance, though certainly not more so than Moliere's Harpagon; but it is highly comic, and it is not the common idea of a miser half-starved, sullen and morose; an originality is given to it by making him jocose, good-humoured, and not averse to enjoyment when he can have it for nothing. All the characters are well discriminated, from the skipping Morrice, to the artful Monckton, and the high-toned feeling of Mrs. Delville. The least natural character is Albany. An idea prevailed at the time, but probably without the least foundation, that Dr. Johnson had supplied the part.

Cecilia herself is an amiable and dignified character. She is brought into situations di-


stressful and humiliating, by the peculiarity of her circumstances, and a flexibility and easiness readily pardoned in a young female. The restriction she is laid under of not marrying any one who will not submit to assume her name is a new circumstance, and forms, very happily, the plot of the piece. Love appears with dignity in Cecilia; with fervour, but strongly combated by pride as well as duty, in young Delville; with all the helplessness of unrestrained affection in Miss Belfield, whose character of simplicity and tenderness much resembles that of Emily in Sir Charles Grandison. [2]  If resemblances are sought for, it may also be observed that the situation of Cecilia with Mrs. Delville is similar to that of Marivaux's Marianne with the mother of Valville.

Miss Burney possess equal powers of pathos and of humour. The terrifying voice of the unknown person who forbids the banns has an electrifying effect upon the reader; and the distress of Cecilia seeking her husband about the streets, in agony for his life, till her reason suddenly fails, is almost too much to bear. Indeed we lay down the volumes with rather a melancholy impression upon our minds; there has been so much of distress that the heart feels exhausted, and there are so many deductions from the happiness of the lovers, that the reader is scarcely able to say whether the story ends happily or unhappily. It is true that in human life things are generally so balanced; but in fictitious writings it is more agreeable, if they are not

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meant to end tragically, to leave on the mind the rainbow colours of delight in their full glow and beauty.

But the finest part of these volumes is the very moral and instructive story of the Harrels. It is the high praise of Miss Burney, that she has not contented herself with fostering the delicacies of sentiment, and painting in vivid colours those passions which nature has made sufficiently strong. She has shown the value of economy, the hard-heartedness of gaiety, the mean rapacity of the fashionable spendthrift. She has exhibited a couple, not naturally bad, with no other inlet to vice, that appears on the face of the story, than the inordinate desire of show and splendour, withholding his hard-earned pittance from the poor labourer, and lavishing it on every expensive trifle. She has shown the wife trifling and helpless, vain, incapable of serious thought or strong feeling; and has beautifully delineated the gradual extinction of an early friendship between two young women whom youth and cheerfulness alone had assimilated, as the two characters diverged in afterlife,—a circumstance that frequently happens. She has shown the husband fleecing his guest and his ward by working on the virtuous feelings of a young mind, and has conducted him by natural steps to the awful catastrophe. The last scene at Vauxhall is uncommonly animated; every thing seems to pass before the reader's eyes. The forced gaiety, the starts of remorse, the despair, the bustle and glare of the place, the situation


of the unprotected females in such scene of horror, are all most forcibly described. We almost hear and feel the report of the pistol.—In the uncommon variety of characters which this novel affords, there are many other deserving of notice; that, for instance, of the high-minded romantic Belfield may give a salutary lesson to many a youth who fancies his part in life ill cast, who wastes life in projects, and does nothing because he thinks every thing beneath his ambition and his talents.

Such are the various merits of Cecilia, through the whole of which it is evident that the author draws from life, and exhibits not only the passions of human nature, but the manners of the age and the affectation of the day.

The celebrity which Miss Burney had now attained awakened the idea of extending that patronage to her which, in most countries, it has been usual in one way or other to hold out to literary merit; and it was thought, we must presume, the most appropriate reward of her exertions, and the happiest method of fostering her genius, that she was made dresser to Her Majesty. [3]  She held this post for several years, during which the duties of her situation seem to have engrossed her whole time. Her state of health at length obliged her to resign it, and she was soon after married to M. D'Arblay, a French emigrant.

She now again resumed her pen, and gave to the world her third publication, entitled Camilla. This work is somewhat too much protracted,


and is inferior to Cecilia as a whole, but it certainly exhibits beauties of as high an order. The character of Sir Hugh is new and striking. There is such an unconscious shrewdness in his remarks, that they have all the effect of the sharpest satire without his intending any malice; while, at the same time, his complaints are so meek, his self-humiliation so touching, his benevolence so genuine and overflowing, that the reader must have a bad heart who does not love while he laughs at him. The incidents of the piece show much invention, particularly that which induces Sir Hugh to adopt Eugenia instead of his favourite. How charmingly is Camilla described! "Every look was a smile, every step was a spring, every thought was a hope, and the early felicity of her mind was without alloy."

Camilla, in the course of the work, falls, like Cecilia, into pecuniary difficulties. They are brought on partly by milliners' bills, which unawares and through the persuasion of others she has suffered to run up, but chiefly from being drawn in to assist an extravagant and unprincipled brother. The character of the brother, Lionel, is drawn with great truth and spirit, and presents but too just a picture of the manner in which many deserving females have been sacrificed to the worthless part of the family. The author appears to have viewed with a very discerning eye the manners of those young men who aspire to lead the fashion; and in all three of her novels has bestowed a good deal of her


satire upon the affected apathy, studied negligence, coarse slang, avowed selfishness, or mischievous frolic, by which they often distinguish themselves, and through which they contrive to be vulgar with the advantages of rank, mean with those of fortune, and disagreeable with those of youth.

A very original character in this work is that of Eugenia. Her surprise and sorrow when, at the age of fifteen, she first discovers her deformity, and her deep, gentle, dignified sorrow for the irremediable misfortune, it is impossible to peruse without sympathy; and in the incident which follows, when her father, after a discourse the most rational and soothing, brings her to the sight of a beautiful idiot, the scene is one of the most striking and sublimely moral any where to be met with.

As well as great beauties there are great faults in Camilla. It is blemished by the propensity which the author has shown in all her novels, betrayed into it by her love of humour, to involve her heroines not only in difficult but in degrading adventures. The mind may recover from distress, but not from disgrace; and the situations Camilla is continually placed in with the Dubsters and Mrs. Mittin are of a nature to degrade. Still more, the overwhelming circumstance of her father's being sent to prison for her debts seems to preclude the possibility of her ever raising her head again. It conveys a striking lesson; and no doubt Mrs. D'Arblay, in her large acquaintance with life, must have often


seen the necessity of inculcating, even upon young ladies, the danger of running up bills on credit; but the distress becomes too deep, too humiliating, to admit of a happy conclusion. The mind has been harassed and worn with excess of painful feeling. At the conclusion of Clarissa, [4]  we are dismissed in calm and not unpleasing sorrow; but on the winding up of Cecilia and Camilla we are somewhat tantalized with imperfect happiness. It must be added, that the interest is more divided in Camilla than in the author's former work, and the adventures of Eugenia become at length too improbable.

Among the new characters in this piece is Mrs. Arlberry, a woman of fashion, with good sense and taste, but fond of frivolity through désœuvrement, and amusing herself with a little court about her of fashionable young men, whom she at the same time entertains and despises.

In short, Mrs. D'Arblay has observed human nature, both in high and low life, with the quick and penetrating eye of genius. Equally happy in seizing the ridiculous, and in entering into the finer feelings, her pictures of manners are just and interesting, and the highest value is given to them by the moral feelings they exercise, and the excellent principles they inculcate.

Mrs. D'Arblay lived some years after her marriage at a sweet retirement in the shade of Norbury park, in a house built under Mr. D'Arblay's direction, which went by the name of Camilla Lodge; but at the time when the greatest part of


the emigrants returned to their native country, she followed her husband to France, in which country she now resides.

A writer who has published three novels of so much merit may be allowed to repose her pen; yet the English public cannot but regret an expatriation which so much lessens the chance of their being again entertained by her.


[1] The British Novelists; with an Essay; and Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, by Mrs. Barbauld, 50 Vols. (London: Printed for F.C. and J. Rivington; W. Otridge and Son; A. Strahan; T. Payne; G. Robinson; W. Lowndes; Wilkie and Robinson; Scatcherd and Letterman; J. Walker; Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe; R. Lea; J. Nunn; Lackington and Co.; Clarke and Son; C. Law; Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme; Cadell and Davies; E. Jeffery; J.K. Newman; Crosby and Co.; J. Carpenter; S. Bagster; T. Booth; J. Murray; J. and J. Richardson; Black, Parry, and Kingsbury; J. Harding; R. Phillips; J. Mawman; J. Booker; J. Asperne; R. Baldwin; Mathews and Leigh; J. Faulder; Johnson and Co.; W. Creech, Edinburgh; and Wilson and Son, York, 1810), 38:i-xi. Mary A. Waters edited this edition for The Criticism Archive. BACK

[2] Novel by Samuel Richardson. BACK

[3] Burney served as lady in waiting to Charlotte, queen to George III, from 1786-1791. BACK

[4] Novel by Samuel Richardson. BACK

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