Skip to main content

Burney, Fanny: General Commentary



SOURCE: Straub, Kristina. "The Receptive Reader and Other Necessary Fictions." In Divided Fictions: Fanny Burney and Feminine Strategy, pp. 152-81. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987.

In the following excerpt, Straub examines Burney's self-awareness as an author as her career developed, particularly after the success of Evelina.

Evelina's fictional situation reflects Burney's own dilemma as a woman who sought solutions to female difficulties among conventional, patriarchal answers. Writing gave her aesthetic and imaginative choices among the options for women in patriarchal society that were not matched by her social and personal powers.1 Burney could, in other words, easily endow her fictional heroine with the secure, emotionally based power over males that she, herself, could only gain with considerable difficulty, if at all, in life. Fiction is, then, as dangerous, in setting up false expectations, to Fanny Burney as Lord Orville is to Evelina; as Villars says, the age did not encourage women to trust to appearances, particularly when perception is brightened by hopeful illusions about the disinterested generosity of male power. Such illusions are the stuff of novels that end happily for their heroines. Burney seems aware of this danger to personal sanity and safety, and she projects it into her heroine's Cinderella story. The dangers that track Evelina's entrance into the world are ones that Burney knew: disappointment, powerlessness, and regret for lost hopes. Balanced against these dangers is her ability to sustain the fantasy of patriarchal benevolence, the rewards that await female virtue, and, given the grimness of her alternatives, it is not strange that she chose the fantasy.

In a telling passage dated 1768 in The Early Diary, Burney records her conversation with a "Mr. S." who claims that Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison is "too perfect for human nature." Burney responds that "it quite hurts me to hear anybody declare a really and thoroughly good man never lived. It is so much to the disgrace of mankind." When Mr. S. patronizingly admires her "innocence and credulity of heart," however, she worries that such innocence may expose one to danger. Mr. S. answers that since danger cannot be avoided in any case, Burney is better off believing in the possibility of a "really and thoroughly good man" (ED [The Early Diary of Frances Burney, 1768-1778 ] 1:36-37). Three years later, she seems to confirm Mr. S.'s fatalistic endorsement of innocence as the least culpable approach to a nowin situation: "What can one think of the natural disposition of a young person who, with an eye of suspicion, looks around for secret designs in the appearance of kindness, and evil intentions in the profession of friendship? I could not think well of such apprehensions and expectations in youth. A bad opinion of the world should be dearly bought to be excusable" (ED 1:110-11). In this passage, Burney presents innocence as a self-consciously formulated strategy for coping with a lack of real options. Accordingly, the "innocence" that allows Evelina and Fanny Burney to believe in Lord Orville as a Grandisonian protector is a considered choice, made with full knowledge of its danger, among the few solutions offered by patriarchal culture, and Burney's presentation of Lord Orville calls attention to the dangers as well as the desirability of believing in such creations.

Hence, Evelina 's happy ending is literary schizophrenia of a particularly calculated nature; it is withdrawal from reality as a coping mechanism or strategy. Yet the text is not, in this sense, totally "insane," but rather a split or doubled embodiment of Burney's self-consciousness, expressive of the dangers and the limits of the very solutions it advocates. This reflexivity—in the form of a sentimental artifice that calls attention to its artificiality—is less a case of literary cleverness than a manifestation of the contradiction inherent in Burney's position as woman writer. In that role, she implicitly claims a public voice that felt awkward and unwieldy to what Mary Poovey has aptly named the Proper Lady in her character, the woman who saw herself in essentially private—not public—terms.2 The contradictory nature of this ideological position both gave authority and took it away, leaving Burney licensed to use the affective power of eighteenth-century sentimental literary conventions and, at the same time, leaving her inclined to see that power as unauthorized and unreliable unless grounded in the personal affection that justified more fully established uses of feminine power in the domestic sphere. Hence, Evelina asserts the heroine's power to define herself through others' controlled estimations of her, while suggesting how tenuous this power is, how much it depends on human emotion's proper—and lucky—deployment. The public success of Evelina disturbed this tenuous, compromised resolution of Burney's contradictory feelings toward authorial power. Instead of feeling that her right to a public voice had been validated, Burney seems to have transposed public acclaim to a personal level: her success either made her all the more personally valued or—devastatingly—exposed her to personal degradation.

Burney's feelings about gaining a public voice remain curiously ill-defined, as if she were masking feelings of invasion with indifference—"I have an exceeding odd sensation, when I consider that it is now in the power of any and every body to read what I so carefully hoarded even from my best friends, till this last month or two,—and that a work so lately lodged, in all privacy of my bureau, may now be seen by every butcher and baker, cobler and tinker, throughout the three kingdoms, for the small tribute of three pence" (ED 2:214). But whether Burney is, as I suspect, shielding herself from a role that felt untenable to her or whether she actually gave the public nature of her work as little attention as appears from her journals, she shows only slight concern for the reading public at large, and the audience that seems to matter to her was known to her in person or by name: her family (in particular her father), friends, and the literary circle to which her father had access through his relationship with the Thrales.3 Public success, for Burney, did not mean the anonymity of writing in the privacy of a closet for unknown readers. It meant, rather, being exposed to real, specific individuals who would feel personally let down if she did not live up the success of her novel. She writes, after reading Susan Burney's account of her praises in the mouths of Hester Thrale and Samuel Johnson, "I tremble for what all this will end in. I verily think I had best stop where I am, and never again attempt writing: for after so much honour, so much success—how shall I bear a downfall?" (DL [Diary and Letters of Madame d'Arblay ] 1:126-27). It is hard to say, however, whether the responses of the famous unknown thrilled and terrified her more than those of her father; both seem to have had equally personal, specific significance to Burney, and both created enormous anxiety—about continuing to please, about whether or not the people who praised the novel would be disappointed by Burney, the woman.4

Burney's anxiety was partially and temporarily relieved after she became intimate with Johnson and the Thrales, during the time just previous to writing Cecilia. 5 Her journals express a sense of feeling personally known and valued; she says of Thrale that "had I been the child of this delightful woman, she could not have taken more pains to reconcile me to my situation" (DL 1:98), and somewhat later Burney adds that "I flatter myself that if he [Johnson] were now accused of loving me, he would not deny it, nor as before, insist on waiting longer ere he went so far" (DL 1:181). But her growing personal security with her new literary friends does not seem to have affected her continuing insecurity as a writer. As she worked on a play, "The Witlings," her journals reveal her trepidation at another public display of her art struggling against her brief, tenuous sense of personal security with her new audience. This precariously established balance between contradictory feelings—that her new-found public role both augmented and debased her personal value—was upset by a mild lampoon on "dear little Burney" published in Warley: a satire.6 She had previously expressed her fears that writing might expose her to "the horror irrecoverable of personal abuse" (DL 1:127); given her need for personal approbation, this extreme, almost phobic response seems inevitable rather than prissy. "Personal abuse" denied the efficacy of her writerly control over how she was seen, and when "the worst" happened, and Burney's name was dropped in a lampoon, she was "for more than a week unable to eat, drink, or sleep for vehemence of vexation" (DL 1:161). The soothing effects of Johnson's concern over her distress and the flattering encouragement of her family and Hester Thrale probably helped her to continue writing the play (DL 1:158-60, 182-83), although her conviction that "no success could counter-balance the publishing of my name" (DL 1:166) remained firm after the Warley incident. Under continuing encouragement, she went on with "The Witlings," deciding, however, to "keep my own counsel; not to whisper even the name of it; to raise no expectations, which were always prejudicial, and finally, to have it performed while the town knew nothing of whose it was" (DL 1:208). Unfortunately, the protective mask of anonymity proved unnecessary; Dr. Burney and Crisp, apparently concerned that "The Witlings" was a too-obvious satire of the bas bleu, advised her to suppress the play.7

Burney seems to have seen their advice as "disapprobation" of a personal nature, not as a political strategy for the good of her career. She responded to her father and "Daddy" Crisp like a chastened, slightly resentful child determined not to be caught in the wrong: "I will never proceed so far again without your counsel, and then I shall not only save myself so much useless trouble, but you, who so reluctantly blame, the kind pain which I am sure must attend your disapprobation.… I have long thought I have had more than my share of success already" (DL 1:258-59). Burney's next project shows how seriously she meant never to "proceed so far again without your counsel"; with the writing of Cecilia, Burney turned to her paternal mentors for actual creative direction as well as emotional energy, beginning "hard fagging" at the novel that Crisp and Dr. Burney urged her to write. Resolving to exert herself so as not to appear "sulky" over her mentors' suppression of the play (DL 1:258), she wrote in order to rewin a secure sense of approval from the men who personally mattered most to her.

Burney's attitude toward her work in her later career as a writer shows a chronic need to reaffirm the early relationship with paternal mentors who made her feel safe as a writer. After her return to the Burney household from court, she sees the pleasure, almost the point of her work on a long poem as the gaining of Charles Burney's approval: "This is a delight to my dear Father inexpressibly great: and though I have gone no further than to let him know, from time to time, the species of Matter that occupies me, he is perfectly contented, and patiently waits till something is quite finished, before he insists upon reading a Word. This suits my humour well, as my own industry is all gone, when once its intent is produced" (JL [The Journals and Letters of Frances Burney ] 1:73).With Camilla as well, Burney placed her father's praise high in her gratifications as a writer: "with the utmost truth I can aver, never, in all their amazing circle of success have procured me any satisfaction I can put on a par with your approbation of them." Charles Burney's approval—"that approbation I most prize of all approbations in this lower sphere" (JL 3:255-56)—seems to have had more value to Burney than public opinion; the mixed reviews on Camilla do not seem to have disturbed her greatly, being only what Burney rather expected now that Johnson, Burke, and Reynolds no longer protected her with their praise: "But those immense Men whose single praise was Fame and Security, who established by a Word, the two elder sisters, are now silent" (JL 3:205). Burney persists in seeing audience response in specific, personal terms; I suspect that doing so gave her the semblance, at least, of a comforting fusion between the authorial control that her culture gave her reason to mistrust and the more known, more fully reassuring authority of the beloved over the lover.

The journals and letters written in 1813 during Burney's preparation to return to England from France with the manuscript of her last novel, The Wanderer, reveal how Charles Burney had assumed the psychic function of fusing Burney's public role as writer with her private identity of daughter, wife, mother: "Could I but have had my work for my dearest Father, the certainty of giving him so much pleasure, and of reaping hence ourselves so abundant an harvest, would have made affection, filial affection, and conjugal and maternal interest unite to give me fortitude for bearing my personal regret [at the absence from her husband]" (JL 6:675). Burney writes of her "true, heart-dear Joy in making such a presentation to my beloved Father; Joy, there at our meeting, in giving Him so great a satisfaction, will indubitably take the lead. It will necessarily be one of the most blessed moments of my life, for it is what, I know, beyond all things in the world, he most wishes" (JL 6:690). After a ten-year separation from her elderly, failing father and with little notion of what Charles Burney's real interests and condition were at the time, Burney constructs a climactic reunion scene between father and daughter that not only recapitulates Evelina 's dedicatory poem addressed to the "author of my being," but also is a sort of reverse echo of the fictional Mr. Villars' wish to embrace Evelina before his death. The imagined emotional encounters between father and daughter are, in the case of both journal and novel, fictions, projected affirmations of female affective power in the hands of the heroine/writer. This is not to say that Burney could not tell the difference between life and art or the personal and the public. Rather, writing—both of journals and of fiction—gave her a way of imaging the results of affective rhetoric as well as a means of exerting it. And her image of affective control over audience, in both her fiction and her journals, consistently binds together authorship and traditionally feminine modes of cultural empowerment. Burney collapses the distance between writing as a public act and writing as a personal mode of relating—not out of confusion, but in order to extend and consolidate her sense of control.

But while Burney's personal concept of audience probably gave her a useful justification for continuing to write, it does not mask, in her fiction, the ideologically contradictory and divisive nature of female authorial control. The contradictions between public and private, active and passive roles for women reach a tenuous resolution in the reflexivity of Evelina. In the novels that followed, Burney discloses more fully than in Evelina the psychic cost of the contradictions inherent in her profession; whereas Evelina merely calls attention to the artificiality of the power granted to women in the sentimental novel, Cecilia is far more explicit about what is at risk in the woman writer's work: self-alienation, madness, and mental disintegration haunt the process by which the heroine gains control over her audience and, hence, her own identity.

Cecilia marks a shift in Burney's fiction from a romance plot that points to its source in female creative desire—signalling its own generic limits—to a plot that emphasizes far more painfully the tenuousness of female creative control over audience. Cecilia, like Evelina, finds her best, happiest self in marriage with the man of her choice, and, as in Evelina, the heroine reaches that goal through the hero's learning to read her character accurately—a painful process, fraught with mishaps and difficulties, by which he comes to appreciate her real worth. While Evelina suffers under Orville's possible and real misreadings of her—as simpleton, bumpkin, or object of sexual jealousy—Cecilia is nearly destroyed by Delvile's inability to see her accurately, an inability that persists even after the lovers are avowed and wed. Each heroine finally brings the hero to a correct reading of her, and they do so in ways that suggest a parallel between their power to control and the author's power to create the hero capable of such a reading—an implied analogy that, by calling attention to the tenuousness of a female control grounded in fictional rather than social convention, points to the enormous risks implicit in female creative power. Whereas this self-referential process in Evelina is arduous, suggestive of the difficulties inherent in commanding sentimental or authorial control, in Cecilia it is torturous, suggesting the near-self-destruction risked by the authorial manipulation of audience.

Evelina unconsciously creates Lord Orville—happily, as it turns out. But Cecilia's conscious attempts to see a lover in Delvile reflect a dark side of Burney's self-conscious manipulation of literary romantic love: by creating a false happy ending and by suffering a more intense form of the disillusionment that Evelina momentarily feels and then evades, Cecilia reflects her author's awareness of her own psychic risk in creating sentimental fantasies of female happiness. Like her author, who knows a sentimental hero when she sees one, Cecilia quickly recognizes Delvile's potential as her avowed lover and eventual husband. Furthermore, she believes, like the author of Evelina, that love will override practicalities, will "make every obstacle to the alliance seem trifling, when put in competition with mutual esteem and affection" (IV, 287). Delvile, however, sets a precedent for subsequent Burney heroes in being far denser than Orville in reading the heroine. Whereas Orville bears out Evelina's unworldly assumption about the power of love over finance and family pride, Delvile is bound into a contradictory line of behavior by the familial and social expectations that Cecilia, in her first sanguine perception of his love, dismisses so lightly. And, even when hero and heroine become first avowed lovers and then husband and wife, Delvile continues to misread Cecilia, interpreting her behavior in the light of circumstances and appearances that link her sexually with other men. His misguided jealousy leads him, at the crisis point in their relationship, to run from Cecilia, apparently intent on violent revenge, an act that finally, as the culmination of misreading upon misreading, drives Cecilia into madness. The emotional control secured to Evelina by the title of "wife" is, in Cecilia, as unreliable as the created vision of patriarchal benevolence that both heroines weave around their men. Marriage, the relationship that ensures Evelina's self and security, renders Cecilia voiceless and powerless; in a dramatic mad scene, she cries out that "no one will save me now! I am married, and no one will listen to me!" (X, 881). Cecilia's attempts to "make sense" of herself to the hero break down into a state of madness and meaninglessness that has disturbing implications for women's ability to use language as affective control: speech, in Burney's second novel, not only fails to gain the heroine a just interpretation; it turns against her, alienating her from the hero—and herself.

Cecilia's ability to name, to give linguistic form to her sense of herself in relation to Delvile, becomes a mad parody of female creativity. She speaks her husband's name as if it—the name itself, the verbal token of her claim to power over her husband—were a child, a being made as well as known, which has turned treacherously upon its maker:"'Tis a name,…I well remember to have heard, and once I loved it, and three times I called upon it in the dead of night. And when I was cold and wretched, I cherished it; and when I was abandoned and left alone, I repeated it and sung to it" (X, 885). In Cecilia, creative control—betrayed by its object in a biblically resonant triple denial—disintegrates into a mad parody of maternal power over the masculine. Ironically, this act of madness works for Cecilia as her saner attempts to secure affective control over Delvile do not. Although her fantasy loses its grounding in reality, Cecilia unconsciously uses its affective power to regain her control: her madness is the dark, unconscious side of Evelina's fantasy, her power to command the male protection she needs in order to survive. Loss of control over her own mind allows her to shock Delvile into a just interpretation of her integrity, giving her, finally, the control over the hero's mind that she has forfeited over her own.

Burney turned to the literary convention of "running mad" to express female desire, the will to power, through emotional blackmail of the particularly risky sort that walks a fine line between the creation and the immolation of self. Cecilia, then, stresses the contradictions implicit in acts of female creative power—between the public and private, art and artlessness—that Evelina precariously resolves through a self-referential assertion of authority. The self-alienation of Cecilia is a more extreme form of the contradiction implicit in Evelina, an exaggerated version of Evelina's sexual unselfconsciousness—her "delicate" dissociation from her own sexual impulses. Cecilia's madness suggests Burney's awareness, on some level, of the danger implicit in her heroine's affective power over hero and reader. And Burney's self-consciousness sets her apart from—without denying her implication in—the self-destructive potential of Cecilia's attempts to manipulate audience. Cecilia wins over husband and father-in-law by running mad; Fanny Burney gains patriarchal recognition by writing in a form in which the threat of her own self-alienation is implicit.

Evelina does, however, suggest, in half-submerged form, the dangers that patriarchal discourse can entail for the woman writer—dangers that Cecilia makes clear. Burney's first novel also culminates in the heroine's envelopment in male authority, a milder, benign version of the self-alienation to which Cecilia is reduced to gain affective control over her male audience. Looked at carefully, Evelina's fairy-tale union with Lord Orville is a sort of love-death in which the record of female consciousness is buried in the text of conventionally defined female "happiness." Evelina's closing account of her marriage brings to a climax Mr. Villars' longings for the almost sexual consummation of reunion with her by blurring, I think deliberately, the line between her sexual union with her husband and her anticipated reunion with her guardian. Evelina's affirmative answer to Villars' desire to die in her arms seems as much her "end" as it is his:

All is over, my dearest Sir, and the fate of your Evelina is decided! This morning, with fearful joy, and trembling gratitude, she united herself for ever with the object of her dearest, her eternal affection!

I have time for no more; the chaise now waits which is to conduct me to dear Berry Hill, and to the arms of the best of men.


The arms that enfold Evelina in death are almost indistinguishable from those which embrace her in marriage, and, in a sense, it matters little whose arms hold her with what intent: both afford release from the ambiguities of power used within an ideological context—the public sphere—that assumes her powerlessness. Evelina runs happily (though with "fearful joy" and "trembling gratitude") to her "end," of course, a willing Isolde to the Villars/Orville Tristan, but Cecilia's dash into arms that temporarily betray her has more of auto-da-fé than liebestod about it. In Cecilia, the heroine is not so much enveloped as she is cannibalized by the ostensible protection of masculine authority.

Cecilia's hysteria allows her language to express a gothic side to the novel's fairy tale of romantic love. Her ravings about Delvile, her husband and "prince," reflect the psychic reality of her brutally frustrated attempts to be known and hence protected by him. The prince becomes an agent of blood, the source and center of a terrifyingly vague violence whose lack of a clear object makes it all the more threatening: "Oh, if he is yet to be saved, if already he is not murdered … he is only in the next street, I left him there myself, his sword drawn, and covered with human blood!" Delvile's death is the imagined result of his violence, but the visionary "poniard" in "his wounded bosom" reflects Cecilia's "bloodied" vision of her marriage as well: "Oh, it was a work of darkness, unacceptable and offensive! it has been sealed, therefore, with blood, and tomorrow is will be signed with murder!" (X, 880-81). Cecilia refers to her own guilt, of course, in consenting to a clandestine marriage to Delvile after his father had refused consent, but hysteria allows her language to express more than a sense of her own wrong-doing: it also suggests her fears at being trapped in a situation in which male violence aggravates her mistaken action into an ultimate act of destruction. Cecilia is afraid for Delvile, but she is also afraid of him, a condition that Burney can express by disjointing and decentering her heroine's sense of relationship between self and the other, the patriarchal reality. Failing to recognize Delvile, Cecilia makes explicit the threat that she feels:

Cecilia now, half rising, and regarding him with mingled terror and anger, eagerly exclaimed, "if you do not mean to mangle and destroy me, begone this instant."

"To mangle you!" repeated Delvile, shuddering, "how horrible!—but I deserve it all!"

[X, 884-85]

The plot contingencies of Cecilia's madness allow her to make this accusation—she thinks Delvile is the villain, Monckton; they also allow her to become again the loving, gentle heroine after the delirium has passed, so that Burney can incorporate in her novel both the expression of female anxiety and the reconciliation that is important to her heroine's happy ending. But insane, Cecilia can state a truth that does not become the lips of a conventional heroine: the psychic and social pressures created by her love for Delvile have indeed "mangled" her, and by his own admission, at that. Madness, then, is both rhetoric—a communicative act that is specifically pointed at gaining the desired effect on men who have power over women's lives—and a way of naming the threat of self-victimization implicit in acts of female power in the context of a male-controlled society—and literature.

In each of Burney's novels written after Evelina, a moment comes in the course of the heroine's troubled romance when the familial, sexual, and social pressures of her attempts to gain a just "reading" culminate in a crisis of self-alienation. Also at that moment, the hero comes to his own crisis in the course of his feelings for the heroine by observing her pain and debilitation. Delvile discovers Cecilia in her madness; Edgar finds his estranged fiancée, Camilla, teetering at the brink of a self-willed death. Harleigh, of The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties, witnesses Juliet's sane but even more chilling abdication of self as she turns herself over to the husband whom political circumstances in France have forced her to marry—this time, a specifically sexual form of alienation from self. At this crisis point in all three of Burney's novels after Evelina, the heroine's temporary loss of self-control ultimately leads to a right understanding with the man of her desires—and the rhetorical purpose of female self-abdication is fulfilled. But in each case, the actual moment of encounter between the estranged lovers focuses on the emotional distance that the hero must overcome to understand his beloved, and on his weakness and inability to do so, suggesting that the female crisis of self-alienation needs to be read as more than a cry for patriarchal help: it is also Burney's clearest expression of the damages that the articulation of women's feelings—an affective act of power—inflicts on the female ego in a male-dominated world and art.

In Cecilia, Delvile persists, for a while, in misreading Cecilia's insanity as reproach and rejection; when he finally realizes that she is out of her senses, her madness "turns him to stone," leaving him weak and unable to help her either emotionally or physically: "Delvile now attempted to carry her in his arms; but trembling and unsteady, he had not strength to sustain her; yet not enduring to behold the helplessness he could not assist, he conjured them to be careful and gentle, and, committing her to their trust, ran out himself for a physician" (X, 886). The hero can only help the heroine by running away, a pattern that is repeated in Camilla, when the sight of the heroine's hand stretched out to him from behind the curtains of a sickbed causes the hero to flee the tormenting presence of his beloved. In both discovery scenes, the man blunders helplessly out of the room, leaving the woman isolated in a psychological darkness which is a type of death, or at least its prelude: "Declining all aid, Camilla continued in the same position, wrapt up, coveting the dark, and stifling sighs that were rising into sobs."8 "Cecilia resisted them with her utmost power, imploring them not to bury her alive, and averring she had received intelligence they meant to entomb her with Mr. Monckton" (X, 886). Although more rational than Cecilia's ravings, Camilla's stillness is more chilling, since she seems to be "coveting" the living death that Cecilia, however irrationally, thinks she is fighting off. In both novels, the heroine's moment of most extreme alienation from herself and her life is, ironically, the crisis that gains her the patriarchal reward she desires. But Burney also seems to be embedding in this rhetoric of female madness the cost of alienation from one's self and from the patriarchal other that results from attempts to communicate female being in a world that assumes the suspect or insubstantial nature of female acts of power.

In The Wanderer, the hero is cut off from the heroine in her moment of crisis by the institutions of a society that, in Burney's view, has gone wrong at the core of its moral order. Instead of symbolic curtains or the heroine's own disordered mental state, marriage (ironically) alienates the hero from the heroine: Juliet has been forced to wed a brutal French Republican through the hope of saving those she loves during the Reign of Terror. She flees to England, but when she is discovered by her husband, numbly submits to the obligation of obedience that the institution of marriage entails for women. The discovery scene dramatizes her own self-abdication; it also focuses on the psychological alienation of her lover, Harleigh, who witnesses it: "A sudden sensation, kindred even to hatred, took possession of his feelings. Altered she appeared to him, and delusive. She had always, indeed, discouraged his hope, always forbidding his expectations; yet she must have seen that they subsisted, and were cherished; and could not but have been conscious, that a single word, bitter, but essentially just, might have demolished, have annihilated them in a moment."9 Harleigh shifts quickly into pity for Juliet's plight and elation at the evidence that, although married to someone else, she still loves him. But Burney seems to have included this moment of near-hatred with a kind of instinct for the gap that separates male from female in the misreadings, revisions, and re-revisions that constitute "communication" between the sexes. In The Wanderer, a whole social order, rather than personal and familial pressure, is responsible for female alienation from self, her male lover, even sexuality itself—the Revolution serves as a sort of gothic objective correlative for the madness that Burney seems to think is implicit in female attempts to control male response, the madness of trying to merge the female will with an enabling male other.

The connection between the act of control implicit in writing and the heroine's sentimental ability to move the hero becomes, perhaps, clearest in Camilla, a novel that Burney wrote with the renewed sense of financial urgency that the birth of her son brought in 1794. Burney wrote this novel with a clear practical purpose in mind—the security of her family—and perhaps because of this acceptably feminine motivation seems to have taken a pleasure in writing it that was missing from the composition of Cecilia. Yet Camilla is still more explicit than Cecilia in its symbolic connection of writing with a power that turns back on the woman who wields it. Like Cecilia, Camilla is offered the promise of marriage early in the novel, and, like Cecilia, is put through a purgatory of doubt and loss after a promising beginning. Edgar, like Delvile, misreads Camilla through a too-scrupulous deference to a (patriarchal) moral authority figure. Edgar's caution produces the same results as Delvile's jealousy, and Camilla, ill and desperate, has a nightmare just before her rediscovery by Edgar that parallels Cecilia's waking delirium. This dream sequence, as Julia Epstein wisely points out, is the culmination of a linguistic struggle that occupies Camilla throughout the novel. Whereas Evelina artlessly controls her audience and determines her own "reading," Camilla dramatizes the debilitating struggle underlying the ostensibly unselfconscious expression of female identity and links that struggle to writing—the heroine's abortive attempts to make herself known on paper. The nightmare sequence in Camilla writes large the implications of this process, Epstein explains.10 Camilla falls asleep, wishing herself dead and out of the troubles that her naiveté and Edgar's implacability have led her into; Death comes to her and demands that she write "thy claims, thy merits to mercy." Her hand "involuntarily" grasps "a pen of Iron, and with a velocity uncontrollable" writes out the "guilty characters," which become "illuminated with burning sulpher." Death tells her, "These are thy deserts; write now thy claims," but when she grasps the pen a second time it makes no mark on the page (875). This scene expresses the pain and difficulty of a woman struggling to redeem herself through a medium that she is not fully authorized to control. Burney, probably like other women, found herself writing out of patriarchal assumptions about writing as an act of power in which her oppression and even destruction were implicit. Hence, self-expression is closely allied with self-condemnation: the "iron pen" will write Camilla's guilt, but not her "claims."

Camilla's nightmare also expresses the disintegration of female personality implicit in Cecilia's earlier madness. The act of writing is accompanied, in the heroine's dream, by a cacophany of voices that seem to emanate from within her, most angry and accusatory, others querying or defeated:

When again she made a feeble effort to rid her oppressed lungs of the dire weight that had fallen upon them, a voice hollow, deep, and distant, dreadfully pierced her ear, calling out: "Thou hast but thy own wish! Rejoice, thou murmurer, for thou diest!" Clearer, shriller, another voice quick vibrated in the air: "Whither goest thou," it cried, "and whence comest thou?"

A voice from within, over which she thought she had no controul, though it seemed issuing from her vitals, low, hoarse, and tremulous, answered, "Whither I go, let me rest!"…Quick then another voice assailed her so near, so loud, so terrible … she shrieked at its horrible sound.


The voices multiply until she is assailed "by hundreds, by thousands, by millions, from side to side, above, below, around" (876). Camilla is beset with a nightmare chorus of her own feelings, the seemingly alien voices of her overwrought mind; the attempt to write her own self-defense is not only painful, but is accompanied by a splintering of self into dissociated fragments. Camilla's nightmare passes, of course, like Cecilia's madness and Evelina's greensickness: even Juliet's brutal husband conveniently dies so that she can marry Harleigh. Burney repeatedly asserts the power of successful romantic love to banish the female nightmare, at least in novels, but she also asserts, more and more forcefully after Evelina, that happy endings are created at great risk to the woman who holds a pen in a world that defines public, writerly power as male. For Burney, writing meant a self-division that could either be carried off in reflexivity or painfully expressed in images of self-estrangement; the split between public and private along the lines of gender created internal contradictions in the most "respectable" and successful of eighteenth-century women novelists that her fiction does not fully resolve. I would argue, however, that the dissonances of Burney's fiction reveal not aesthetic failure but an impressive ability to resist false unities and resolutions designed to mask the real difficulty of her historical and personal circumstances. Burney's novels body forth contradiction, allowing her power over her identity as a woman writer and giving her the ability to confront her audience with the often-painful evidence of the difficulty in sustaining that identity. There is nothing easy and a great deal that is courageous in Burney's assimilation and management of the ideological dissonances that assailed her, like Camilla's nightmare voices, when she picked up her pen.



I often think, when I am counting my laurels, what a pity it would have been had I popped off in my last illness, without knowing what a person of consequence I was!—and I sometimes think that, were I now to have a relapse, I could never go off with so much éclat ! I am now at the summit of a high hill; my prospects on one side are bright, glowing, and invitingly beautiful; but when I turn round, I perceive, on the other side, sundry caverns, gulphs, pits, and precipices, that, to look at, make my head giddy and my heart sick. I see about me, indeed, many hills of far greater height and sublimity; but I have not the strength to attempt climbing them; if I move, it must be downwards. I have already, I fear, reached the pinnacle of my abilities, and therefore to stand still will be my best policy.

Burney, Fanny. Excerpt from a letter to Suzy Burney, July 5, 1778. In Diary and Letters of Madame D'Arblay, Vol 1. Edited by Charlotte Barrett with notes by Austin Dobson, pp. 40-41. London: Macmillan, 1904.


  1. [Judith Lowder] Newton's discussion of Evelina in Women, Power, and Subversion [U Georgia P, 1981] makes the parallel point that Burney's position as "a genteel unmarried woman could force her to credit and give value to ideologies about her experience which at some level she understood to be untrue" (39).
  2. Poovey theorizes that the role of a "proper lady"—the retiring and submissive attitudes appropriate to the female denizens of the domestic and private sphere—cut women off from direct uses of power, reserving their energies for a strictly supportive relationship with the public, male world. Proper Lady 3-47 [Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (Chicago UP, 1984)].
  3. See [Joyce] Hemlow, [The History of Fanny Burney (Clarendon, 1958)], 53-77, for an account of Burney's introduction into the Thrale household by her gregarious father.
  4. See ED [The Early Diary of Frances Burney, 1768-1778] 1: 222-23 for Susan Burney's breathless account to Fanny of their father reading Evelina, and DL [Diary and Letters of Madame d'Arblay] 1: 35-37 for Burney's agitated response to her father's praise. See post it
  5. Hemlow, History, 105-38.
  6. See Hemlow, History, 135-36 and DL 1: 166-72 for an account of Burney's distress.
  7. Hemlow, History, 137.
  8. Frances Burney, Camilla; or, a Picture of Youth, ed. Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom (London: Oxford UP, 1972), 877-78. References to Camilla are to this edition and are indicated in the text.
  9. Frances Burney, The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties (London: Longman, Hurst, Ress, Orme, and Brown, 1814) 5: 47-48.
  10. Julia L. Epstein, "Fanny Burney's Epistolary Voices," The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 27 (1986): 162-79.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Burney, Fanny: General Commentary." Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion. . 16 Jul. 2019 <>.

"Burney, Fanny: General Commentary." Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion. . (July 16, 2019).

"Burney, Fanny: General Commentary." Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion. . Retrieved July 16, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.