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Burney, Fanny: Primary Sources



SOURCE: Burney, Fanny. "Diary entry for August 3, 1778." In The Diary and Letters of Madame D'Arblay. Vol. 1, edited by Charlotte Barrett with notes by Austin Dobson, pp. 50-53. London: Macmillan, 1904.

In the following excerpt from her diary dated August 3, 1778, Burney recounts in detail the revelation of her authorship of Evelina and the attention she received, including praise from Samuel Johnson.

Susan has sent me a little note which has really been less pleasant to me, because it has alarmed me for my future concealment. It is from Mrs. Williams, an exceeding pretty poetess, who has the misfortune to be blind, but who has, to make some amends, the honour of residing in the house of Dr. Johnson: for though he lives almost wholly at Streatham, he always keeps his apartments in town, and this lady acts as mistress of his house.

"July 25.

"Mrs. Williams sends compliments to Dr. Burney, and begs he will intercede with Miss Burney to do her the favour to lend her the reading of Evelina. "

[I was quite confounded at this request, which proves that Mrs. Thrale has told Dr. Johnson of my secret, and that he has told Mrs. Williams, and that she has told the person whoever it be, whom she got to write the note.

I instantly scrawled a hasty letter to town to entreat my father would be so good as to write to her, to acquaint her with my earnest and unaffected desire to remain unknown.

[And yet] I am frightened at this affair, I am by no means insensible to the honour which I receive from the certainty that Dr. Johnson must have spoken very well of the book, to have induced Mrs. Williams to send to our house for it. [She has known my father indeed for some years, but not with any intimacy; and I never saw her, though the perusal of her poems has often made me wish to be acquainted with her.]

I now come to last Saturday evening, when my beloved father came to Chessington, in full health, charming spirits, and all kindness, openness, and entertainment.

[I inquired what he had done about Mrs. Williams. He told me he went to her himself at my desire, for if he had written she could not herself have read the note. She apologised very much for the liberty she had taken, and spoke highly of the book, though she had only heard the first volume, as she was dependent upon a lady's good nature and time for hearing any part of it; but she went so far as to say that "his daughter was certainly the first writer, in that way, now living!"]

In his way hither he had stopped at Streatham, and he settled with Mrs. Thrale that he would call on her again in his way to town, and carry me with him! and Mrs. Thrale said, "We all long to know her."

I have been in a kind of twitter ever since, for there seems something very formidable in the idea of appearing as an authoress! I ever dreaded it, as it is a title which must raise more expectations than I have any chance of answering. Yet I am highly flattered by her invitation, and highly delighted in the prospect of being introduced to the Streatham society.

She sent me some very serious advice to write for the theatre, as, she says, I so naturally run into conversations, that Evelina absolutely and plainly points out that path to me; and she hinted how much she should be pleased to be "honoured with my confidence."

My dear father communicated this intelligence, and a great deal more, with a pleasure that almost surpassed that with which I heard it, and he seems quite eager for me to make another attempt. He desired to take upon himself the communication to my daddy Crisp, and as it is now in so many hands that it is possible accident might discover it to him, I readily consented.

Sunday evening, as I was going into my father's room I heard him say, "The variety of characters—the variety of scenes—and the language—why she has had very little education but what she has given herself,—less than any of the others!" and Mr. Crisp exclaimed, "Wonderful—it's wonderful!"

I now found what was going forward, and therefore deemed it most fitting to decamp.

About an hour after, as I was passing through the hall, I met my daddy (Crisp). His face was all animation and archness; he doubled his fist at me, and would have stopped me, but I ran past him into the parlour.

Before supper, however, I again met him, and he would not suffer me to escape; he caught both my hands, and looked as if he would have looked me through, and then exclaimed, "Why you little hussy,—you young devil!—an't you ashamed to look me in the face, you Evelina, you! Why, what a dance have you led me about it! Young friend, indeed! Oh you little hussy, what tricks have you served me!"

I was obliged to allow of his running on with these gentle appellations for I know not how long, ere he could sufficiently compose himself after his great surprise, to ask or hear any particulars; and then, he broke out every three instants with exclamations of astonishment at how I had found time to write so much unsuspected, and how and where I had picked up such various materials; and not a few times did he, with me, as he had with my father, exclaim, "Wonderful!"

He has, since, made me read him all my letters upon this subject. He said Lowndes would have made an estate had he given me £1000 for it, and that he ought not to have given less! "You have nothing to do now," continued he, "but to take your pen in hand, for your fame and reputation are made, and any bookseller will snap at what you write."

I then told him that I could not but really and unaffectedly regret that the affair was spread to Mrs. Williams and her friends.

"Pho," said he, "if those who are proper judges think it right that it should be known, why should you trouble yourself about it? You have not spread it, there can be no imputation of vanity fall to your share, and it cannot come out more to your honour than through such a channel as Mrs. Thrale."


SOURCE: Burney, Fanny. "The Witlings." In The Witlings; and, The Woman-Hater, edited by Peter Sabor and Geoffrey Sill, pp. 43-172. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press, 2002.

In the following excerpt written between 1778 and 1780 from the unpublished play "The Witlings," Burney lampoons the figure of the Bluestocking in Lady Smatter, who was thought to be modeled on Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Burney mocks the pretensions of a female author who craves publicity, although Montagu herself avoided taking public credit for her work, considering it inappropriate for a woman of her station, much as Burney herself dreaded being identified as the author of Evelina.

Scene, a Drawing Room at Lady Smatter's

lady smatter. Yes, yes, this song is certainly Mr. Dabler's, I am not to be deceived in his style. What say you, my dear Miss Stanley, don't you think I have found him out.

cecilia. Indeed I am too little acquainted with his Poems to be able to judge.

lady smatter. Your indifference surprises me! for my part, I am never at rest till I have discovered the authors of every thing that comes out; and, indeed, I commonly hit upon them in a moment. I declare I sometimes wonder at myself, when I think how lucky I am in my guesses.

cecilia. Your Ladyship devotes so much Time to these researches, that it would be strange if they were unsuccessful.

lady smatter. Yes, I do indeed devote my Time to them; I own it without blushing, for how, as a certain author Says, can Time be better employed than in cultivating intellectual accomplishments? And I am often Surprised, my dear Miss Stanley, that a young lady of your good sense should not be more warmly engaged in the same pursuit.

cecilia. My pursuits, whatever they may be, are too unimportant to deserve being made public.

lady smatter. Well to be sure, we are all Born with sentiments of our own, as I read in a Book I can't just now recollect the name of, so I ought not to wonder that yours and mine do not coincide; for, I declare, if my pursuits were not made public, I should not have any at all, for where can be the pleasure of reading Books, and studying authors, if one is not to have the credit of talking of them?

cecilia. Your Ladyship's desire of celebrity is too well known for your motives to be doubted.

lady smatter. Well but, my dear Miss Stanley, I have been thinking for some Time past of your becoming a member of our Esprit Party: Shall I put up your name?

cecilia. By no means; my ambition aspires not at an Honour for which I feel myself so little qualified.

lady smatter. Nay, but you are too modest; you can't suppose how much you may profit by coming among us. I'll tell you some of our regulations. The principal persons of our party are Authors and Critics; the authors always bring us something new of their own, and the Critics regale us with manuscript notes upon something old.

cecilia. And in what class is your Ladyship?

lady smatter. O, I am among the Critics. I love criticism passionately, though it is really laborious Work, for it obliges one to read with a vast deal of attention. I declare I am sometimes so immensely fatigued with the toil of studying for faults and objections, that I am ready to fling all my Books behind the Fire.

cecilia. And what authors have you chiefly criticised?

lady smatter. Pope and Shakespeare. I have found more errors in those than in any other.

cecilia. I hope, however, for the sake of readers less fastidious, your Ladyship has also left them some beauties.

lady smatter. O yes, I have not cut them up regularly through; indeed I have not, yet, read above half their Works, so how they will fare as I go on, I can't determine. O, here's Beaufort. Enter Beaufort.

beaufort. Your Ladyship's most obedient.

cecilia. Mr. Beaufort, I am quite ashamed to see You! yet the disappointment I occasioned you was as involuntary on my part, as it could possibly be disagreeable on yours. Your Brother, I hope, prevented your waiting long?

beaufort. That you meant he should is sufficient reparation for my loss of Time; but what must be the disappointment that an apology from you would not soften?

lady smatter. (reading) O lovely, charming, beauteous maid,—I wish this Song was not so difficult to get by Heart,—but I am always beginning one Line for another. After all, Study is a most fatiguing thing! O how little does the World suspect, when we are figuring in all the brilliancy of Conversation, the private hardships, and secret labours of a Belle Esprit!


SOURCE: Burney, Fanny. "A Letter from Frances Burney to Dr. Charles Burney, c. 13 August 1779." In The Witlings; and, The Woman-Hater, edited by Peter Sabor and Geoffrey Sill, pp. 303-04. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press, 2002.

In the following letter dated c. August 13, 1779, Burney addresses her father about her disappointment in burying her comedy "The Witlings" after her efforts at playwriting had been so much encouraged by Mrs. Thrale and others of their circle.

The fatal knell then, is knolled! and down among the Dead Men sink the poor Witlings,—for-ever and for-ever and for-ever!—

I give a sigh whether I will or not to their memory, for, however worthless, they were mes Enfans, and one must do one's Nature, as Mr. Crisp will tell you of the Dog.

You, my dearest Sir, who enjoyed, I really think, even more than myself the astonishing success of my first attempt, would, I believe, even more than myself, be hurt at the failure of my second;—and I am sure I speak from the bottom of a very honest Heart when I most solemnly declare that upon your Account any disgrace would mortify and afflict me more than upon my own,—for what ever appears with your knowledge, will be naturally supposed to have met with your approbation, and perhaps with your assistance;—and therefore, though all particular censure would fall where it ought, upon me,—yet any general censure of the whole, and the Plan, would cruelly, but certainly, involve you in its severity.

Of this I have been sensible from the moment my Authorshipness was discovered,—and therefore, from that moment, I determined to have no opinion of my own in regard to what I should thenceforth part with out of my own Hands. I would, long since, have Burnt the 4th Act, upon your disapprobation of it, but that I waited, and was by Mrs. Thrale so much encouraged to wait, for your finishing the Piece.

You have finished it, now,—in every sense of the Word,—partial faults may be corrected, but what I most wished was to know the general effect of the Whole,—and as that has so terribly failed, all petty criticisms would be needless. I shall wipe it all from my memory, and endeavour never to recollect that I ever writ it.

You bid me open my Heart to you,—and so, my dearest Sir, I will,—for it is the greatest happiness of my life that I dare be sincere to you,—I expected many Objections to be raised, a thousand errors to be pointed out, and a million of alterations to be proposed;—but—the suppression of the piece were words I did not expect,—indeed, after the warm approbation of Mrs. Thrale, and the repeated commendation and flattery of Mr. Murphy, how could I?—

I do not, therefore, pretend to wish you should think the decision for which I was so little prepared has given me no disturbance;—for I must be a far more egregious Witling than any of those I tried to draw to imagine you could ever credit that I writ without some remote hope of success now, though I literally did when I composed Evelina. But my mortification is not at throwing away the Characters, or the contrivance;—it is all at throwing away the Time,—which I with difficulty stole, and which I have Buried in the mere trouble of writing.

What my Daddy Crisp says, "that it would be the best policy, but for pecuniary advantages, for me to write no more"—is exactly what I have always thought since Evelina was published;—but I will not now talk of putting it in practice,—for the best way I can take of shewing that have a true and just sense of the spirit of your condemnation, is not to sink, sulky and dejected, under it, but to exert myself to the utmost of my power in endeavours to produce something less reprehensible. And this shall be the way I will pursue, as soon as my mind is more at ease about Hetty and Mrs. Thrale,—and as soon as I have read myself into a forgetfulness of my old Dramatis persona,—lest I should produce something else as Witless as the last.



Our Miss Burney is big with a Comedy for next Season; I have not yet seen the Ebauche, but I wish it well: Can I help wishing well to every thing that bears the name of Burney? The Doctor is a Man quite after my own Heart, if he has any Fault it is too much Obsequiousness, though I should not object to a Quality my Friends are so little troubled with.—his following close upon the heels of Johnson or Baretti makes me feel him softer though; like turning the Toothpick after you have rubbed your Gums with the Brush & immediately applying the Spunge to them. his Daughter is a graceful looking Girl, but 'tis the Grace of an Actress not a Woman of Fashion—how should it? her Conversation would be more pleasing if She thought less of herself; but her early Reputation embarrasses her Talk, & clouds her Mind with scruples about Elegancies which either come uncalled for or will not come at all: I love her more for her Father's sake than for her own, though her Merit cannot as a Writer be controverted. The Play will be a good one too I doubt not—She is a Girl of prodigious Parts—

Thrale, Hester Lynch. Excerpt from Thraliana: The Diary of Mrs. Hester Lynch Thrale (Later Mrs. Piozzi). Vol 1, edited by Katharine C. Balderston, p. 368. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951.

Adieu, my dearest, kindest, truest, best Friend,—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. The World will not always go well, as Mrs. Sap. might say, and I am sure I have long thought I have had more than my share of success already.

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