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Journals and Letters: Burney, Frances (Penguin Classics) Paperback – November 1, 2001
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Here is a woman who was an intimate of Dr Johnson, James Boswell, Joshua Reynolds, the Thrales, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the Bluestockings, George III and Queen Charlotte -- to name just a few. She was the first woman novelist who did not die in penury (like Aphra Behn and Charlotte Lennox): Her EVELINA, CECILIA, CAMILLA, and THE WANDERER are still readily available after more than 200 years. For five years, Miss Burney served as wardrobe maid for Queen Charlotte until illness forced her to resign. Her descriptions of the court of George III show the monarch at the beginnings of the madness that later debilitated him and contain some of her best prose.
By then, the French Revolution was in full swing, and scores of French nobility made their way to safety in England. When she met General d'Arblay, adjutant to the exiled Marquis de Lafayette, it was love at first sight for this 40-year-old woman who had never been married. Despite the opposition of her father, Fanny married d'Arblay and lived happily with him until his death more than 20 years later. Sadly, she also outlived her son from this marriage.
Fanny followed her husband to France during the Consulate and met the rising young Napoleon, Talleyrand, Louis XVIII (during Napoleon's exile at Elba), and other notables. She succeeded in raising a family near Paris despite the fact that, for a good part of that time, France was at war with England. At Waterloo, she helped by helping to create bandages for the wounded.Read more ›
This book contains extracts from her letters and diaries stretching from 1768 to 1839, from childhood to old age. Her experiences in that time are very well summarised in the review above. I think that her experience as a novelist does show through in these letters which actually do read like scenes from a novel. Some are comic such as a humourous conversation between her friend George Cambridge and an Italian singer comparing the merits of their countries. Or the party attended by the Russian Prince Orlov who when showing off a valuable jewel which impresses the English ladies present, he asks them if they want anything else they "might strip him entirely". Other scenes are very dramatic such as her near drowning at Ilfracombe or her letters about the illness of King George III (in whose court she served at the time). There are also her various experiences in France and Belgium where she followed her husband who was a French aristocrat.
Another thing which makes these letters read like a novel is her ability at characterisation. This is especially clear in the cases of her friend Dr Samuel Johnson and her employer King George III. She records conversations she had with them so that we get a very good picture of what they were like as people. Though friends with Johnson she does not hide his tendency to sometimes be an argumentative bully or his strange mannerisms.
So overall these are a wonderful picture of what life was actually like in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Penguin edition has a comment on the back comparing this book to the diaries of Samuel Pepys and I fully agree.