Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Female Difficulties: Austen's Fanny and Burney's Juliet

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Female Difficulties: Austen's Fanny and Burney's Juliet

Article excerpt

TWO NOVELS BY WOMAN NOVELISTS, BOTH PUBLISHED IN 1814, both with woman protagonists, both in their ways "novels of distress." The voice of one novelist, the junior of the two, had been first heard in public a mere three years previously; the voice of the other, the senior and more famous, had been stilled, at least in fiction, for many years.

We don't know whether Frances Burney, now sixty-two, with three major novels under her belt published over three decades, had read Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice, but we do know that Jane Austen read and greatly admired Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1782), and Camilla (1796), and that Burney was a heroine and a role model for her as a female novelist: one who wrote "works in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed ... in the best chosen language" (NA 38). The circumstances of composition and publication of The Wanderer and Mansfield Park preclude direct "influence" from one to the other. (1) Where they deal with similar subject matter--as in the episode of the amateur theatricals, for instance--the authors arrived at it independently. I'll be exploring affinities, not influence.

The heroines are similar in many ways. Both delight in history and art; both are romantic in revering nature as a moral force. For Burney's Juliet rhetoric and philosophy provide no lesson "like the simple view of beautiful nature, ... so divine in its harmony" (676). '"Here's harmony!"' exclaims Austen's Fanny, gazing on the stars. And she reflects that there would be less wickedness and sorrow in the world '"if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to'" (113).

These two novels are the darkest of their authors' works. Each heroine is put through a series of trials--call them "difficulties"--that demand all their fortitude. We first hear the Wanderer calling out of the darkness in "a voice of keen distress" (l l); our first glimpse of Fanny presents "a little visitor ... as unhappy as possible" (13). Each hero, while being staunchly and expressly moral, wins the love of the heroine without our being sure he fully deserves it; each "happy" ending is muted, and according to some not happy at all.

Reading Burney's novels--at least those that follow Evelina--calls for fortitude in the reader too. Her heroines are indeed plagued with "difficulties." But The Wanderer, particularly, can be as harrowing as a late Hardy novel. Trained by Hardy, I can read a quite neutral statement from the narrator--such as "He opened a drawer, took out his best dark suit..." (Hardy 116)--and find myself shouting "Don't do it!" because I know something quite awful, and completely out of proportion to the trivial action, is going to result. The Wanderer trains one in a similar manner. Coincidence is rife, and it's nearly always of the unfortunate kind. Juliet's world seems populated solely by those who know something to her discredit; and they're sure to show up at times when they can do most damage. Indeed Hardy surely must have read and internalized The Wanderer. In 'less of the D'Urbervilles, as in The Wanderer, the heroine finds herself unexpectedly in Stonehenge; and the ancient monument connects both heroines with the primitive roots of human experience (Doody, Life 363-65).

An extra discomfort for the reader, as for the characters, is the prolonged anonymity of the heroine. Escaping from a forced marriage and the threat of the guillotine on one she loves, Juliet is forced into secrecy. She is "the Incognita," to us as well as to the characters, and the fact that we don't know her name, or her reason for concealing it, leaves us with a lingering sense of uneasiness. We too are long left groping in the dark.

Mansfield Park too has its problems, and we're all familiar with the debate on Fanny's character and Edmund's, spearheaded by Kingsley Amiss "What Became of Jane Austen?" in which he denounces Edmund and Fanny as "both morally detestable" (142). …

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