Magazine article The Spectator

A Brave Bohemian Battler

Magazine article The Spectator

A Brave Bohemian Battler

Article excerpt


by Kate Chisholm

Chatto, L20, pp. 330

In her portrait, in a `Vandyke gown', black ribbon tight round the neck, enormous, protruding, eager eyes - the eyes Virginia Woolf called `the eyes of a gnat' - Fanny Burney looks confident and frisky. In fact Kate Chisholm shows in this widely researched and very readable biography - her first book - that Burney never quite knew who or what she was. She moved all her life in and out of different worlds, from various rackety Burney addresses to the circle of Dr Johnson, to the Court where she was a lady-in-waiting to the Queen (no pay, no holidays and status below that of the governess), to a ramshackle emigre community escaped into Surrey from the French Revolution, to Paris with her impoverished French aristocrat husband, to the battle of Waterloo, to the London of 1840, where she died at a Mayfair address.

She lived to be 87, from Dr Johnson to Queen Victoria. She wrote three novels, many unacted plays - her novels are packed with dialogue - and the immense Journals that are still not completely edited. A team of scholars has been a long time at work in New York with infra-red technology to penetrate the long passages blackened out by Fanny or her relicts, and `floating-off with steam old cutting and pasting. Chisholm has found fascinating scraps of new material at McGill University, but there are still tantalising mysteries, especially to do with Fanny's early love affairs where she seems to have been both prudish and saucy. They burgeon and blossom and then are never mentioned again.

The best things are the notes and correspondence of the delightful Mr Samuel Crisp, an ancient friend of Dr Burney who became her mentor - he met her when she was 12, two years after the death of her mother which was a grief, she says, she never got over. The notes he wrote to her are lovely; clearly she owes much to his style.

What a slight piece of machinery [he wrote] is the terrestrial part of thee, our Fannikin! - a mere nothing, a vapour disorders the spring of thy watch; and the mechanism is so fine that it requires no common hand to set it going again.

For years she would retreat to Mr Crisp at Chesington Hall to convalesce when she collapsed with nervous exhaustion and fever and the machinery wound down, which was often.

Chisholm has launched herself into all these worlds and a daunting cast of characters. The Burney family was large and widely scattered. She shows how Burney's anxiety for his children's respectability is echoed in the next generation by Fanny's behaviour towards her only child, Alex, born when she was 42, whom she nearly fussed to death. …

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