Private Men and Public Women: Social Criticism in Fanny Burney's 'The Wanderer.'

By Perkins, Pam | Essays in Literature, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Private Men and Public Women: Social Criticism in Fanny Burney's 'The Wanderer.'


Perkins, Pam, Essays in Literature


In 1814, two years after Shelley's thrilled discovery that Godwin was alive and selling books on Skinner Street, William Hazlitt and John Wilson Croker made the apparently less agreeable discovery that Godwin's contemporary Fanny Burney was alive and selling books all over England. The Wanderer, Burney's last and most ambitious novel, had sold out its first edition immediately and was well into its second when the first reviews appeared barely a month after its initial publication.(1) Hazlitt and Croker, authors of some of the most damming of the notices, effectively killed the book; its second edition was its last until 1988. The reviews themselves sound rather like obituaries, not only for the novel in question, but for the author and an age as well. If Shelley thought Godwin was an anachronism in the London of 1814, Hazlitt implies that Burney is even more so, as he moves back well before Godwin's day and places her work in a lovingly evoked golden age of leisure and tranquility. Burney, he says, is a writer "quite of the old school, a mere common observer of manners," not a denizen of Hazlitt's world in which "prose has run mad" (336, 334). Yet when one considers that none of Burney's work was published before the American revolution and that The Wanderer opens with an escape from Robespierre's France, this firm dissociation of Burney from an era of "empires lost and won - kingdoms overturned and created" (335) is odd. The nature of the attack on The Wanderer might account for some of Hazlitt's retrospective tone; he, like other reviewers, mocked the novel's exploration of domestic versus revolutionary femininity as an attempt to resurrect a dead issue. In the year of such celebrations of domestic womanhood as Mansfield Park, Maria Edgeworth's Patronage, and Mary Brunton's Discipline, Burney's glance back to Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays seemed laughably dated. The "egalite mania"(2) of the 1790s was, critics unanimously agreed, happily forgotten.

Reviewers' problems with the novel did not, however, stop there; most decided that if the dangerous days of the 1790s were to be recalled in fiction, Burney was an inappropriate person to do so. Notoriously, her age was used against her, as John Wilson Croker, best known today for his proclamation that Keats was too much a cockney to write poetry, ruled that Burney was too old a woman to write novels. In his review of the Quarterly, Croker merges author and novel in his image of "an old coquette who endeavours, by the wild tawdriness and laborious gaiety of her attire, to compensate for the loss of the natural charms of freshness, novelty, and youth" (126). Both women and their novels ought to charm, he implies, but neither the ageing, fading Burney nor her prickly, angry novel possesses the flirtatious charm of an Evelina. Hazlitt, more judiciously, and thus more devastatingly, concludes that as women's strength as writers lies in their ability to give readers closely observed transcriptions of a social scene, they are doomed to fail when they attempt what Sir Walter Scott later called "the big bow-wow strain": explorations of war, society, and history (334-6). Burney thus fails on two counts: if she is attempting a feminine exploration of society, she is old-fashioned; if she is attempting an historical novel, she is unfeminine.

Unfemininity might seem a more adequate explanation than mere old-fashionedness for the vituperation heaped upon the novel, but it takes an effort of imagination for the twentieth-century reader to see anything remotely unfeminine in it. Juliet, the wandering heroine of the title, is beautiful, charming, modest, and accepts quite docilely all the dictates of her society about feminine propriety. Even if one reads the Wollstonecraftian Elinor Joddrel as the true heroine of the novel, as most recent critics have, the message is not too startling: women might be strong, rich, and intelligent, but they still will risk all for love. Yet a closer look at the novel shows that Hazlitt and other reviewers had good reason to be upset at some of the ideas expressed in it. …

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