Fanny Burney: Extract


The attic observatory at the top of the Burneys’ house in St Martin’s Street (previously the home of Sir Isaac Newton), in which the young Fanny Burney secretly did most of her writing, including her first novel, Evelina​

In the middle of January 1778, Fanny received a parcel containing proofs of the three volumes of her novel for correction from Lowndes, this time via Gregg’s Coffee House in York Street, Covent Garden, which was now being run by her two aunts, Ann and Rebecca Burney. The aunts, who might otherwise have become suspicious, had to be let in on the affair. Their delight and pride in what Fanny was now referring to, with unconvincing insouciance, as her ‘frolic’ was gratifying to the anxiousauthor, but the gradual widening of the circle of confidants was beginning to take the secret out of her control.

      The actual publication of the book, on 29 January 1778, was a rather abstract affair. Fanny had the unbound and incomplete set of sheets from Lowndes, but didn’t receive any finished copies for another six months. If the story she tells in the Memoirs is to be believed, she only found out that the book was ready for sale when her stepmother read aloud an advertisement of it in the newspaper at breakfast:

This day was published,
Or, a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World.
Printed for T. Lowndes, Fleet-street.

Charles Burney was not present at this breakfast, or he might have noticed, as Mrs Burney, buried in the paper, evidently did not, ‘the conscious colouring of the scribbler, and the irresistible smiles of the two sisters, Susanna and Charlotte’.

      About six weeks passed without any news of the book’s progress reaching St Martin’s Street, and though the author would have us believe that this was just as she wished, it is clear that curiosity and impatience soon began to get the better of both her and her sisters. As soon as  Doctor and Mrs Burney left on a visit to Streatham Park on 13 March, the young women invited cousin Edward round to tea, and together they devised a plan to go to Bell’s Circulating Library in the Strand to ‘ask some questions about Evelina’. When they got to the shop, which was one from which Charles Burney ordered new books, Fanny’s nerve failed and all she could bring herself to ‘ask questions’ about were some magazines, only to find that there was an advertisement for Evelina on the back of one of them. This hard evidence of her book having made its own ‘entrance into the world’ was peculiarly disturbing to the young author, who made this interesting observation in her journal:

I have an exceedingly odd sensation, when I consider that it is in the power of any every body to read what I so carefully hoarded even from my best Friends, till this last month or two, – & that a Work which was so lately Lodged, in all privacy, in my Bureau, may now be seen by every Butcher & Baker, Cobler & Tinker, throughout the 3 kingdoms, for the small tribute of 3 pence.

While Edward was at Bell’s Library he may well have bought the copy of Evelina which he took off the next day to Brompton, where his brother Richard was convalescing from a fever, attended by the Worcester family nurse, Miss Humphries. Fanny, whose partiality for her cousin Richard is clear from several remarks earlier in the journal, was tempted to excuse herself from joining the party at Brompton when she discovered from Charlotte that the book, hotly recommended by both Edward and the Covent Garden aunts, was now in his hands. ‘This intelligence gave me the utmost uneasiness’, she wrote in her journal. ‘I foresaw a thousand dangers of Discovery, – I dreaded the indiscreet warmth of all my Confidents; & I would almost as soon have told the Morning Post than Miss Humphries.’

      But the visit went ahead, and had aspects of sentimental comedy which would have transferred very nicely onto the stage of Drury Lane, where Sheridan’s The Rivals and The School for Scandal had been such recent successes. Even on the way up the stairs of the lodgings, Fanny could overhear Miss Humphries reading the book aloud, presumably to the invalid Richard. She had got as far as Mr Villar’s consolatory letter to Evelina after her father has refused to acknowledge her (which is at the beginning of volume two, so they had read pretty far in one day): ‘Let me entreat you, therefore, my dearest child, to support yourself with that courage which your innocency ought to inspire…’ ‘How pretty that is!’ Miss Humphries was commenting as the author entered the room. ‘I longed for the Diversion of hearing their observations’, Fanny wrote in her diary, relating how she begged Miss Humphries to go on with the reading. If this was publication, what had she to fear?

      I must own I suffered great difficulty in refraining from Laughing upon several occasions, – & several Times, when they praised what they read, I was upon the point of saying ‘You are very good!’ & so forth, & I could scarce keep myself from making Acknowledgements, & Bowing my Head involuntarily.

      However, I got off perfectly safely.

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