Trials of Windsor Life

Book review of The Court Journals and Letters of Frances Burney

Books History
Shrewd, observant and spirited: Fanny Burney

Fanny’s period at court lasted for five long years. (Surely most readers will still think of her by that familiar name, although the more formal “Frances” is preferred by these editors.) They were unhappy years for the most part, for she was painfully unsuited to the narrow and repetitive existence as Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte. However, as one would expect from this most spirited of English diarists, her description of the way of life she encountered at Windsor is not dull. It does, though, evoke the reader’s sympathy. Poor Fanny was 34 when her servitude at the court began. She had already attained some celebrity as the author of a much-praised novel, which she had written in secret — a decidedly dashing achievement at a time when young ladies were hardly supposed to read novels, much less write them. The “celebrated Miss Burney”, as Boswell called her, gained the admiration of such giants of the day as Samuel Johnson and David Garrick and was familiar with a stimulating social scene in London. To be transplanted into a humdrum little world obsessed by social trivialities, and devoid of congenial companions, was a sad decline. No wonder she shed tears at times.

To make matters much worse, she found herself yoked in her royal duties to a monster of a woman whose principal concern appears to have been to dominate those around her. This Mrs Schwellenberg emerges from the Burney account as a nightmarish figure, secretly named “Cerbera” by Fanny after the mythological dog guarding the gates of Hades. One might have expected George III and the queen to be the leading characters in this story, and they are of course prominent presences, both of them kind and courteous to Fanny, for this was well before the king’s madness; but the courtiers’ limited lives at Windsor and the odious Schwellenberg overshadow all.  

Happily the shrewd, observant eye of Fanny the novelist watches over the scene and prompts her to record it in her own lively way.   She sets out in some detail her account of the day when a French visitor to the court declared his passionate attachment to her and she had to flee his advances:  “This brought him once more on his knees, with such a volley of asseverations, of his sincerity, uttered with such  fervour and violence, that I really felt uneasy and used every possible means to get away from him …more and more vehement, however, he grew…he violently seized hold of me, & compelled me to return to my Chair, with a force, — and a freedom — that gave me as much surprise as offence.” The episode ended later with Fanny reflecting upon this Mr Guiffardiere’s morality (he was a clergyman, it appears) and writing, “I often wonder how he lives with his Wife. How miserable would  such a Husband render me!”

Another engaging passage describes the king’s ceremonial visit to Oxford — not a territory with which he was familiar or where the niceties of courtly behaviour were fully understood. The account of well-fed dons tumbling over one another as they made to bow or kiss hands with their sovereign is delightful: “The sight at times was very ridiculous. Some of the worthy Collegiates, unused to such ceremonies, and unaccustomed to such a presence, the moment they had kissed the King’s Hand,  turned their backs to him…others, attempting to do better, did still worse, by tottering and stumbling, and falling foul of those behind them…others plumpt down on both knees, & could hardly get up again; & many, in their confusion, fairly arose by pulling His Majesty’s Hand to raise them.”

These two volumes are the first of six which, when the series is complete, will for the first time make accessible the whole of Fanny Burney’s vivid account of her life at the court of George III. Thus they constitute something of a publishing landmark, because although portions of these letters and journals have appeared in print before, it was in a garbled form. This scholarly new edition from Oxford is intended to present not only everything she wrote, but to do so free from the numerous changes and deletions which have been added subsequently. 

This has proved to be laborious work. In her later years Madame d’Arblay (as Fanny became) worked over the texts of her voluminous correspondence, deleting many passages with a view to publishing extracts. The present editors have aimed at recovering all her original writings, which often meant penetrating the heavy black ink of Fanny’s sweeping erasures, as well as getting rid of the cuts and distortions introduced in her turn by Burney’s niece, who published a muddled selection of the letters soon after their author’s death in 1840.

Generally the recipients of these newly edited letters are members of Fanny’s family, most often her beloved sister Susanna, to whom she could express herself quite openly — as when, early in her time with Queen Charlotte, she wrote that she found she was to be summoned routinely by a bell: “At first, I felt inexpressibly discomfited by this mode of Call; a Bell! — it seemed so mortifying a mark of servitude, I always felt myself blush, although alone, with conscious shame at my own strange degradation, — but I have philosophised myself now into some reconcilement with this manner of summons.” Class distinctions evidently lost no potency even in the purlieus of monarchy.