The Hyacinth Bucket of 18th-century literature

Fanny Burney: a biography by Claire Harman (HarperCollins, £19.99)
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The Independent Culture

When she was 15, Frances Burney began a journal that fictionalised her long life as she was living it. An 18th-century Hyacinth Bucket of genius, she edited out the family scandals and gracefully tweaked her adventures and successes. It was addressed "To Nobody", an imaginary confidante to whom "I reveal every thought, every wish of my Heart, with... sincerity to the end of my life". The verbal ambiguity admits that sincerity is impossible, certainly for a young woman writer in the 1760s.

When she was 15, Frances Burney began a journal that fictionalised her long life as she was living it. An 18th-century Hyacinth Bucket of genius, she edited out the family scandals and gracefully tweaked her adventures and successes. It was addressed "To Nobody", an imaginary confidante to whom "I reveal every thought, every wish of my Heart, with... sincerity to the end of my life". The verbal ambiguity admits that sincerity is impossible, certainly for a young woman writer in the 1760s.

The mass of surviving letters, diaries and notebooks, the number of famous people she knew and the unlikely events of her life have proved irresistible: the sensation when her first novel, Evelina, burst on to the London scene in 1778; her intimacy with Samuel Johnson's circle; her miserable stint as Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte while George III was demented; her romantic late marriage to a French émigré, Alexandre D'Arblay; the plays and later novels; the pre-anaesthetics radical mastectomy; the days rolling bandages for the Waterloo wounded; and the decline of her prose style.

These topics have been worked over endlessly, first by Burney, then by an array of scholars and biographers. Kate Chisholm's engaging Life is only two years old. Aren't we Burneyed out? Can we take yet another blow-by-blow account of the seven surgeons in black who surrounded her bed one terrible Paris morning in 1811?

Surprisingly, we can. Though Claire Harman says little that's factually new, she is astute on Burney's nervy, gutsy personality. She takes for granted that all her statements are questionable, positing several unnoticed forgeries. And she comments perceptively on the fiction.

Burney's heroines all suffer breakdown from trusting their feelings rather than observing strict codes of behaviour. The appeal of her writing lies in its division of sympathy between female self-assertion and resignation to duty. As Harman says, Burney gives a new view of the conventional heroine in Evelina, whose instant physical impact on men is shown as something of a liability: "Evelina exposes, in a way undreamed of by earlier novelists, the double standards applied to women." Here and elsewhere, Harman is less than fair to Burney's predecessor, Samuel Richardson. However, it is true that Burney's exposure of misogyny - as in the scene where two old women are made to run a race so the gentry can bet on them - is more provocative.

Among themselves, 18th-century women discussed their unequal status frankly. Burney's stepsister Maria wrote to her, evidently after some late-night teenage giggling: "I like your plan immensely of Extirpating that vile race of beings called man, but I have thought of an improvement in the sistim: suppose we were to cut off their prominent members and render them harmless Little Creatures?"

Burney's anxiety about men pervades her work, and she never wrote a good novel hero. But she continued to dream of a more sensitive form of the species. She found him at last among the witty and disreputable company - including Talleyrand and Germaine de Staël, no less - in a safe house near Dorking for refugees from the French Revolution.

The Burney industry continues. Her tragic drama is embarrassing, but the fast and funny production of A Busy Day, now at the Lyric Theatre, proves she could have rivalled Sheridan on his own ground. She wrote it in 1800; shortly afterwards, the d'Arblays were trapped in France by the war. The play was never performed until 1994, and only now in the West End. On the cusp of the 19th century, she anticipates Dickens. The aristocrats and working-class characters are grotesques, while upwardly mobile central characters invite the redefinition of lady and gentleman. And Woman's Hour will begin a dramatisation of her journals on 31 July.

This is a distinctive Life, against the odds. But maybe next time Harman will choose an underwritten subject: maybe even Sarah Burney, Frances's novel-writing renegade stepsister.

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