Fanny Burney

Posted on March 7th, 2011 by

  Frances Burney – ( Frances d’Arblay (‘Fanny Burney’) by Edward Francisco Burney oil on canvas, circa 1784-1785 )

In the 1780’s Fanny Burney wrote her Diary in a small upper room of her father’s sociable house on Queen Square. She grew up in the ultimate ‘connected’ environment, with a polymath, enthusiast father. What is truly fascinating is the notion of this brilliant young woman, in the midst of the artistic, intellectual hurly-burly of her father’s house, succeeding in becoming a best-selling writer, under his nose.

It is perhaps more difficult for public artistic activity, such as performance, to incorporate laughter, unless of course, it is perceived as being comedy. The first edition of Encyclopedia Brittanica, published in  1768, included the following entry:

“Laughter. An affection peculiar to mankind, occasioned by something that tickles the fancy. In laughter, the eyebrows are raised about the middle and drawn down toward the nose; the eyes are almost shut; the mouth opens and shows the teeth, the corners of the mouth being drawn back and raised up; the cheeks seem puffed up and almost hide the eyes; the face is useful red and nostrils open, and the eyes wet.”

But concerts tend towards the formal. A consequence of this is that humour in music can tend to be implied, allusive, rather than funny. It is clear from Charles Burney’s reaction to Hester Thrale’s mockery of the harpsichordist Gabriel Piozzi, that this was a tendency that he was keen to encourage in his own salons. Boswell remembered:

‘The company remaining silent Burney asked Piozzi to play and sing. In a co-operative effort to help enliven the evening which was threatening to become a bore, Hester crept up behind the pianist and began to imitate his gestures, lifting up her elbows ‘with ecstatic shrugs of the shoulders, and casting up her eyes, while languishly reclining her head.’ Dr Burney, shocked at one of his guests being mimicked in this manner, asked Miss Thrale to desist. She took the rebuke in good part, and returned to her chair ‘like a pretty little miss’, as she afterwards confided to Fanny Burney, ‘for the remainder of one of the most humdrum evenings that she had ever passed’.

Of course, it was some time until concert venues began to be perceived as being exclusively that. The Panthéon hall in Oxford Street was described by Fanny’s father,  Charles Burney, ‘The most elegant structure in Europe, if not the world’. In truth, is was also a place of less salubrious exchange, from gambling to prostitution, and is clear from this passage in Fanny’s Cecilia, that there are distinctly mixed motivations for visiting, for all of ‘the party’.

‘At the door of the Panthéon they were joined by Mr Arnold and Sir Robert Floyer, whom Cecilia now say with added aversion: they entered the great room during the second act of the concert, to which as no one of the party but herself had any desire to listen, no sort of attention was paid; the ladies entertaining themselves as if no Orchestra was in the room, and the gentlemen, with an equal disregard to it, struggling for a place by the fire, about which they continued hovering till the music was over.’

Jane Austen summed up the atmosphere just such an evening, in her first major novel, Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811:

      ‘The events of the evening were not very remarkable.  The party, like other music parties, comprehended a great many people who had a real taste for the performance, and a great many more who had none at all; and the performers themselves were, as usual, in their own estimation, and that of their immediate friends, the first private performers in England.’ 

The excitement of visiting fellow creators, in their workshops, studios, music rooms and salons is shared by all of the people in only connect. Fanny was moved by her visit to the Herschels, who had financed their pioneering astronomical discoveries and technical innovations by their work as musicians in Bath, after arriving from Germany. However much their field was a new and mysterious one, she recognised the environment of indefatigable polymaths; it was one in which she had grown up.

 ‘We found Herschel at his Telescope. The comet was very small, and had nothing grand or striking in its appearance; but it is the first lady’s comet, and I was very desirous to see it.’ [Caroline Herschel] ‘Is very little, very gentle, very modest, very ingenuous; and her manners are those of a person unhackneyed and unawed by the world, yet desirous to meet and return its smiles.’

Charles’s interests were truly omnivorous; he took every opportunity that his musical travels afforded him to seek out scientific and mechanical curiosities, and, in particular, astronomical devices. In 1773, he sought out an ‘extraordinary astronomical machine or orrery’ which the Duke of Würtemburg’ had purchased ‘for the public library’ The previous evening, a rather different entertainment; his host ‘had the attention to collect together at his house, three or four boors, in order to let me hear them play and sing national music, concerning which, I had expressed great curiousity.’ Whether Charles Burney realised it or not, he was seeing more than one vision of the future, in the stars, and the beginnings of a new craze for national cultures. As he said of ‘this piece of mechanism’:

‘This whole machine is so so constructed that withoug any risk of putting it out of order, or spoiling it, the reciprocal positions of the planets and constellations, such as the will  bein any future minute, or such as tey have been, in any one that is past, may be seen; so that this machine takes in all time; the past, present and future; and is, not only and orrery for these times, but a perpetual, accurate, and minute history of the heavens for all ages.’

Two centuries earlier, such an aspiration would have heretic. In 1773, Burney was voicing the hunger of the age.

If I am honest, Fanny’s description of meeting the Herschels excites me, because they were precisely the kind of people that I would have wanted to meet. They epitomise so much of what inspires me – their scientific adventure informed, supported and inspired by composition and performance. However, much of the interchange of the drawing rooms was light-hearted, all of our characters would have indulged in as much badinage as serious conversation. In Camilla Fanny’s heroine notes that, “It’s a delightful thing to think of perfection, but it’s vastly more amusing to talk of errors and absurdities.’

Fanny Burney’s Camilla was a bestseller in 1796. Roy Strong reminds us that Burney’s success was a much a product of her times, as her eventual marriage: ‘Domestic fiction celebrating family life and exulting home and hearth was fully in tune with the all-pervasive loyalism of the war years. In the 1790s its leading exponents were Frances Burney, Maria Edgworth, and Jane Austen.’ No doubt, this fuelled a drive back to cultural activity in the drawing room, given momentum by the influx of émigrés  to London.

The first and highest class of exiles to arrive from France were able to go “from château to château, very feted everywhere.” However, this could not last, and many fell on hard times.  The émigrés struggled to  ‘keep up appearances’, and maintain a sense of status, by keeping their salons alive; this whilst being forced to take on any number of odd jobs during the day, ranging from laundry and sewing through the less pleasant realities of prostitution.  In Sense and Sensbility, the Misses Steele, visit Mrs Dashwood at Harley Street, right in the the middle of the émigré community.  Pleased with the arrival of the young girls, she “had given each of them a needle book, made by some emigrant.” One such salon was funded by the simple expedient of leaving a teacup upside down on a mantelpiece, under which the guests were expected to deposit two shillings, thus avoiding humiliating the hostess; she however, did not take kindly to those with means, leaving anything less than a guinea. It was noted that the French émigrés, in their desperate attempt to survive abroad, “were accustomed to regard English money as their legitimate prey to be secured by any means.”

This pragmatic determination, to keep the salons alive at all costs, famously recreated the determination of imprisoned aristocrats in France.  “In prison men and women would dress with care, pay each other visits, hold a salon; it would be at the end of a corridor, between four candles; but there they would joke, compose madrigals, sing songs, take pride in being as gallant, as gay, as gracious as before; should you be morose and uncouth because an accident has placed you in a bad inn?”

Of all the evening haunts of the artists, musicians and those of bon ton,  in exile, the leaky-roofed salons kept by the brilliant survivor Elizabeth Vigée-le Brun at her last London residence on Maddox Street were amongst the most fashionable.  Le Brun clearly realised that running such salons was also good business, “necessary to sustain the goodwill and interest of her powerful and influential English patrons”.

“Beautiful, good, harmonious music  should be heard during a meal. The musicians placed above the diners on a large stage. I am of the opinion that…it is the most charming thing to hear music while one is at table. It is only thing that I would wish were I to become a very grand lady…or extremely rich-for I prefer music to all the silly chit-chat of people eating.”

(Tom. 1, Pp.330-1) Vigée-le Brun

The Salons of French émigrés in London seem to have served a similar, or maybe even heightened political function to their versions in Paris. The politicised salons had revived in Paris in the early 1792, and were dominated by intellectual hostesses such as Germaine de Staël, Laure Junot and Madame Récamier. This might seem a little alien to us, but it seems difficult to conceive of such a gathering in either city, indulging  its taste for poetry, music, and the arts, which was not politicized.