Arblay, Frances (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 02
Arblay, Frances (Burney), Madame d'

by Leslie Stephen

ARBLAY, FRANCES (BURNEY), Madame d' (1752–1840), novelist, was born 13 June 1752, at King's Lynn, where her father, Dr. Burney, was then organist. He had been married in 1749 to her mother, Esther Sleepe, the granddaughter of a French refugee named Dubois. Frances was one of six children, of whom Esther (afterwards Mrs. Burney, of Bath) and James (afterwards Admiral Burney) were older, Susannah (Mrs. Phillips), Charles (a well-known Greek scholar), and Charlotte (Mrs. Clement Francis, and afterwards Mrs.Broome) younger than herself. In 1760 Dr. Burney moved to London, where his whole time was soon absorbed in giving music lessons and in social engagements. The death of his wife, 28 Sept. 1761, broke up his household, and Dr. Burney sent Esther and Susannah to a school in Paris. Frances was detained at home from a fear lest her reverence for her maternal grandmother, then living in France, should cause her conversion to Catholicism. Dr. Burney was married again in 1766 to Mrs. Stephen Allen, who seems to have been a kind stepmother. A scheme of sending Frances to follow her sisters was then abandoned. She was thus entirely self-educated, her father having no time to spare even for directing her studies. She was a backward child, and did not know her letters when eight years old. At ten she began scribbling stories, farces, tragedies, and epic poems, till her conscience smote her for this waste of time, and on her fifteenth birthday (preface to Wanderer) she burnt all her manuscripts. The heroine of the last story consumed was Caroline Evelyn, the mother of Evelina. The situation struck her fancy, and she continued to work out Evelina's adventures in her head. The story was not written down till it was fully composed, when the first two volumes were offered to Dodsley by her brother Charles. Dodsley declined to deal for an anonymous work. It was then offered to Lowndes, who asked to see the whole. She now confided her secret to her father, who treated the matter as a joke, made no objection to her plan, and ‘dropped the subject.’ The completed book was then sent to Lowndes, who gave 20l., to which he subsequently added 10l. and ten handsomely bound copies. It was published anonymously in January 1778, under the title of ‘Evelina, or a Young Lady's Entrance into the World.’ It was favourably received and soon attracted notice. Dr. Burney, on reading it, recognised his daughter's work. He confided the secret to Mrs. Thrale, to whose daughter he had given music lessons. Mrs. Thrale had discussed it with Dr. Johnson, who said that he ‘could not get rid of the rogue,’ and declared that ‘there were passages which might do honour to Richardson.’ He got it almost by heart, and mimicked the characters with roars of laughter. Sir Joshua Reynolds took it up at table, was so absorbed in it that he had to be fed whilst reading, and both he and Burke sat up over it all night. No story since ‘Clarissa Harlowe’ had succeeded so brilliantly. Miss Burney expressed her delight on hearing some of this news by rushing into the garden and dancing round a mulberry tree — a performance which in her old age she recounted to Sir W. Scott (Scott's Diary for November 1826). This was at Chessington, near Epsom, the retreat of an old friend of her father's, Samuel Crisp, who had retired from the world in disgust at the failure of a play and some loss of money (Memoir of Dr. Burney, i. 179). Miss Burney loved him, called him ‘daddy,’ and wrote to him long and amusing letters. She was now introduced to Mrs. Thrale, and during the next two or three weeks became almost domesticated in the family. She spent many months at Streatham, and was greatly caressed by Dr. Johnson, whom, though he was an old acquaintance of her father's, she seems only to have seen once before. Mrs. Thrale pressed her to write a comedy. Sheridan, whom she met at Sir Joshua's, declared that he would accept anything of hers unseen; and the playwright Murphy offered her the benefit of his experience. Thus prompted, she wrote the ‘Witlings,’ and submitted it to the judgment of Mr. Crisp and her father. It was suppressed in deference to ‘a hissing, groaning, catcalling epistle ' from the two; Mr. Crisp thinking that it recalled too strongly to its own disadvantage Moliere's ‘Femmes Savantes,’ a work which she had never read. Returning to her more natural occupation, she composed with great care her second novel, ‘Cecilia,’ which was published in five volumes in the summer of 1782. Macaulay had heard from contemporaries that it was expected as impatiently as any of Scott's novels; and the success was unequivocal. Three editions of ‘Evelina’ had consisted of 800, 500, and 1,000 copies; and a fourth edition had been published in the summer of 1779. The first edition of ‘Cecilia’ was of 2,000 copies, which were all sold in three months (Diary and Letters, i. 175 and vi. 66). She was now introduced to her admirer, Burke, who had praised her second work with an enthusiasm all but unqualified. Miss Burney had already been introduced to Mrs. Montagu, the female Mæcenas of the day; and her acquaintance was now (January 1783) sought by the venerable Mrs. Delany. In 1785 George III. assigned to Mrs. Delany a house at Windsor and a pension of 300l. a year. The Streatham household had been broken up after the death of Mr. Thrale; his widow's marriage (1784) to Piozzi led to a coolness between the friends, and Miss Burney attached herself to Mrs. Delany. Though always on good terms with her father and his wife, their affection seems to have been of the kind which is not cooled by absence and therefore, doubtless, does not dread separation. She helped Mrs. Delany to settle at Windsor, and there she was seen by the royal family, who were constantly dropping in at Mrs. Delany's house. She soon received the offer of an appointment to be second keeper of the robes, under Madame Schwellenberg. She was to have 200l. a year, a footman, and to dine at Madame Schwellenberg's table. After many misgivings she accepted the offer, partly in the belief that she would be able to serve her father. She was assured that there were ‘thousands of candidates of high birth and rank,’ and her appointment was regarded as matter for the warmest congratulation by Dr. Burney, Mrs. Delany, and her acquaintance generally. She accordingly entered upon her service 17 July 1786. A desire to compensate Dr. Burney for his failure in an application for the mastership of the king's band was probably one cause of the appointment. Her misgivings were amply fulfilled. Her duties were menial — those, in fact, of a lady's maid. She attended the queen's toilette three times a day, and spent much of the intervening time in looking after her own clothes. She rose early and went to bed late. She dined with Madame Schwellenberg, whom she describes as coarse, tyrannical, and ill-tempered. She was rarely permitted to see her friends, and her society was that of the backstairs of a court, a ‘weary, lifeless uniformity,’ relieved by petty scandal and squabbles. She always speaks of the king, the queen, and all the royal family with a fervent loyalty which verges, to say the least of it, upon adulation. But the queen, though kindly in intention, was a rigid upholder of etiquette, and Miss Burney, whose health was not strong, suffered under rules which sometimes kept her for hours upon trembling legs. Her diary, during her confinement to the court, is lively and interesting, especially the descriptions of the impeachment of Warren Hastings; of the scenes during the king's attack of insanity in 1788-9; and of various details of the domestic life of royalty during the courtly progresses. Of the fictitious names in the diary, Mr. Turbulent means La Guiffardière, French reader to the queen and princesses; Miss P. is Miss Port (afterwards Mrs. Waddington); Colonel Welbred is Colonel Greville; Colonel Fairly is the Hon. Stephen Digby, who lost his first wife, a daughter of Lord Ilchester, in 1787, and married Miss Gunning, called in the diary Miss Fuzilier, in January 1790. Colonel Digby talked poetry and religious sentiment to Miss Burney, who appears to have had a tender feeling for him, and to have been annoyed at his marriage. Her health became worse as time went on; her friends heard rumours of her decline; she confided at last to her father her desire to resign, and he seemed to admit the necessity, yet hesitated long, till there arose a general ‘outcry in their own little world’ (Memoirs of Dr. Burney, iii. 112). Windham declared that he would ‘set the literary club’ upon him to hasten his resolution; Boswell swore that all her friends were growing ‘outrageous;’ Reynolds, ‘all the Burkes,’ and even Horace Walpole protested against her seclusion; and at last, at the close of 1790, she entreated the queen's permission to retire in a humble memorial delivered with much trembling. After ‘a scene almost horrible’ with Madame Schwellenberg and long negotiations, she was at last permitted to retire, 7 July 1791, with a pension of l00l. a year. Miss Burney travelled for some time through different parts of England, and her health improved. Her sister Susanna (now Mrs. Phillips) was living at this time at Mickleham, close to Norbury Park, which belonged to the Lockes, old friends of the Burney family. Some of the French refugees had settled in Juniper Hall, in the immediate neighbourhood. M. de Narbonne and General d'Arblay lived there and were visited by Madame de Stael and Talleyrand. Miss Burney speedily became attached to General d'Arblay, who had been a comrade of Lafayette's, and was with him at the time of his arrest by the Prussians. They were married 31 July 1793, at Mickleham, the ceremony being repeated next day at the catholic chapel of the Sardinian embassy. Their whole fortune was Madame d'Arblay's pension of 100l. a year; and Dr. Burney, though protesting on prudential grounds and declining to be present at the marriage, gave a reluctant consent. The married pair settled at the village of Bookham, within reach of Norbury, and lived with great frugality, which was more imperative on the birth of a son, Alexander. Towards the end of 1794 Madame d'Arblay tried to improve her income by bringing out a tragedy, ‘Edwy and Elvina,’ the rough draught of which had been finished at Windsor August 1790. It was performed at Drury Lane 21 March 1795; but in spite of the acting of Mrs. Siddons and Kemble it failed and was withdrawn after the first night. She also published a brief and stilted address to the ladies of Great Britain in behalf of the French emigrant priests, but judiciously declined to edit a weekly anti-Jacobin paper to be called the ‘Breakfast Table,’ which had been projected by Mrs. Crewe. Another scheme was at least more profitable. She published by subscription the novel of ‘Camilla,’ in 1796; and in pursuance of a suggestion once made by Burke, the lists were kept by ladies instead of booksellers, the dowager duchess of Leinster, Mrs. Boscawen, Mrs. Crewe, and Mrs. Locke. Three months after the publication, 500 copies only remained of 4,000, and Macaulay gives a rumour that she cleared 3,000 guineas by the sale. Burke sent her a banknote for 20l., saying that he took four copies for himself, Mrs. Burke, and also for the brother and son whom he had recently lost. Miss Austen was another subscriber. The book was a literary failure, like all her works after ‘Cecilia;’ but it brought in profit enough to enable her to build a cottage, called Camilla Cottage from its origin, on a piece of land belonging to Mr. Locke, at West Humble, close to Mickleham, whither she removed in 1797. A comedy called ‘Love and Fashion’ was accepted by the manager of Covent Garden, but withdrawn, in deference to her father's anxieties, in 1800. In 1801 M. d'Arblay returned to France and endeavoured to get employment. He offered to serve in the expedition to St. Domingo; but his appointment was cancelled upon his attempting to make a condition that he should never be called upon to serve against England. He was placed en retraite with a pension of 1,500 francs. In 1802 his wife and child joined him in Paris, where, in 1805, he also obtained a small civil employment, and they passed ten years at Passy, during which communication with England was almost entirely interrupted by the war, and few memorials of Madame d'Arblay are preserved. In 1812 Madame d'Arblay obtamed permission to return to England with her son, who was now reaching the age at which he would become liable to the conscription. She arrived, after much difficulty and some risks, in August 1812, to find her father broken down in health, and attended him affectionately till his death, at the age of 86, in April 1814. At the beginning of the same year she published her last novel, the ‘Wanderer,’ already begun in 1802, for which she was to receive 1,500l. in a year and a half, and 3,000l. on the sale of 8,000 copies. She says that 3,600 copies were sold at the ‘rapacious price’ of two guineas. The book was apparently never read by anybody. Upon the fall of Napoleon, M. d'Arblay was restored to his old rank and appointed to a company in the corps de garde. Madame d'Arblay rejoined him at Paris; and upon the return of Napoleon from Elba she retired to Belgium, and was in Brussels during the battle of Waterloo, where her adventures, graphically described in the diary, were perhaps turned to account by Thackeray in the corresponding passages of ‘Vanity Fair.’ M. d'Arblay had meanwhile received an appointment to endeavour to raise a force of refugees at Trèves. Here Madame d'Arblay rejoined him after the battle to find that he had been seriously injured by the kick of a horse. He recovered, but was incapacitated for active service and was placed, contrary to his own wishes, upon half-pay. Madame d'Arblay passed the rest of her life in England. Her journals give us few incidents except a lively account of her narrow escape from drowning at Ilfracombe in 1817. Her husband died on 3 May 1818. Her son was elected to a Tancred studentship at Christ's College, Cambridge; was tenth wrangler in 1818; was ordained deacon in 1818, priest in 1819; was nominated minister of Ely chapel in 1836, and died of a rapid decline 19 Jan. 1837. Madame d'Arblay's last literary employment was the preparation for the press of the memoirs of her father, which appeared in 1832. The book is disfigured by an elaborate affectation of style and is singularly vague in dates; but it contains much interesting matter and many fragments of letters and diaries, full of vivacious description. She had a severe illness, with spectral illusions, in November 1839, and died at the age of 87 on 6 Jan. 1840. Five volumes of her Letters and Diaries’ were published in 1842, and two more in 1846. Madame d'Arblay's ‘Me- moirs of Dr. Burney’ and her diary were attacked with great bitterness by Croker in the ‘Quarterly Review’ for April 1833 and June 1842. The pith of the first article is an accusation (repeated in the second) against Madame d'Arblay (then 80 years old) of having intentionally suppressed dates in order to give colour to a report that ‘Evelina’ was written at the age of 17. Croker had taken the trouble to inspect the register of baptisms at Lynn, and announced his success with spiteful exultation. Macaulay retorted fiercely in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ for January 1843; and the accusation is examined at great length by the last editor of ‘Evelina.’ It is petty enough. Miss Burney was 25 when ‘Evelina’ appeared, the composition of which, from her account, occupied a considerable period. Her friends clearly made a great point of her youthfulness at the time. Mrs. Thrale and Johnson compared her performance with Pope's ‘Windsor Forest,’ the first part of which (according to Pope himself) was written at the age of 16, and was finished at 25. Miss Burney accepted this (amidst much more) admiration. The belief, if it really existed, that ‘Evelina’ was composed at the age of 17 was probably due to an identification of the author with the heroine. It does not appear, however, that any definite report of the kind existed, or was sanctioned by Miss Burney, and if, at the age of 80, she had become vague about dates of her youth, the circumstance is not inexplicable. There can be no doubt that the charm of ‘Evelina’ was due in part to the youthfulness of the author. It represents, in fact, the spontaneous impressions of a girl of great vivacity and powers of observation upon entering the society of which she caught glimpses in the house of her father. The second more elaborate and didactic novel, ‘Cecilia,’ is heavier, and the style generally shows signs of deterioration. There are traces of an imitation of Johnson, which gave rise to a false report that he had corrected it himself (Diary, 4 Nov. 1802). The later novels are now unreadable; and in the ‘Memoirs of Dr. Burney’ she adopted a peculiar magniloquence which may be equally regarded as absurd or as delicious. The earlier novels mark a distinct stage in our literature. The form of ‘Evelina’ is adapted from Richardson's plan of a fictitious correspondence; but its best passages are in the vein of light comedy, and, unlike her predecessor, she is weak in proportion as she attempts a deeper treatment. She gave in turn the first impulse to the modern school of fiction which aims at a realistic portrait of society and remains within the limits of feminine observation and feminine decorum. She was, in some degree, a model to the most successful novelists in the next generation. Miss Edgworth (b. 1767) and Miss Austen (b. 1775), the last of whom took the title of her first novel, ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ from the last pages of ‘Cecilia,’ and speaks with admiration of Miss Burney in a remarkable passage in ‘Northanger Abbey.’ Madame d'Arblay's diary is now more interesting than her novels. The descriptions of Mr. Thrale and Johnson and Boswell himself rival Boswell's own work; and the author herself with her insatiable delight in compliments — certainly such as might well turn her head — her quick observation and lively garrulity, her effusion of sentiment, rather lively than deep but never insincere, her vehement prejudices corrected by flashes of humour, is always amusing; nor to some readers is even the fine writing of the ‘Memoirs of Dr. Burney’ without its charm.

[Memoirs of Dr. Burney, 1832; Diary and Letters of Madame d'Arblay, i.-v. 1842, vi. vii. 1846; Mrs. Delany's Correspondence, 2nd series, vol. iii., where are some feeble and unfriendly strictures upon her accuracy; Quarterly Review for April 1833 and June 1842; Macaulay's Essays; Boswell's Johnson; Evelina and Cecilia, with introduction by Annie Eaine Ellis, 1881 and 1882.]

L. S.