FANNY BURNEY by Sarah Kilpatrick


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A vacuous, all-frills treatment of a writer who deserves better. Did you know, for instance, that when the Princesse d'Henin came to visit Fanny and her husband in their little cottage on Mr. Locke's estate at Norbury Park, she (the Princesse) actually ""lifted the lid of a pot-au-leu, so interested was she in the tiny kitchen""? Or that Fanny was Second Keeper of the Robes to the Court of Queen Charlotte and received all sorts of flattering attention from ""people of the most remarkable distinction""? Poor Fanny Burney: trapped like one of Pope's sylphs in Sarah Kilpatrick's gossipy, mannered biography, she ""beats her silken wings in vain."" As though she were a Georgian aristocrat who considers novel-writing an act unbefitting a lady, Kilpatrick says not a word by way of literary criticism, except to repeat the compliments and calculate the income that Burney got from her work. Yet Evelina (1778), Burney's first and best book, is a minor landmark of 18th-century literature, a very good domestic novel that looks forward to the much richer and subtler art of Jane Austen. Burney also kept a lively diary, which Kilpatrick praises but doesn't analyze. All this wouldn't be too bad, if Burney had led a dramatic or colorful life, which she didn't, or had been a fascinating or memorable person, which she wasn't. She was a witty observer of the social scene, an amiable prude, a courageous self-possessed character and an eminently English type. But set up against a truly vital woman such as Hester Thrale or a real genius such as Dr. Johnson, she looks decidedly pale. For all her chatty snobbism, however, Kilpatrick is reasonably entertaining--that is, if you really must know about that black bombazine and crepe dress Fanny wore when she was presented to Louis XVIII. . . .

Pub Date: Jan. 15th, 1980
Publisher: Stein & Day