Anybody who is disappointed that Jane Austen did not write more books should read the stories of Frances Burney. I don’t think her writing is quite as skillful, but her books are every bit as entertaining and because she wrote in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, they have an authenticity that cannot be approached by modern writers who aspire to write stories set in Georgian or Regency England (myself included).
I’m reading Camilla right now. After 500 pages, I don’t find the hero or heroine quite as sympathetic as I’d like, but the host of other characters continue to fascinate and amaze me. Now, in my opening paragraph, I said I didn’t find Burney as skilled at storytelling as Austen and that’s because her stories and plots are a little more exaggerated and so therefore not as realistic. But my judgment was not really fair. Perhaps what I really should have said is that, to a modern reader, Austen is a little easier to handle. For her time, Burney’s farcical style and dramatic plots were probably perfectly conceived to appeal to her readers.
Burney’s stories deal with the trials and tribulations of a slightly higher class of people than those who populate Austen’s books; she uses a mix of nobility and gentility. Since Burney served for five years as Second Keeper of the Robes for Queen Charlotte, she had a familiarity with the English nobility that Austen did not. For that reason, modern Regency writers would do well to study her works, even though they take place during a slightly earlier time period. Modern writers (again, myself included) often give half of their characters noble titles, even if the majority of them behave like the cast of Jersey Shore. Yes, some members of the nobility were notorious for bad behavior. But for every rapscallion, there was an Edgar Mandelbert, concerned with honor and propriety.
Infused throughout Burney’s stories is a keen sense of honor that is completely lacking in today’s society, and not even as strong as that found in Austen’s tales. Whether the difference is due to the changes in society between the Georgian and Regency eras, the higher class of society inhabited by Burney’s characters, or the personal tastes of the authors is hard to say.
Besides enjoying the stories themselves, I also enjoy Burney’s work for the details about everyday 18th Century life. For example, those of us who enjoy Austen tend to think Bath we think of a spa retreat for the wealthy. But in Camilla, the well-to-do journey to Tunbridge Wells to stroll among the shops of the Pantiles and see and be seen at “The Rooms.” One well-respected character laments that young women spend too much time in pursuit of amusement. “After meeting them all their winter at the opera, and all the spring at Ranelagh, hear of them all summer at Cheltenham, Tunbridge &c. and all the autumn at Bath,” he wonders “when is the season for home?” The editor of Camilla points out that Bath also enjoyed a six week popular season in the spring, but all the same, this observation reminds me that Bath was not the only fashionable retreat and that it was not only where you went but when that mattered.
There are many other wonderful details that I will explore in future posts. But now I’m turning away from the computer to go back to reading… purely for research purposes, of course!
Until next time…