Frances Burney and the Marketplace

  • Lorna Clark

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  • Lorna Clark
    Carleton University

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Cover of Volume 38, 2019, pp. 1-199, Lumen
Frances Burney’s writing, as has oft been noted, addresses issues of money, gender and especially class. Of the latter, one has only to think of scenes that are quintessentially Burney: those in which the heroine fears to be perceived as a woman of a lower class than she is (Evelina on the arms of the prostitutes, encountering Lord Orville); is embarrassed by her association with those more vulgar than she (when with the Branghtons at the opera); or in which she aspires to belong to a class higher than her own (the aristocratic circle at Mrs. Beaumont’s). As Margaret Anne Doody has written, Burney’s “fiction is at its heart political,” and the “clash of cultures and groups and personal ideologies is a large source of her humour.” A classic scene in a Burney novel or play is one in which characters from different classes jostle with each other to comic effect: for instance, when the penny-pinching Mr. Briggs and the haughty Mr. Delvile meet in Cecilia, or when the nouveaux-riche Watts family encounters Sir Marmaduke and Lady Wilhelmina in A Busy Day. These social sensitivities can ultimately be traced to money: in Burney’s novels, financial anxieties are often at the core, which we see represented in Camilla’s cascading debts, Cecilia’s loss of her fortune, or the Wanderer’s frustrating attempts to make a living. Critics have addressed the topic of finance in Burney’s novels, noting its relation to a “rapidly expanding industrialist consumer society” in which shopping and gambling became fashionable, or to developments in retail culture. These concerns, which mark her fiction, are also reflected in Burney’s journals. The family’s place in London society was an equivocal one; the image presented in Burney’s Memoirs of her father Charles Burney is that of a self-made man who managed to rise from humble origins by virtue of his musical, literary and social abilities; he himself was well aware of his status as an outsider who had won his way (as he wrote), “I still remain a drudge amid the smiles of Wealth & Power.” Burney’s letters evince the same sensitivities; she constantly reassures herself and her correspondents of her social acceptance into a higher class than her own. She even boasts to her father when she is at court of the aristocratic friends she is making, evidently expecting his approval. The equivocal social position of the Burneys had an impact on her love life as well: Burney’s lack of wealth and status may have discouraged her apparent suitor, the Revd George Cambridge; it probably affected even more her relationship with Stephen Digby, a fellow-courtier with an aristocratic pedigree, who seemed drawn to Burney but who, in the end, married a woman of his own class. Class consciousness played a large part in Burney’s deep unhappiness in the Queen’s household; faced with a rigid protocol in which everyone’s place was strictly determined by birth and position, Burney (for all her wit, intelligence and literary accomplishments) could not escape awareness of her lowly status. Suffering the indignity of being summoned by “a Bell!,” she served a Queen who was notably adept in making subtle social distinctions evident simply by the way she addressed people. Burney’s sensitivities about her status extended far beyond court; more than a decade after the rupture with Hester Thrale, Burney still complained about the indelicate way Mrs. Thrale had once pressed gifts upon her, which had made her feel inferior. Into these ongoing discussions, a new element has been introduced: a discovery about ...