28 JUNE 1940, Page 18

My Lovely Burney

The Diary of Fanny Burney. Selected and edited by Lewis Gibbs. (Everyman's Library. 28. 6c1.)

MAc.Autivy, deluded by an effect of candour and of startled innocence, thought of Miss Burney as a bashful, retiring little creature, ingenuously delighted by her success, but always able to resist the allurements of mere flattery and always preserving her balance among the eminent persons who petted the authoress and who praised her work. He does not explain how such a one could have degenerated, as a writer, into the most horrid of styles, and as a minor Court official "into something fit for her place." He does not observe, in her excited account of the talk

at Streatham, any trace of conceit. Nothing can be more unjust," he says, "than to confound these outpourings . . . with the egotism of a blue-stocking.". We may question his judge- ment. The fact of Miss Bumey's delight in the company of Mrs. Thrale, and her share in the game of twittering inanities and of coarse compliment in which Mrs. Thrale was perpetually occupied, should have been enough to show that Fanny's modesty was only a modesty of manners. Fanny was undoubtedly vain, and her ultimate ideal in literature was a resounding pomposity ; but she was also a prude, and this enabled her—nay, it obliged her—to maintain an appearance of reserve and always to feel a shock at the emergence of anything which was conventionally improper. Her change of attitude when " the goddess of her idolatry," Mrs. Thrale, married Piozzi proves that our Fanny was a prig, and a prig who knew little of ordinary gratitude. In some ways there is a resemblance between " this Memorialist " and a man she disliked intensely—James Boswell. Both had an appetite for lumps of compliment which would have choked the decency of a sensitive person, both were imitators of the riper Johnsonian platitude, both were ready enough to mock at those in whose presence they were respectful and even servile, both had a talent for the reconstruction of dialogue which has never been surpassed.

Fanny Burney is thus one of the most enjoyable and one of the most irritating of writers. Always entertaining in her minia- ture portraits and her records of conversation, Fanny is worse than boring when she moralises or tries to strike a Johnsonian attitude. In editing an abridgement of her Diary and Letters expurgation is the editor's most obvious duty if he is to produce a pleasant and amusing volume. In this, I think, Mr. Lewis Gibbs has succeeded remarkably well. He- knows that Miss Bumey's merit, like that of Boswell, is objective ; the merit of a supremely able reporter. Neither Fanny Burney nor James Boswell possessed a character which was essentially pleasing, but each is fairly comparable to the other in the lively portrayal of persons, the record of talk and of manners, brisk and humorous observation. Perhaps we might have wished for rather less, in this volume, of Miss Bumey's experiences as Assistant Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte, and rather more of her experi- ences in the curious and illustrious company who ate Mr. Thrale's dinners and who laughed at Mrs. Thrale's disconcerting and often vulgar wit. But the selection is, on the whole, admirable.