Frances Burney: Making Me Look Like A Wussy Loser Since 1778

2 Apr

One of my final research papers this year is on Frances Burney’s Evelina. Boiled down to its most basic themes, Evelina is a variation of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela without the parts that make you bash your forehead against a hard surface/the book itself (though fainting women who dive onto sofas in despair are present in both works). Sometimes I call it Pamela: Now With Fewer Lovable Rapists. Sorry, Samuel Richardson.

The point of this post isn’t actually to make fun of Samuel Richardson, or make Evelina sound like a Pamela rip-off (it’s not). My reason for bringing all of this up is to present the writing-process of Frances Burney as inspiration for anyone daunted by the process of writing their own novel.

Extensive research (reading the introduction to the novel) revealed that Burney wrote all three volumes of Evelina in a top-secret closet lair. She was a shadowy stealth author. In Burney’s day, a woman who was compelled to write for pleasure alone became a source of shame to her family. Unless her writing brought in a steady income, she had no business doing it. The household work being top priority, Burney considered her creative drive to be a dangerous addiction. She often wrote prose under the pretense that she was writing letters to relatives. There were times when she wrote under the cover of night, like a ninja. At some point, she burned all of her early work (including early drafts of Evelina) in a ceremonious bonfire, hoping to escape the demon grip of storytelling. However, Burney eventually gave in to temptation and periodically hid in a closet to write her massive three-volume novel. A half page at a time.


When volumes one and two were completed, Burney copied her manuscript in a “feigned hand” (her handwriting was known by publishers because of her father’s work, as she was his secretary). When the manuscript was finally complete, she submitted it anonymously by getting her brother to dress up as an older man and deliver it to city publishers she had contacted by mail. She hoped the work would be published one volume at a time, the potential success of the first two volumes thus allowing her to write the third in the light of day. However, when publishers insisted the novel be printed as a whole, she didn’t even punch a mirror or make eighteenth-century swears. She begrudgingly returned to her five-minutes-a-day-in-a-closet routine until the novel was complete. Evelina received high critical acclaim, and Burney went on to write several delightful novels of ridiculous length – in the light of day.

If Frances Burney can write three volumes under Number 4 Privet Drive-esque conditions, surely I can write a single volume of my own this year, no?

3 Responses to “Frances Burney: Making Me Look Like A Wussy Loser Since 1778”

  1. paorta April 5, 2011 at 10:21 pm #

    I really like the idea of Burney sitting in that closet, building a hidden fictional space.

    • C. April 7, 2011 at 12:29 am #

      It’s very symbolic. It reminds me of something a Prof mentioned regarding Jane Austen’s writing space. She went on a tour of Austen’s home and was blown away by how tiny her writing desk was, and the fact that it was situated in the middle of a very high-traffic room in the house, a place where she’d be interrupted often. If you see a photo of this desk, it’s hard to imagine her writing Emma in this space… it’s hard to imagine how the desk even supported the weight of so many pages.

      Here it is!

      • paorta April 8, 2011 at 12:15 pm #

        That’s amazing! I think that amount of humility is important in writing. It reminds me of Fernando Pessoa. Pessoa was an influential Portugese poet who was also a bookkeeper, and in “Book of Disquiet” he navigates life really quietly while wrestling with this tremendous imagination.

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