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The world according to Fanny
When it came to 18th-century England, Fanny Burney had a front row seat.
PHOTO: Owen Egan
She hobnobbed with many of the leading figures of the day. The legendary Samuel Johnson, poet, essayist and creator of a pioneering English dictionary whose influence has spanned centuries, was one friend.
She blazed a trail for Jane Austen and other women by becoming one of England's first successful female novelists; Byron was among her fans.
She created several popular words, such as "agreeable," to name one.
She served in the royal court as an attendant to Queen Charlotte during the period captured in the film, The Madness of King George.
And, perhaps most importantly, she wrote it all down.
She left behind her a treasure trove of about 10,000 manuscript pages filled with observations and recollections, culled from journal entries and correspondence -- vivid accounts of the personalities and events Burney witnessed over a 71-year period.
The fellow in charge of examining, editing and publishing these papers works in a softly lit and spacious basement office beneath the Redpath Library -- English professor Lars Troide.
As a chronicler of her times, Troide says, "nobody comes close to Burney."
For one thing, because of the unique circumstances of her life, Burney had special access to aspects of England that were denied to most.
She also lived remarkably long -- the life expectancy during her period was somewhere between 35 and 40, reckons Troide. Burney died at 87.
Finally, she was a gifted writer with a remarkable knack for telling detail. Her graphic and harrowing account of her 1811 mastectomy -- done without anaesthetic -- is still widely referred to today by medical historians. Her depiction of that surgery is enough to raise the hairs on the backs of the necks of even hardened horror buffs.
That McGill is the headquarters for the cataloguing and editing of Burney's journals and correspondence is a credit to the detective work of Troide's predecessor as the head of the Burney Project, Joyce Hemlow.
Author of the Governor General's Award-winning The History of Fanny Burney, Hemlow traced the bulk of Burney's journals to a descendant of the 18th century scribe; it was lying in a trunk under her bed.
While the originals now reside in the British Museum, Hemlow earned the task of making sense of them, a job that now belongs to Troide.
He took over the Burney Project in 1976 and has devoted the last 25 years of his scholarly life to making Burney's view of her world available to ours.
After years spent carefully scrutinizing her thoughts, Troide admits that he knows Burney better than he knows most of his friends.
"Sometimes I don't know what month I'm in: I confuse it with the month I'm reading about in Burney."
Troide sees Burney herself as a complex, contradictory woman.
"There was prejudice against women reading novels, never mind writing them," he says of her courage in becoming a novelist in the first place.
"She herself showed ambivalence towards her own writing. But she couldn't help herself. She had the gift.
"Obviously, she was very intelligent. Very modest on the surface, she could be very self-centred and hyper-sensitive beneath that. She was very fearful of criticism and disapproval."
Troide says Burney's journals are of interest to a variety of scholars. Her insights into the workings of the royal court are essential reading for historians of the monarchy.
"There is a lot about jostling others for position. One-upmanship was rampant. But she was worshipful towards the king and queen."
Burney's father, a musician (not a particularly savoury occupation during that period) and a musical scholar, often enjoyed visits from some of the leading musicians of his era.
As a novelist, she offers insights into the world of publishing -- writers weren't treated terribly well -- and into the lives of prominent artistic contemporaries.
"She had a very keen eye for the physical world," says Troide. "She also had a tremendous gift for capturing character in only a few words."
Her writings also illuminate the psychology of her era. "It was an age where people generally didn't express their feelings outright. You would be left to try to interpret what other people meant, to analyze their gestures for clues."
Twelve volumes of Burney's later letters have been published and the fourth volume of her earlier letters and journal entries will soon come out under the imprint of McGill-Queen's University Press.
The new book, covering the years 1780 and 1781, chronicles, among other things, Burney's friendship with Samuel Johnson, a man widely considered to be the second most quoted individual in the English language (after Shakespeare).
"Most depictions of Johnson paint him as a reactionary, opinionated, overbearing grand man of letters and he was that. You see glimpses of that in Burney, too.
"He never liked to lose an argument. He could be utterly brutal. He was a vicious debater -- simply abusive. He would feel terribly bad afterwards. He would always try to make amends."
Burney's view of Johnson includes rare glimpses of Johnson's softer side, too.
An admirer of her writing, he showed Burney "a side of his personality that he didn't show to many people. He could be quite playful and affectionate towards her."
Burney's most miserable years were probably those spent in the royal court.
"She was near-sighted and she wasn't allowed to wear glasses. Members of the court always had to face the king and queen -- face them as they came in, and as they were going. She lived in fear of accidentally turning her back towards them."
Her immediate supervisor was an overbearing and crude woman, the very sort Burney couldn't bear. And while Burney was relatively well paid in a position that was typically seen as a great honour, Troide says the long hours and constant demands of the job amounted to "almost a form of slavery."
In 2002, Burney will receive one of the highest honours bestowed upon a Brit. A formal memorial of Burney's life will take place in the Poet's Corner of London's fabled Westminster Abbey. Troide will be a principal guest speaker at the ceremony and a plaque commemorating Burney will have her name join a select group of England's greatest scribes.
Troide says the honour sparked something of a debate in scholarly circles.
"There are two schools of thought about Burney. One is that her novels (including Evelina and Camilla) are her true legacy, that they represent her most important writing. "This circle wanted her remembered as a novelist.
"My own bias is that yes, she was a fine novelist, but not quite in the league of someone like Austen. Her greatest contribution was as a journal writer." The Westminster officials have decided to list Burney as, simply,an author. Troide accepts the decision as a sage compromise.
Burney is even winning recent acclaim for a third form of writing. Her plays didn't receive much attention in her lifetime, but they are earning attention from scholars and theatrical companies today.
Troide says chronicling Burney accurately can be a slippery process.
With an eye towards posterity, Burney reviewed much of her journals later in her life.
"She cut out a lot. She did a lot of editing. Towards the end of her life, she burned a lot of stuff outright. Some of it concerned things that she thought were too mundane to be of interest to anyone else. But some of it was personal."
She was sensitive to appearances and to her family's honour. Passages marked for obliteration concerned, among other things, how her sister's suitor asked her to be his mistress instead of his wife and how her brother was booted from Cambridge for stealing books.
Over many passages she used a heavy black ink to cover sensitive topics.
Amazingly, Troide says, "we're able to recover about 95 per cent of that stuff."
The process is painstaking. Troide and his collaborators have to slowly pore over affected journal entries, line by line, identifying letters by portions that fall above or below Burney's smudges.
An "f" is discovered in one place, a "t" in another. Word fragments then lead to educated guesses about words. "It's kind of like Wheel of Fortune.
"She wanted to present a carefully edited version of herself to the world. My take is you can't have it both ways. If you want to be remembered, don't expect it to be on your own terms. People like me won't let you get away with it."
Still, Troide says he admires Burney's overall "truthfulness," her attempts to fudge facts to make herself look good pale in comparison to those of other journal writers and diarists. "She described people as she truly saw them."