Friday, October 2, 2009

Do You Want to Know a Secret?

Before she became the most celebrated novelist of her day, Frances Burney wrestled, as many young writers do, with anxieties about ego and worthiness. Her fears were compounded by ideas about women and what they ought to do. Frances’s stepmother was not alone in believing that girls had no business wasting their time scribbling.

As an adolescent, Frances—or Fanny, as she was known to her friends and family—was consumed by guilt over what she described later as “an inclination at which I blushed, and that I had always kept secret.” No, she wasn’t taking drugs or reading racy fiction—she was writing. Every chance she got. So convinced was she that to write was to be wrong, that on her 15th birthday, she took decisive action: “I committed to the flames whatever, up to that moment, I had committed to paper. And so enormous was the pile, that I thought it prudent to consume it in the garden” (Dedication to The Wanderer [1814]).

The image of young Frances throwing page after page of her earliest writings to their fiery death could stand in for many women and girls in the 18th and 19th centuries and beyond, who questioned their right to be authors. With authority denied them on multiple levels, women who wrote had to maneuver around innumerable social obstacles.

Less than a yea
r after her sacrificial bonfire, Frances was at it again. In March of 1768 she started a journal she would maintain for the next 71 years. Like any teenage girl, she wanted her diary to contain her innermost feelings and observations: “I must confess my Every thought, must open my whole Heart!” Such openness required caution. How would it be possible, she wondered, for a young girl to be perfectly frank in her writing? What sort of reader could accept without judgment?

"To whom then must I dedicate my w
onderful, surprising & interesting adventures?” to whom da[re] I reveal my private opinion of my nearest Relations? The secret thoughts of my dearest friends? My own hopes, fears, reflections & dislikes?—Nobody!

To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal! Since To Nobody can I be wholly unreserved—to Nobody can I reveal every thought, every wish of my Heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity to the end of my Life!"
Frances Burney, The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney, March 27, 17

Under the protection of “Nobody”—whom she termed “my best friend,” “my dearest companion,” “my dear Girl”—Frances was able to resume and continue writing.

She understood that what she had to say would be worthwhile to some one—herself—and that her words would offer “living proof” of her very existence.

"I am much deceived in my fore sight, if I shall not have very great delight in reading this living proof of my manner of passing my time, my sentiments, my thoughts of people I know, & a thousand other things in future. –there is something to me very Unsatisfactory in passing year after year without even a memorandum of what you did, &c. And then, all the happy Hours I spend with particular Friends and Favourites, would fade from my recollection."
The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney, May, 1768

What started as a private exchange between herself and Nobody became a vehicle for Frances to share her talents and, no doubt, fortified her ability to write in other genres. Throughout her life, she would share excerpts of her diary with those closest to her. Her attention to detail and ability to record dialogue and the flavor of the life around her served her well in her novels and plays.

Here’s a July, 1768 excerpt from her journal:

"You must know I always have the last sheet of my Journal in my pocket, & when I have wrote it half full
—I Join it to the rest, & take another sheet--& so on. Now I happen’d, unluckily, to take the last sheet out of my pocket…& laid it on the piano forte, & there, negligent fool!—I left it….Well, as ill fortune would have it, papa went into the Room—took my poor Journal—Read & pocketed it!...O Dear! I was in a sad distress—I could not for the Life of me ask for it--& so dawdled & fretted the time away till Tuesday Evening. Then, gathering courage—“Pray, papa—have—you got—any papers of mine?—“ “Papers of yours?—said he—how should I come by papers of yours?—“ “I’m sure—I don’t know—but”— “Why do you leave your papers about the House?” asked he, gravely—I could not say another word…Well, to be sure, thought I, these same dear Journals are most shocking plaguing things—I’ve a good mind to resolve never to write a word more… [After her father has relented and returned the page to her.] I was so frightened that I have not had the Heart to write since, till now, I should not but that—in short but that I cannot help it!"
The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney, July, 1768

submit to reddit


  1. She could not help writing, any more than she could help breathing. That is what it is to be a writer, and how sad that some of us, even today, are furtive in our actions. We write because we must. But why are we still secret breathers?

    You've given me much to ponder with this post, John. Thanks to you and your birthday friend.

  2. Hi Karen:

    Yes, I thought Audrey did an excellent job of presenting this situation. Thanks!

  3. These articles are so interesting. Pages thrown into the fire -- reminds me of that scene from Alcott's Little Women. That scene just upset me so much as a kid although the circumstances were different. I can't imagine questioning my right to write...

  4. I am not furtive in my actions and yet, I do feel that sense of unworthiness. I wonder is that inherited from my sex, or is it merely my insecurities as a human being? I think I shall start writing to Nobody and see if that helps. (I'm not being facetious.)

    Thank you, Audrey for such an illuminating post.

  5. Sometimes I think Nobody is my best friend, too.

  6. Hi Jen & Kat & Willow:

    & thanks for all your comments--I'm glad Audrey's article seemed to speak to some folks; I thought it would!

  7. Belated thanks to you all! It is, indeed, challenging to be a writer, regardless of gender and other factors that bring additional complications to that already vexed identity. That makes it all the more gratifying when an audience responds favorably to your work. You are most kind!


Thanks for stopping by & sharing your thoughts. Please do note, however, that this blog no longer accepts anonymous comments. All comments are moderated. Thanks for your patience.