A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter XII." by Constance Hill
From: Juniper Hall: A Rendevous of Certain Illustrious Personages during the French Revolution Including Alexandre D'Arblay and Fanny Burney by Constance Hill. London & New York: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1904.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 114]

CHAPTER XII

A FRENCH LADY OF LETTERS

DR. BURNEY writes to his daughter on January 31: "The horrors of last week's news still prey upon my spirits with the addition of new political disgusts. The cry of Charles Fox and his adherents against a war on the French wild beasts is so loud and clamorous that I fear it will dismay honest men and real lovers of their country and Constitution. He . . . urges stronger than ever the necessity of treating with France.

"To [his arguments] I answer that we neither want nor wish to meddle with the interior government of that country within its own limits, but to check their conquests and ravages without; to prevent their spreading anarchy, desolation and atheism over all Europe. If England does not try to prevent their preying upon all the rest of the world, who or what else is likely to do it? They have voted an army of between 500,000 and 600,000 men for the next campaign. What but our fleet can impede their progress and subsistence? [Page 115]  But alas! Ireland, Scotland, and several English counties are said to be ripe for open rebellion; yet they will be more easily kept in obedience during war than peace."

Dr. Burney, although a Tory of the old school, had sympathised in many respects with the earlier phases of the Revolution. There is an unpublished letter of his extant, addressed to Mrs. Crewe, which shows that he largely approved of the Constitution of 1791. "Do not the articles," he writes, "appear to you unexpectedly moderate? . . . I am glad to see that the establishment of juries and limitations of the King's prerogative are imitations of our English Constitution. Indeed, I wish the powers of making war were taken from all the princes upon earth."

During the month of February Fanny Burney quitted Norbury Park, and went to Mickleham Cottage to visit her sister, Mrs. Phillips. Captain Phillips was at that time absent in Ireland.

Fanny writes on February 29 to her father: "Have you not begun, dear sir, to give me up as a lost sheep? Susan's temporary widowhood, however, has tempted me on, and spelled me with a spell I know not how to break. It is long, long since we have passed any time so completely together; her three lovely children only knit us the closer."

Fanny goes on to speak of Madame de Staël, [Page 116]  and gives an account of her brave conduct in rescuing her proscribed friends, and also of her own adventures in quitting France. "She is one of the first women I have ever met with," continues the writer, "for abilities and extraordinary intellect. She is more in the style of Mrs. Thrale than of any other celebrated character, but she has infinitely more depth, and seems an even profound politician and metaphysician. She has suffered us to hear some of her works in MS.; which are truly wonderful for powers both of thinking and expression . . . . Ever since her arrival, Madame de Staël has been pressing me to spend some time with her before I return to town. She wanted Susan and me to pass a month with her, but finding that impossible, she bestowed all her entreaties upon me alone, and they are grown so urgent, upon my preparations for departing, and acquainting her my furlough of absence was over, that she not only insisted upon my writing to you and telling why I deferred my return, but declares she will also write herself to ask your permission for the visit. She exactly resembles Mrs. Thrale in the ardour and warmth of her temper and partialities. I find her impossible to resist; and, therefore, if your answer to her is such as I conclude it must be, I shall wait upon her for a week. She is only a short walk from hence at Juniper Hall." [Page 117] 

Fanny even, at first sight, was feeling the influence of Madame de Staël's strong personality, as so many others had done before her. "The Staël is a genius," writes Dr. Bollman; "an


BOX HILL FROM THE VALLEY

extraordinary eccentric woman in all that she does. She only sleeps during a very few hours, and is uninterruptedly and fearfully busy all the rest of the time. Whilst her hair is being dressed, whilst she breakfasts, in fact, during a third of the day, she writes. She has not sufficient quiet to look over what she has written, to improve [Page 117]  it, or finish it; but even the rough outpourings of her ever active mind are of the greatest interest."

"She is always entertaining," writes Miss Berry, "and I who know her so well will add, always good-natured, and never méchante; but she does not dwell long enough upon anything; life, characters, and even feelings pass before her eyes like a magic-lantern. She spends herself upon paper, and runs through the world to see all, to hear all, and to say all - to excite herself, and to give it all back to the world and to the society from whence she has drawn it."

Lord Byron, in later years, on hearing that one of her sons had been killed in a duel, remarked "Madame de Staël has lost one of her young barons . . . . Corinne is, of course, what all mothers must be, but will, I venture to prophesy, do what few mothers could - write an essay upon it!"

Most of her acquaintance found her "torrent of words," however eloquent, at times somewhat overpowering. "Her works are my delight," writes Byron, "and so is she herself for - half an hour!"

"There can be nothing imagined," writes Miss Burney, "more charming, more fascinating, than this colony; between their sufferings and their agrémens they occupy us almost wholly. M. de

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MADAME DE STAËL

[Page 119]  Narbonne . . . bears the highest character for goodness, parts, sweetness of manners, and ready wit. You could not keep your heart from him if you saw him only for half an hour. He has not yet recovered from the black blow of the King's death, but he is better and less jaundiced; and he has had a letter which I hear has comforted him, though at first it was almost heart-breaking, informing him of the unabated regard for him of the truly saint-like Louis. This is communicated in a letter from M. de Malesherbes.

"M. d'Arblay is one of the most singularly interesting characters that can ever have been formed. He has a sincerity, a frankness, an ingenuous openness of nature, that I had been unjust enough to think could not belong to a Frenchman. With all this, which is his military portion, he is passionately fond of literature, a most delicate critic in his own language, well versed in both Italian and German, and a very elegant poet. He has just undertaken to become my French master for pronunciation, and he gives me long daily lessons in reading. Pray expect wonderful improvements! In return I hear him in English; and for his theme this evening he has been writing an English address à Mr. Burney (i.e., M. le Docteur), joining in Madame de Staël's request.

. . . "M. de Talleyrand insists on conveying [Page 120]  this letter to you. He has been on a visit here, and returns again on Wednesday. He is a man of admirable conversation, quick, terse, fin, and yet deep, to the extreme of those four words. They are a marvellous set for excess of agreeability."

Mr. and Mrs. Lock had gone to London for a visit of some weeks. Fanny writes to Mrs. Lock: "I quite fear with you that even the bas bleu will not recompense [you] for the loss of the Junipère society. It is, indeed, of incontestable superiority. But you must burn this confession, or my poor effigy will blaze for it. I must tell you of our proceedings, as they all relate to these people of a thousand.

"M. d'Arblay came from the melancholy sight of departing Norbury to Mickleham, and with an air the most triste, and a sound of voice quite dejected, as I learn from Susanna; for I was in my heroics and could not appear till the last half-hour. A headache prevented my waiting upon Madame de Staël that day, and obliged me to retreat soon after nine o'clock in the evening, and my douce compagne would not let me retreat alone. We had only robed ourselves in looser drapery, when a violent ringing at the bell startled us; we listened, and heard the voice of M. d'Arblay, and Jerry answering, 'They're gone to bed.' 'Comment? What?' cried he. 'C'est impossible. [Page 121]  What you say?' Jerry then, to show his new education in this new colony, said, 'Allée couchée!' It rained furiously, and we were quite grieved, but there was no help. He left a book for Mlle. Burnet, and word that Madame de Staël could not come on account of the bad weather. M. Ferdinand was with him, and has bewailed the disaster; and M. Sicard says he accompanied them till he was quite wet through his redingote; but this enchanting M. d'Arblay will murmur at nothing.

"The next day they all came just as we had dined for a morning visit - Madame de Staël, M. Talleyrand, M. Sicard, and M. d'Arblay; the latter then made insistance upon commencing my master of the language, and I think he will be almost as good a one as the little Don.[1]

"M. de Talleyrand opened at last with infinite wit and capacity. Madame de Staël whispered me, 'How do you like him?' 'Not very much,' I answered, 'but I do not know him.' 'O, I assure you,' cried she, 'he is the best of men.' I was happy not to agree . . . . She read the noble tragedy of 'Tancrede' till she blinded us all round. She is the most charming person, to use her own phrase, 'that never I saw.'

. . . "We called yesterday noon upon Madame de Staël and sat with her till three o'clock, only [Page 122]  the little Don being present. She was delightful; yet I see much uneasiness hanging over the whole party from the terror that the war may stop all remittances. Heaven forbid!

Thursday, Mickleham.

"I have been scholaring all day and mastering too, for our lessons are mutual, and more entertaining than can easily be conceived. My master of the language says he dreams of how much more solemnly he shall write to charming Mrs. Lock after a little more practice.

"Madame de Staël has written me two English notes, quite beautiful in ideas, and not very reprehensible in idiom. But English has nothing to do with elegance such as theirs - at least, little and rarely."

Here are these two notes -

"When J learned to read English," she writes, "J begun by milton, to know all or renounce at all in once. J follow the same system in writing my first English letter to Miss burney; after such an enterprize nothing can affright me. J feel for her so tender a friendship that it melts my admiration, and impresses me with the idea that in a tongue even unknown J could express sentiments so deeply felt.

"My servant will return for a french answer. J entreat Miss burney to correct the words but to preserve the sense of that card. [Page 123] 

"best compliments to my dear protectress, Madame Phillipe."

And after hearing from Fanny she writes again

"Your card in french, my dear, has already something of your grace in writing english; it is Cecilia translated. My only correction is to fill the interruptions of some sentences, and J put in them kindnesses for me . . . let me speak upon a grave subject: do J see you that morning? What news from Captain Phillip? when do you come spend a large week in that house? every question requires an exact answer; a good also. My happiness depends on it, and J have for pledge your honour.

"Good morrow and farewell."

Fanny writes to Mrs. Lock: "It is inconceivable what a convert M. de Talleyrand has made of me; I think him now one of the first members, and one of the most charming of this exquisite set; Susanna is as complete a proselyte. His powers of entertainment are astonishing, both in information and raillery . . . . We dined and stayed till midnight at Junipère on Tuesday, and I would I could recollect but the twentieth part of the excellent things that were said. Madame de Staël read us the opening of her work 'Sur le bonheur'; it seems to me admirable. M. de Talleyrand avowed he had met with nothing better thought or more ably expressed; it contains [Page 124]  the most touching allusions to their country's calamities."

Dr. Burney was now becoming rather uneasy at his daughter's growing intimacy with Madame de Staël, about whom some foolish gossiping stories had reached his ears. These stories, it seems, were circulated by the French Refugees of the ultra-royalist party who were in high favour at our English Court. Their hatred of Necker, the Minister who had deprived them of their pensions and of their ancient privileges, had descended to his daughter, and no words were strong enough to express their ill-will. Dr. Burney, though but half crediting these rumours, writes to give Fanny a word of warning and to advise her, if possible, to avoid paying the proposed visit to Madame de Staël.

"I am both hurt and astonished," exclaims Fanny in her reply, "at the acrimony of malice; indeed, I believe all this party to merit nothing but honour, compassion and praise. Madame de Staël . . . entered into the opening of the Revolution just as her father entered into it; but as to her house having become the centre of the Revolutionists before the 10th of August, it was so only for the Constitutionalists, who at that period were not only members of the then established Government, but the decided friends of the King. The aristocrats were then already banished, or [Page 125]  wanderers from fear, or concealed and silent from cowardice; and the Jacobins - I need not, after what I have already related, mention how utterly abhorrent to her must be that fiend-like set.

"The aristocrats, however, as you well observe and as she has herself told me, hold the Constitutionalists in greater horror than the Convention itself. This, however, is a violence against justice, which cannot, I hope, be lasting; and the malignant assertions which persecute her, all of which she has lamented to us, she imputes equally to the bad and virulent of both these parties.

"The intimation concerning M. de N. was, however, wholly new to me, and I do firmly believe it a gross calumny . . . . She loves him even tenderly, but so openly, so simply, so unaffectedly, and with such utter freedom from all coquetry, that if they were two men, or two women, the affection could not, I think, be more obviously undesigning. She is very plain, he is very handsome; her intellectual endowments must be with him her sole attraction.

"M. de Talleyrand is another of her society, and she seems equally attached to him. M. le Viscomte de Montmorenci she loves, she says, as her brother; he is another of this bright constellation, and esteemed of excellent capacity . . . . In short, her whole coterie live together as brethren. Madame la Marquise de la Châtre, who has lately [Page 126]  returned to France . . . is a bosom friend of Madame de Staël and of all this circle; she is reckoned a very estimable as well as fashionable woman; and a daughter of the unhappy Montmorin, who was killed on the 1st of September, is another of this set. Indeed, I think you could not spend a day with them and not see that their commerce is that of pure but exalted and most elegant friendship."

In spite of this warm defence of Madame de Staël's character and conduct, the visit to Juniper Hall was not paid. Fanny, who all her life had been accustomed to bow to her father's wishes, would not oppose them now, and having at the same time heard that Dr. Burney was out of health she hastened her return to Chelsea.

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Footnotes

[Page 121]

1 Mr. Clark.

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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