A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter XV." 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 146]



CHESINGTON HALL, the home of her "Daddy Crisp," was dear to the heart of Fanny Burney. There her father during his widowhood used to take "his delighted children to enjoy the society of that most valued friend," and so complete was the enjoyment of young and old on these occasions that "in this long-loved rural abode," says Fanny, "the Burneys and happiness seemed to make a stand."

"The old Hall," she tells us, "had been built upon a large, lone and nearly desolate common; and no regular road, or even track, to the mansion from Epsom (the nearest town) had been spared from its encircling ploughed fields or fallow ground." So isolated, indeed, was its position that strangers could not reach it without a guide, and to Dr. Burney alone, among his former friends and acquaintance, had Crisp confided the clue which would enable him to discover the route. Crisp had fixed his abode in Chesington Hall [Page 147]  that he might be far removed from all contact with the world and its disappointments; but he had not shut out his heart from human love and sympathy, nor his mind from intellectual influences. He was, as Macaulay has said, "a scholar, a thinker, and an excellent counsellor," and he became, by common consent, the family adviser of the Burney household, while his solitary home came to be their holiday resort.


Fanny from early girlhood had been accustomed to write long letters to her Chesington "Daddy" to while away his lonely hours by accounts of the various gatherings in the little parlour of her home in St. Martin's Street, where distinguished singers, and statesmen and women of fashion all thronged to wait upon the author of the "History of Music." In after life Fanny entered in one of her notebooks [Page 148]  the following memorandum: "A charge delivered to me by our dear vehement Mr. Crisp at the opening of my juvenile correspondence with him: 'Harkee, you little monkey! dash away whatever comes uppermost; if you stop to consider either what you say, or what may be said of you, I would not give one fig for your letters."'

In describing the interior of Chesington Hall, Fanny dwells affectionately upon every detail - nothing is omitted; not a "nook or corner; nor a dark passage leading to nothing; nor a hanging tapestry of prim demoiselles and grim cavaliers; nor a tall canopied bed tied up to the ceiling; nor Japan cabinets of two or three hundred drawers of different dimensions; nor an oaken corner-cupboard, carved with heads, thrown in every direction, save such as might let them fall on men's shoulders; nor a window stuck in some angle close to the ceiling of a lofty slip of a room; nor a quarter of a staircase leading to some quaint unfrequented apartment; nor a wooden chimney-piece, cut in diamonds, squares and round nobs, surmounting another of blue and white tiles, representing vis-à-vis a dog and a cat, as symbols of married life and harmony."

At the end of a long passage on the first storey, running from the front to the back of the house, there was a small room which Mr. Crisp had named the "Conjuring Closet," for there his [Page 149]  friend Dr. Burney had written a large portion of his "History of Music"; delighting in the quiet and seclusion of Chesington for his literary work.

It was at Chesington that Fanny was staying in July 1778, when the sudden and unlooked for success of "Evelina" became known to her. No one out of her own family had been let into the secret of its authorship, not even her "Daddy Crisp." She revered him too highly as a literary critic to venture to show him her "little book which she had written simply for her private recreation," and had "printed for a frolic."

One morning a packet was put into her hands containing a letter from her father, who had just read "Evelina" for the first time, full of the warmest expressions in its favour. This letter was accompanied by the astonishing intelligence that Dr. Johnson was its ardent and outspoken admirer, that "Sir Joshua Reynolds had been fed while reading the little work, even refusing to quit it at table," and that Edmund Burke had sat up a whole night to finish it! "All this," writes Fanny, "so struck, so nearly bewildered the author, that, seized with a fit of wild spirits, and not knowing how to account for the vivacity of her emotion to Mr. Crisp, she darted out of the room, in which she had read the tidings by his side, to a small lawn before the window, where she danced lightly, blithely, gaily, around a large old mulberry-tree [Page 150]  as impulsively and airily as she had often done in her days of adolescence."

We have visited Chesington and have seen that very tree, which stands on the lawn strong and healthy as ever. As we gazed upon its spreading branches, the whole scene rose before our eyes, and we danced, in spirit, with Fanny on that eventful morning.


Three years later she was ensconced at Chesington writing her novel of "Cecilia." All was going well, when an urgent summons came from the outer world, in the shape of a letter from Mrs. Thrale, to call her away. Fanny obeyed, and soon afterwards, on the sudden death of Mr. Thrale, accompanied his widow to Streatham, and there remained for a long period to comfort [Page 151]  and cheer her, Meanwhile the MS. lay at Chesington untouched, and Fanny's two fathers became uneasy on the subject. Urged by Crisp, Dr. Burney agreed to recall his daughter, but he found himself powerless against the "self-willed little lady of Thrale Place," so Daddy Crisp himself came to the rescue. He made the journey to Streatham in spite of his infirmities, carried his point with Mrs. Thrale, and "bore off his young friend to the quiet and exclusive possession of the Doctor's Conjuring Closet at Chesington!" Early in the following year the book was published.

When Fanny, in the summer of 1793, had resorted to her second home for quiet and tranquillity, in order to consider the great question of M. d'Arblay's proposal, her beloved "Daddy" was no more. He had died ten years before that period, deeply mourned by the whole Burney family. Fanny's hosts were now an aged lady - Mrs. Hamilton - and her younger companion, Kitty Cook, who had for many years occupied a part of the old Hall. "Miss Kitty Cook still amuses me very much," writes Fanny, "by her incomparable dialect; and by her kindness and friendliness I am taken the best care of imaginable."

Fanny mentions the "Mount," a hillock on the edge of the garden commanding a wide view. [Page 152]  Here, in a rustic arbour, fashioned like a beehive, she had found in former days a retreat in which to compose much of "Evelina." Two giant elms sheltered the summer-house and formed a landmark at a distance of sixteen miles. Here Fanny


could see on the horizon the trees of Norbury Park. The "Mount" and its thatched arbour are unchanged, but one of the great elms has disappeared.

In describing the Hall to a friend, she speaks of its "insulated and lonely position, its dilapidated state, its nearly inaccessible roads, its quaint old [Page 153]  pictures, and straight long garden paths." We have trod those garden paths. They are of the softest mown grass, and are flanked by long beds, with high box edgings, full of old-fashioned flowers and fruit-trees. The very pictures are still to be seen hanging on the walls of a long corridor. They are portraits of the Hatton family, a member of which built the mansion in the reign of Henry VIII. The house, it is true, was rebuilt nearly a century ago, but it was re-built upon the old plan, so that the present building closely resembles the former one. A sketch from a contemporary drawing will show the reader the Chesington Hall of Crisp's day. Its "lonely position" is still maintained. Corn-fields and meadows surround it as of yore, and it is united with the outer world by shady lanes.

Whilst Fanny was endeavouring to solve her perplexities at Chesington, M. d'Arblay, who was suffering the pains of suspense, found a friendly comforter in Mrs. Phillips.

"At dinner came our Tio," she writes to her sister, "very bad indeed. After it we walked with the children to Norbury; but little Fanny was so well pleased with his society that it was impossible to get a word on any particular subject. I, however, upon his venturing to question me whereabouts was the campagne où se trouvait Mlle. Burnet, ventured de mon côté to speak the [Page 154]  name of Chesington, and give a little account of its inhabitants, the early love we had for the spot, our excellent Mr. Crisp, and your good and kind hostesses.

"He listened with much interest and pleasure, and said: 'Mais, ne pourrait on pas faire se petit voyage-là?'

"I ventured to say nothing encouraging, at least decisively, in a great measure upon the children's account, lest they should repeat; and, moreover, your little namesake seemed to me surprisingly attentive and éveillée, as if elle se doutoit de quelque chose.

"When we came home I gave our Tio some paper to write to you; it was not possible for me to add more than the address, much as I wished it."

Here is the account of M. d'Arblay's visit from Fanny herself. "I had prepared for it," she writes, "from the time of my own expectation, and I had much amusement in what the preparation produced. Mrs. Hamilton ordered half a ham to be boiled ready; and Miss Kitty trimmed up her best cap and tried it on, on Saturday, to get it in shape to her face. She made chocolate also, which we drank up on Monday and Tuesday because it was spoiling. 'I have never seen none of the French quality,' she says, 'and I have a purdigious curiosity; though as to dukes and [Page 155]  dukes' sons, and these high top captains, I know they'll think me a mere country bumpkin. Howsoever they can't call me worse than Fat Kit Square, and that's the worst name I ever got from any of our English pelite bears, which I suppose these pelite French quality never heard the like of.'

"Unfortunately, however, when all was prepared above, the French top captain entered while poor Miss Kitty was in dishbill, and Mrs. Hamilton finishing washing up her china after breakfast. A maid, who was out at the pump and saw the arrival, ran in to give Miss Kitty time to escape, for she was in her round dress nightcap and without her roll and curls. However, he followed too quick, and Mrs. Hamilton was seen in her linen gown and mob, though she had put on a silk one in expectation for every noon these four or five days past; and Miss Kitty was in such confusion, she hurried out of the room. She soon, however, returned, with the roll and curls, and the throat fashionably lost in a silk gown. And though she had not intended to speak a word, the gentle quietness of her guest so surprised and pleased her that she never quitted his side while he stayed, and has sung his praises ever since.

"Mrs. Hamilton, good soul! in talking and inquiring since of his history and conduct, shed [Page 156]  tears at the recital. She says now she has seen one of the French gentry that has been drove out of their country by the villains she has heard of, she shall begin to believe there really has been a Revolution! and Miss Kitty says, 'I purtest I did not know before, but it was all a sham.'"

[Window of the "Conjuring Closet" in Chesington Hall]


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Celebration of Women Writers.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom