Letters from Frances Burney to Samuel Crisp, one defending the single life and the other describing Samuel Johnson


In these witty, personal letters, Frances Burney writes to Samuel Crisp (1707‒1783), the struggling playwright and family friend who became her second ‘daddy’. The letters raise thorny questions about marriage and independence, social performance and genuine feeling, which Burney explored in her fiction. In some places, Burney has scribbled through or crossed out large sections; elsewhere she has over-written the words to make them more legible. This reveals the extent to which she monitored and edited her own ideas and image.

A defence of the single life

In the first letter, Burney defends her choice to reject a marriage proposal and argues for the value of women’s liberty.

Burney met Thomas Barlow, when she was 22 and he was 24, at a family party on 1 May 1775. Four days later, he wrote to declare his love, admiring her ‘Affability, Sweetness & Sensibility’.[1] But Burney resisted Barlow’s attempts to idealise and pursue her. In this letter she says she has ‘no idea why the single Life may not be happy. Liberty is not without its value – with women as well as with men’. She would rather continue in her work as a scribe for her musicologist father than marry without affection. It was not until she was 41 that Burney married Alexandre D’Arblay and they had a son the next year.

‘Our Concert proved to be very much the thing’

Later in the letter, Frances describes a concert held by Dr Burney for a distinguished audience including the Danish ambassador. She offers witty portraits of the different characters: Charlotte Ord is ‘inanimate & insipid’ and Mary Lake is an ‘agreeable old maid. I … wish to imitate her’.

Samuel Johnson

In the second letter, Burney gives an irreverent description of Samuel Johnson, the famous writer and lexicographer.

On 27‒28 March 1777, Burney describes a ‘Thursday morning party’ at her father’s home, attended by Johnson, Hester Thrale and other members of their literary circle. These are Burney’s first impressions of the influential people who would help her achieve success after Evelina  was published in 1778.

Burney paints a compelling picture of the 67-year-old Johnson, ‘shockingly near sighted’, his ‘mouth ... almost constantly opening & shutting’ and his body ‘see sawing up & down’. He largely ignores the company, pouring over Burney’s books and ‘almost touching … them, with his Eye lashes’. Even when he joins the conversation, over chocolate in the dining room, he ‘never speaks at all, but when spoken to’.

David Garrick

Later, talk turns to the celebrity actor and playwright David Garrick, who has recently performed his own play Lethe, before the royal family. Garrick was reportedly ‘hurt at the coolness of the King’s applause’, and they discuss whether he’s guilty of ‘vanity’ and ‘avarice’.

[1] Barlow’s letter is in the British Library, Egerton MS 3698, ff. 19r‒20v.

Full title:
BARRETT COLLECTION. Vol. V (ff. 138). Correspondence of Frances d'Arblay with Samuel Crisp, dramatist; 1773-17 Oct. 1781.
1773-17 Oct 1781, London
Manuscript / Letter
Frances Burney, Also known as Fanny Burney
Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Held by
British Library
Egerton MS 3694

Full catalogue details

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