Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.
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.
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’. 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.
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’.
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’.
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’.
 Barlow’s letter is in the British Library, Egerton MS 3698, ff. 19r‒20v.
My dear Daddy,
I was extremely happy at the Receipt of your last
Letter, because you assure me you are not angry with me,
though, believe me, I cannot with unconcern Read your cautions
& prognostics. I am not triumphant – but I am not desponding;
& I must again repeat what I have so often had the hardiesse
to say, that I have no idea why the a single Life may not be
happy. Liberty is not without its value – with women as well
as with men, though it has not equal recommendations for
both, – & I hope never without a prospect brighter to myself
to lose mine: & I have no such prospect in view.
Had I ever hesitated about Mr Barlow, your advice, my
dear sir, would have turned the Balance on his side; but I
never did or could. So now to other matters.
Our Concert proved to be very much the Thing: The
Company consisted of
The Baron Deiden, the Danish Ambassadour.
The Baronness, his Lady. She is young, pretty, well made,
polite & amiable. We were all charmed with her.
Miss Phipps, sister of the famous Capt. Phipps. & Daughter
of Lord Mulgrave. She is a very sweet Girl. Her Face is not
handsome, but full of Expression & intelligence. She is arch,
clever, & Engaging.
Sir James & Lady Lake. You have already had my opinion
of this Couple, which is not at all altered.
Miss Lake, sister of Sir James. A very agreeable old maid.
I respect & admire – & wish to imitate her.
Sir Thomas Clarges. He is just returned from Italy, whither
he was sent by his Relations, upon account of a violent
passion which he had for Miss Linley, now Mrs Sheridan; he is
a very Tall youth, & has not by his Travels lost his native
bashfulness & shyness.
Mr Harris of Salisbury, author of 3 Treatises, on Happiness,
music, &c & of some other Books, particularly one just pub-
-lished, called Philosophical arrangements. He is a Charming
old man, – well bred even to humility, gentle in his manner,
& communicative & agreeable in his Conversation.
Mrs Harris, his wife. A so, so, sort of woman.
Miss ˄Louisa Harris, his Daughter. She has a bad figure, & is not
handsome. She is reserved, modest & sensible. She has Acquired
a name as a lady singer, & is a scholar of Sacchini's.
Mr Earl. A very musical man.
Mrs Ord, a very musical woman.
Miss Ord, a fine Girl, but totally inanimate & insipid.
Mr Merlin, the very ingenious mechanic, who is also a very xxxxx
entertaining character. There is a simplicity so unaffected & so
uncommon, in his manners & Conversation that his Company
always gives me xxxxxx amusement. He ˄ utters xxxxx his opinion upon all
subjects, & about all persons without the least disguise; he
is humbly grateful for all civility that ˄ he receives xxxxxxxxxxxxxx,
but at the same Time, he shews and honest & warm resent-
-ment if he meets with any slight. He pronounces English
very comically, for though he is never at a loss for a
word, he almost always puts the accent emphasis on the wrong syllable.
Mr Jones, a Welch Harper. A silly young man.
Miss Harrison. Daughter of the late Commodore Harrison.
She is rather pretty, very young, proud, I believe, & uninteresting.
Mr Burney, Hetty, & our Noble Selves bring up the Rear.
The Company in general came early, & there was a
great deal of Conversation before any music; but as the
party was too large for a general Chatterment, we were obliged
to make parties with our next Neighbours. I had the satisfac-
=tion of having Mr Harris for mine till the Concert began.
As we had no violins, we were obliged to be contented
without any overture; & the Concert was opened by Mr Buirney
at the desire of the Baroness Deiden. He Fired away, with
his usual successful velocity, to the amazement & delight
of all present, particularly of the Baroness, who is
a very celebrated lade performer; – it was to her that
Boccherini & Eichner, whose Lessons you have so very
much admired, Dedicated their music, as have many other
Composers of less merit.
Mr Burney played a Concerto of Schobert, & one
of my Father’s , & a great deal of Extemporary Preluding.
When he rose, my Father partitioned the Baroness to take
his seat – o no! she would not hear of it – she said it
would be like a Figurante’s Dancing after Mlle Heinel! –
Miss Phipps joined violently in intreating her, & the Baron
seemed to wish her to comply – & she was at length prevailed
with. She played a Lesson of Schobert. I think her the best
lady player I ever heard. She is a good musician, – does not
blunder or make false steps, – has a remarkable strong left
Hand – & plays with much meaning, as well as Execution.
She is, at the same Time, so modest & unassuming,
& so pretty, that she was the general object of admiration.
When my Father went to Thank her, she said she had
never been so frightened before in her life.
My Father begged her to favour us with something else.
She was going to play again – but the Baron, looking at
my sister Hetty, said – “après, ma chere.” “Eh bein, cried Miss
Phipps, who is her intimated friend, après Madame Burney.”
She immediately, & very gracefully rose, & gave her place to
Hetty, who, to avoid the appearance of emulation, with great
propriety chose to begin with a slow movement, as the
Baroness had ˄been Exerting all her Execution.
She played your bit of Echard. & I may safely say that
I never heard her play it better, if so well; Merlin’s Harpsi-
-chord made it divine – & the Expression, feeling & Taste with
which she performed it raised a general murmur of applause
& satisfaction from all. Mr Harris enquired eagerly whose
it was? Every body seemed to feel & to be enchanted with
it. If a Pin had dropt, it would have made a Universal
start! Every one was silent, attentive, & pleased.
After this, she played a very difficult Lesson of my
Father's; but she was flurried, & niether did that or herself
At my Father's request, Miss Harris then consented to sing.
Her Father accompanied her on the Piano Forte. She
sung a most beautiful slow song of Sacchini's, which has
never been printed but which we remembered having
formerly heard him sing. She has very little voice,
scarce any, indeed, – having niether power, compass, or sweetness,
and yet – which is wonderful – her singing gave us all
pleasure! She is extremely well taught, & makes up for the
deficiencies of Nature by the acquirements of Art; for she
sings with great Taste & feeling, & in an excellent style.
She protested she was more frightened at singing to such
an audience, than she should have been in a Theatre.
She consented, however, to sing another Air, when somewhat
recovered: & she gave us a new & favourite Rondeau of
Rauzzini's, which he sings in the New opera of Piramo & Tisbè.
After this, followed the great Gun of the Concert, namely
a Harpsichord Duet between Mr Burney & my sister. 68
It is the Noblest Composition that was ever made I do think.
They came off with flying Colours – Nothing could exceed the
general applause. Mr Harris was in extacy; Sr James Lake
who is silent & xxx broke forth into the warmest expressions
of delight – Lady Lake, more prone to be pleased, was quite in
raptures – the charming Baroness repeatedly declared she had
never been at so agreeable a Concert before; & many said
They had never heard music till then.
What would I give that you could hear it? It is not
possible for Instrumental music to be more finished.
The Baroness was then again Called upon – but she
excused herself from playing any more – &, with the Baron
& Miss Phipps, soon after took her leave.
I quite forgot to speak of Mr Jones, who played upon
a Harp with new pedals constructed by Mr Merlin:
it is a sweet Instrument. He plays very well, he is
precisely neat, & has a good deal of Execution: but the
poor young man has no soul to spare for his playing.
The Concert concluded by another song from Miss Harris,
it was a Bravura, a MS. of Sacchini's. A fine song, &
very well sung.
The Company XXXXXXX went away to all appearances
extremely well pleased; & we who remained at Home were
in all reality the same. We kept Mr Merlin to supper, & we had much amusement in hearing his Comments.
So much for our Concert.
I was truly sorry to hear of your Illness. My father does not remember how the fixed (air) was managed & confined, but he has written to Mr Bewley, since I asked the Question, & has enquired the particulars of him; whenever an answer arrives, I will immediately acquaint you with it. Whether it is to be bought, & all that, my Father cannot, of his own Head, tell. I hope it will not be long ere we hear from Mr Bewley.
My Father desires his kind Love to you but fears it will be impossible as he must go to sea Bathing & as he cannot leave Town at all till his Book is published. However, he very much wishes to see you, & says that if he possibly can get to you for one Day or so, he will spare no Pains to procure himself that satisfaction.
As to my mother she talks of certainly going to Chesington for a few Days during the summer.
The Rishtons were in Town only a week. They are very well & very comfortable. They are gone to make a Tour to Wales & will return through Town in about a month.
Poor Barsanti is still a bit indifferent, though much better she has been. Her Benefit proved a very good one, though inferior to her 2 former ones which I attribute to her not acting. She goes next week to Bristol, where she is engaged in Reddish's Company of comedians.
Mr. Twiss has never Entered the House, in spite of repeated endeavours. His Travels proved to be very dull & dry, he was so fearful of his natural flightiness being perceived, that he has cut out every thing that could have been entertaining, & left nothing but tame description.
Dr. Johnson, with much less materials, has built a Book worth a million of Mr. Twiss's.
And now, my dear Mr Crisp, I am going to ask your
advice, for I am in some perplexity. – all concerning this Mr Barlow.
My Grandmother, 2 aunts & sister spent the Day acquaint you with us last
Wednesday. They told me that my Cold was very well swallowed at
XXXXXX & that Mr Barlow was immensely shocked, & all that. –
My Aunt Beckey teized me to Dink Tea with her the next Day –
I was engaged, & could not, but said I would on Saturday.
Accordingly I went. I ran up stairs, as usual – but when I
opened the Door, the first object I saw was Mr Barlow. I
was much surprised, & rather provoked, fearing that my aunt
Beckey, whose Temper is much superior to her Understanding,
had purposely led me to this meeting. You will believe I was
tolerably shy & forbidding, at first, but afterwards I tried to
behave as if I had never received his Letter, & it was not
difficult to me to appear quite unconcerned, & as usual.
I made my visit XXXXX very short, & was hurrying away as soon as Tea was over
when I found that I should not be allowed to go
XXXXXXXXXX had I slipt out, he would have followed me. I therefore sat down
again determined to wait till he went, or till I was sent for by the Mama.
I have since XXXX wished that I had let him have
his way ˄& speak to me – & ˄had answered him, – to End the affair
for ever. But at the Time, I really had not sufficient
presence of mind: – he appeared so humbly at my service, that
I dreaded lest, in the fear of being impertinent, I should be
involved in some scrape from being civil; – in short, I much
wished to avoid a private Conversation in which I could hear
nothing that would be agreeable to me, & could say nothing
that would not be highly disagreeable to him. – I am heartily
sorry his Letter was not answered at once. It is now too late
to take any Notice of it. He was excessively urgent with
my Grandmother to fix a Day for another visit to ˄Mrs O’Connors XXXXX
with me; & he entreated me not to have a Cold then!
I laughed the Cold off as well as I could, but would by no
means promise to be of the Party – niether, indeed, would I do
any single thing that he requested, lest he should construe
even common complaisance into a wish of obliging him.
I should be quite sorry for the apparent seriousness of
this young man's attachment, but that I am pretty persuaded
what so easily came, will without difficulty depart.
I hope – as I endeavoured – that my general manner has
convinced him of his having chosen ill. Nevertheless, – I
beg you to advise me what to do whether to go to ˄ Mrs O’Connor XXXXXX
& force myself to say (as Lord Ogleby Expresses it) shocking
things to Him – or whether to avoid him totally & hope
the affair will stop as it is? I don’t care to say any
thing more to my Father about it. – I could not resist him.
[vertically in the centre of the paper]
Saml. Crisp Esqr
At Mrs Hamilton’s
[horizontally to the right of the address]
May 5th. 8th. 12th
[the body of the letter continued]
I certainly ought not to keep ˄Mr. B. XXXX in suspense, if it
is possible he can think himself so. Pray Instruct me only
remember that I am fixed.
Adieu my dear sir, I am now and ever
Most faithfully & truly yours,
28 March 1777
My dear Daddy,
I might still have (remained) at Chesington, for any thing that concerns my Uncle, for he is not yet arrived, niether have we heard a Word about or from him since I came. I am abominably provoked at having been cheated of so much Time, & so much comfort. We both (have), & do, expect Daily to see him, yet I have lost a Week (about it), come when he will-besides, I am in a most (vexing) uncertainty in regard to my Journey, Nothing has been said of it here, so that I know not, yet, whether I shall (be a Worsted Stocking, or not.
My dear Father XXXXXX seemed well pleased at
my returning to my Time: & that is no small consola-
tion & pleasure to me. So now to our Thursday morning
Mrs & Miss Thrale, Miss Owen & Mr. Seward came
long before Lexaphanes; – Mrs. Thrale is a very pretty
woman still, – she is extremely lively and chatty, – has no
supercilious or pedantic airs, & is really gay and agreeable.
Her Daughter is about 12 years old, &, ˄ stiff & proper I believe, ˄ or else shy & reserved: I don’t yet know which. not all together so amiable as her mother. Miss Owen, who
is a Relation, is good humoured & sensible enough;
she is a sort of Butt, & as such general favourite:
for those sort of characters are prodigiously useful
in drawing out the Wit & pleasantry of others: Mr.
Seward is a very polite, agreeable young man:
My sister ˄ Burney was invited to meet & play, to them.
The Conversation was supported with a good deal
of vivacity – (N.B. my Father being at Home) for about
half an Hour, & then Hetty & Suzette, for the first Time in
public, played Duet & in the midst of this performance,
Dr. Johnson was announced.
He is indeed, very ill favoured, – he is tall & stout, but
stoops terribly: – he is almost bent double. His mouth is almost
in perpetual motion, ˄ constantly opening & shutting as if he was chewing; – he has a strange
method of frequently twirling his Fingers, & twisting his
Hands; –nhis Body is in continual agitation, see sawing
up & down; his Feet are never a moment quiet, – &, in short,
his whole person is in perpetual motion:
His Dress, too, considering the Times, & that he had
meant to put on his best becomes, being engaged to
Dine in a large Company, was as much out of the
common Road as his Figure: he had a large Wig,
snuff colour coat, & Gold Buttons; but no Ruffles to his
Wrist, & Black Worsted Stockings – so, you see, there is another Worsted
˄ doughty fists and black worsted stockings. Stocking Knave, besides me, that's my comfort.
He is shockingly near sighted, & did not, till she held
out her Hand to him, even know Mrs. Thrale. He poked his
Nose over the keys of the Harpsichord, till the Duet was
finished, & then, my Father introduced Hetty to him, as
an old acquaintance, & he ˄ cordially instantly kissed her! When
she was a little girl, he had made her a present of the Idler
His attention, however, was not to be diverted five
minutes from the Books, as we were in the Library;
he poured over them ˄ shelf by shelf, almost brushing the Backs of them, with
his Eye lashes, as he read their Titles; at last, having fixed
upon one, he began, without further ceremony, to Read,
˄ to himself all the time standing at a distance from the Company.
We were ˄ all very much provoked, as we perfectly languished
to hear him talk; but, it seems, he is the most silent
creature, when not particularly drawn out, in the World.
My sister then played another Duet, with my Father:
but Dr. Johnson was so deep in the Encyclopedie, that, as he
is very deaf, I question if he even knew what was going
forward. When this was over, Mrs. Thrale, in a laughing
manner, said “Pray, Dr. Burney, can you tell me what that
song was, & whose, which Savoi sung last night at Bach's
Concert, & which you did not hear?” My Father confessed
himself by means so good a Diviner, not having
had Time to consult the stars, though in the House of
Sir Isaac Newton. However wishing to draw Dr. Johnson
into some Conversation, he told him the Question. The
Doctor, seeing his drift, good naturedly put away his
Book, & said very drolly “And pray, Sir – Who is Bach? –
is he a Piper?” – Many exclamations of surprise,
you will believe, followed this Question. “Why you have
Read his name often in the papers,” said Mrs. Thrale;
& then ˄ she gave him some account of his Concert, & the
number of fine performances she had heard at it.
“Pray,” said he ˄ gravely, “Madam, what is the Expence?"
“O,” answered she, “much trouble & solicitation to get
a subscriber's Ticket; – or else half a Guinea.”
“Trouble & solicitation,” said he, “I will have nothing
to do with; – but I would be willing to give Eighteen Pence."
Chocolate being then brought, we adjourned to
the Drawing Room. And here, Dr. Johnson, being taken
from the Books, entered freely & most cleverly into con-
=versation: though it is remarkable, that he never
speaks at all, but when spoken to; nor does he
ever start, though he so admirably supports any
The whole party was engaged to Dine at Mrs. Mon-
-tague's: Dr. Johnson said he had received the most
flattering note he had ever read, or ˄ that any body else
had ever Read, by way of invitation. “Well, so have
I, too,” cried Mrs. Thrale, “so if a note from Mrs. Montague
is to be boasted of, I beg mine may not be forgot.”
“Your note,” cried Dr. Johnson, “can bear no comparison
with mine: – I am at the Head of Philosophers; she says.”
“And I,” cried Mrs. Thrale, “have all the muses in
“A fair Battle,” said my Father; “come, Compliment
for Compliment, & see who will hold out longest.”
“O, I am afraid for Mrs. Thrale!” cried Mr. Seward,
“for I know Mrs. Montague exerts all her forces when
she attacks Dr. Johnson.”
“O yes,” said Mrs. Thrale, “she has often, I know, flattered
him till he has been ready to Faint.”
“Well, Ladies,” said my Father, “You must get him
between you to Day, & see which can lay on the paint
thickest, Mrs. Thrale or Mrs. Montague.”
“I had rather,” cried the Doctor ˄ drily, “go to Bach's Concert!”
After this, they talked of Mr. Garrick, & his late
Exhibition XX before the King, to whom, & ˄ to the Queen & Royal
Family, he read Lethe, in character, c'est à dire, in different
Voices, & Theatrically. Mr. Seward gave us an account
of a Fable, which Mr. Garrick had written, by way of
Prologue, or Introduction, upon the occasion: In this, he
says, that a Black Bird, grown old & feeble, droops his
Wings, &c, &c, & gives up singing; but, being called upon
by the Eagle, his Voice recovers its powers, his spirits revive,
he sets age at defiance, & sings better than ever. The
application is obvious.
“There is not,” said Dr. Johnson, “much of the spirit
of Fabulosity in this Fable; for the call of an Eagle
never yet had much tendency to restore the voice of a
Black Bird! 'Tis true, the Fabulists frequently make the
Wolves converse with the Lambs, – but, when the conversa-
-tion is over, the Lambs are sure to be Eaten! – & so,
the Eagle may entertain the Black Bird, – but the En-
-tertainment always ends in a Feast for the Eagles!'
“They say,” cried Mrs. Thrale, “that Garrick was
extremely hurt at the coolness of the King’s applause,
& did not find his reception such as he expected.”
“He has been so long accustomed,” said Mr. Seward,
“to the Thundering approbation of the Theatre, that a
mere very well, must necessarily & naturally disappoint
“Sir,” said Dr. Johnson, “he should not, in a Royal ap-
-artment, expect the hallowing & clamour of the one shil-
-ling gallery. The King, I doubt not, gave him as much
applause as was rationally his due: &, indeed, great &
uncommon as is the merit of Mr. Garrick, no man will
be bold enough to assert that he has not had his
just proportion both of Fame & Profit: he has long
reigned the unequaled favourite of the public, – &
therefore, nobody will mourn his hard fate, if the King,
& the Royal Family, were not transported into rap-
-ture, upon hearing him Read Lethe. Yet, Mr. Garrick
will complain to his Friends, & his Friends will lament
the King's want of feeling & taste; – & then, Mr. Garrick
will ˄ kindly excuse the King! he will say that ˄ his majesty he might be
thinking of something else; – that the affairs of Ameri-
-ca might occur to him, – or some subject of more impor-
-tance than Lethe; – but though he will say this him this himself,
he will not forgive his Friends, if they do not contradict
But now, that I have written this satire, it is
but just both to Mr. Garrick, & to Dr. Johnson, to tell
you what he said of him afterwards, when he discriminated
his character with equal candour & humour.
“Garrick,” said he, “is accused of vanity; – but few men
would have borne such unremitting prosperity with
greater, if with equal moderation: he is accused, too,
of avarice, – but, were he not, he would be accused of just
the contrary, for he now Les rather as a prince, than as
an Actor: but the frugality he practiced when he first
appeared in the World, & which, even then, was perhaps
˄ was not beyond his necessity, has marked his character ever
since; & now, though his Table, his Equipage, & manner
of Living, are all the most expensive, and equal
to those of a Nobleman, yet the original stain still
blots his name, – though yet had he not fixed upon himself
the charge of Avarice, he would, long since, have been
reproached with ˄ that of luxury, & with living beyond his
station in magnificence & splendour.”
Another Time, he said of him “Garrick never en-
-ters a Room, but he regards himself as the object of
general attention, & from whom the Entertainment
of the Company is expected, – & true it is, that he seldom d
isappoints them; for he has infinite humour, a very just
proportion of Wit, & more convivial pleasantry than almost
any other man ˄ living. But then, off, as well as on the stage, he
is always an Actor! for he thinks it so incumbent upon him
to be sportive, that his gaity becomes mechanical, ˄ from being as it is
habitual, & ˄ he can exert his spirits at all Times alike, with-
-out consulting his real Disposition to hilarity.”
I am very sorry that I cannot possibly finish
this account, ˄ but for I am Bothered to Death – my Uncle is
just come, – ˄ & Cousins James & Becky are with him – & all ˄ are bent upon my returning with them.
I intended a very long Letter, but have not any Time.
A thousand thanks for yours, which I have just recd.
I wish to Heaven I could answer it as I ought – but I
foresee I shall have no leisure this Age.
Your letter diverted me highly for 'tis the most honest & un
Your kindness is more grateful to me, than I can
Express, – I am monstrous glad you missed me XXXXX
Adieu my dearest Sir, – a thousand loves & compliments
To Mrs. H. & Kitty, & believe me, with all affection & gratitude
Yours ever Frances Burney