Frances Burney kept a selection of her literary manuscripts in a battered brown envelope labelled ‘old composition odds’. As well as a draft introduction to her novel Cecilia, it might also have held these poems from Evelina (1778), which are bound in the same volume. There is a loving ode to her father, and two poems supposedly written by her character Mr Macartney. There are also two contemporary reviews of Evelina and Cecilia, carefully copied from periodicals. Together, they give us a glimpse of Burney’s first experiences as a professional author, treading a precarious path between deference to men and female independence.
Early reviews of Evelina
Three months after Evelina was published anonymously in January 1778, the first review appeared in the April Monthly Review. The reviewer pronounced the novel ‘sprightly, entertaining, & agreeable’, but questioned Burney’s characterisation of the boorish Captain Mirvan (f. 5r).
The second review shown here was written when Burney was famous, and it is notably more gendered in its response. While admiring her ‘genius’, ‘delicate humour and satire’, it describes her as ‘the fair Author’, commends the ‘modesty’ of her expression, and admits she is ‘not inferiour to [Henry] Fielding himself’ (f. 6r).
‘Oh Author of my Being’
When Burney wrote Evelina, she concealed it from her father Dr Charles Burney. Yet – perhaps through a sense of guilt ‒ she dedicated the novel to him, with an ode expressing her ‘filial love’. It was only six months later, when he read the Monthly Review, that he realised she was the writer and his eyes were filled with tears.
This manuscript contains two versions of the ode. The first is a draft, hastily scribbled at ‘4 in the morng’ (f. 74r‒v). It experiments with different ways of addressing her father ‒ ‘Friend of my Soul & Parent of my Heart’ or ‘Author of my being’. The other is a copy of the final published version, where Burney has fixed on ‘Author of my being’. The choice of the term ‘author’ suggests respect for her father as a kind of godlike creator, but it also subtly highlights her own role as an author.
Mr Macartney’s poems from Evelina
The final poems are ‘unfinished verses’ attributed to Mr Macartney, Evelina’s brooding half-brother. His first ode provokes Evelina’s sympathy ‒ ‘O Life! Thou lingering dream of grief’ (f. 77r‒v). The second one, written in Bristol, focusses only on her ‘beauteous face’ (f. 77v).