Monday, August 17, 2015

"their most recreative & dulcet croaking"

At the LRB, Tom Keymer on the latest edited volume of Burney's court journals (subscriber only):
Burney’s writing process was highly self-conscious. There are what she calls her ‘alives’: brief letters to intimates, typically functional, often dashed off in lulls during attendance on the queen. Then there are her daily memoranda: candid, fragmentary but copious notes on court life – ‘memoranduming scraps’, she calls them at one point – which she then wrote up. The memoranda are intensely private, but dried up at times of emotional strain, such as the death of Delany. The missing experiences were reconstructed in retrospect: ‘a general sketch’, she calls her account of one month, ‘for I kept no journal, not even a memorandum’. She abandoned the memoranda when the king’s first bout of madness disrupted the life of the court. ‘I have now no more fair running Journal – I kept not now even a memorandum for some time – but I made them by recollection afterwards, & very fully, for not a circumstance could escape a memory that seemed now to retain nothing but present events.’ There’s something novelistic in the mismatch between tense and deixis (‘I kept not now … a memory that seemed now’). Often the journals were written up a year or more after the events they describe, then immediately sent to Susanna, who received the journals for November and December 1788, for example, in January and February 1790. The immediacy is still there in them: they often portray a writer grappling with unresolved experience, ‘tormented with a sort of indefinable perplexity’. But they also possess a layer of considered analysis; and though Burney always resists explicit prolepsis, sometimes they’re coloured by events that have taken place between the original memorandum and its revision. ‘Troublous Times’ (from the Book of Daniel) is her summary comment in the December journal on the king’s descent into madness, which was already destabilising state affairs. But the institution of monarchy was in much deeper trouble in 1790 when Burney wrote those words. The Gothic style of her response to George’s condition – ‘nothing before us but despair & horrour!’ – has an unmistakable, albeit implicit, political inflection.

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