Thrale to speak, Mrs. Thrale for the Bishop; so neither of them spoke at all. Montagu cared not a fig, as long a she spoke herself, and so harangued away.
Deborah Heller notes that Montagu's conversation was considered "masculine" and was "marked by a certain amount of aggressiveness. If Montagu was in the habit of referring to herself mockingly as a "witling" that may have been an inspiration for Burney's title.
Similarities between Lady Smatter and Lady Montagu are glaringly obvious. Montagu, like Smatter, had a dependent nephew when the play was written. She maintained control of her own family businesses after her husband's death and ran them with diligent attention. Burney's relationship to money is clearly expressed in her writing, particularly her characterization of Cecilia in The Witlings , and it is a possible partial explanation for her resentment toward Montagu. Burney wrote a novel called Cecilia shortly after the suppression of her play in which the title character is clearly a more fleshed out version of The Witlings 's Cecilia.
The Cecilia in Cecilia and Evelina in Evelina both possess fortunes by inheritance that they did not earn. Like The Witlings 's Cecilia, they lose everything through the incompetent administration of one, or a series of, men. In Burney's writing, women did not manage money, especially not on the large scale that Montagu managed her family fortune.
In her work, and decidedly in The Witlings , Burney vilifies the rich. Montagu was actively involved in improving labor practices at her family coal mines, investing intelligently in land management and financial planning for other family members. Censor says of her in Act III:. Heavens, that a woman whose utmost natural capacity will hardly enable her to understand The History of Tom Thumb , and whose comprehensive faculties would be absolutely baffled by the Lives of the Seven Champions of Christendom , should dare blaspheme the names of our noblest poets with words that convey no ideas, and sentences of which the sound listens in vain for the sense!
Satirically charging the greatest of the Blues with "blaspheming" the poets and "having no ideas" undermined the Bluestocking Circle's ambitions to champion women's educational and literary potential. Ultimately, Cecilia's salvation comes at the hands of men through the defeat and humiliation of another woman. If you insert Lady Montagu into the role of Lady Smatter in this comparison, then the message is clear: the Bluestockings with their pretentious ambitions to wield masculine-type influence in the world of literature must be thrown down so that the patriarchal monopoly on literary affairs can be maintained.
Burney's eyes were opened to the potentially damaging effect of her satire by her father, Dr. Charles Burney, and a clergyman who was a longtime friend of the Burney family, Samuel Crisp. Crisp wrote her a letter informing her that the subject she chose for her play was "invidious and cruel," and would be perceived as holding certain people "up to public Ridicule. Darby suggests that the sole reason Burney suppressed the piece was the disapproval of her father and Crisp. Burney wrote to Crisp in that since her play was "settled in its silent suppression," she had asked her father to visit Sheridan and tell him not to expect a manuscript.
Sheridan was pleased to express great concern, -- nay more, to protest he would not accept my refusal. He begged my father to tell me that he could take no denial to seeing what I had done -- that I could be no fair judge for myself.
The diary and letters of Frances Burney
Faced with Sheridan's insistence, Burney says that her father "ever easy to be worked upon, began to waver, and told me he wished I would show the play to Sheridan at once. Burney spent her last twenty years going through her manuscripts, voluminous diaries and correspondence and left behind only one manuscript of The Witlings in the Berg Collection. This might be a cut of extraneous dialogue at the beginning of Censor's entrance, but the X's do not indicate cuts anywhere else in the manuscript-- they only mark asides or in one instance seem to be merely doodles.
The marked section is the only place where there is overlapping dialogue by more than two people in the play, so the annotations may just have been an attempt to call attention to the overlap which is not indicated by stage directions. It is clear, in any case, that the pages of Act IV are unevenly trimmed. The first two pages are at least a quarter inch shorter than the rest of the act. The majorityof the rest of the pages are curled at the edges, suggesting they were all once part of the same folded folio Acts I and II are preserved, uncut, in similar folios.
And this indicates that there were very likely revisions made to the Act from the original. But the purposes of the revisions aren't clear. Burney would eventually write seven plays, but see only one of them performed, Edwy and Elgiva , which was savaged by the critics, ending what might otherwise have been a notable playwriting career.
Person Jr. Darby contends that in later life Burney regretted the decision to suppress The Witlings.
Notes Burney made on her correspondence characterize her father's and Crisp's critique as "severe" and called attention to the praise the script received from other reviewers. Perhaps most importantly, it preserved her reputation as a mentor for the next generation of women writers.
A Known Scribbler - Broadview Press
Jane Austen, a subscriber to Burney's serialized fiction, was enormously influenced by Burney's satires. The line providing Austen with her title may perhaps harken back to Burney's suppression of own play:. Janet Todd,. Frances Burney, Journals and Letters , pp. Sue-Ellen Case.
Feminism and Theatre , p. Burney, Journals and Letters , p. Journals and Letters , p. Ibid, p.
Barbara Darby. Frances Burney Dramatist , p. Aristotle, Poetics , Else trans. Frances Burney, The Witlings , p.
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Darby, Frances Burney Dramatist , pp. Burney, Journals and Letters , pp.
Frances Burney, Dramatist , p. Henry W. Thornton and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature. Conversation with the author. Darby, Frances Burney, Dramatist , p. James E. Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism. Frances Burney. Cecilia , p. Poetics , trans.
Gerald F. Barrett, Charlotte Frances, ed. London, England: H. Further information about the life of Frances Burney can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
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