Home Forums Reading Group November 2020: Sarah Harriet Burney, ‘The Shipwreck’ in Tales of Fancy (1816), vol. 1

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    • Kim Simpson
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      Post count: 42

      Starter Questions

      • What literary influences do you think Burney is drawing on?
      • What did you make of the setting? Is this a novel that draws on its historical context?
      • What, if any, elements of the novel were realistic?
      • What did you make of the characterisation?
      • What purpose did the cross-dressing disguise of the heroine have here, and how does her reaction to it paint her as a character?
      • What is the role of desire here?
      • What sort of ideals is this novel promoting for men and women?
      • Is this novel Gothic? What sorts of threats exist to the protagonists and how are they managed?
      • What sorts of parents do we find in this novel?

    • Kim Simpson
      Forum Administrator
      Post count: 42

      Write Up: Chawton House Reading Group November 2020
      Trudie Messent

      Although Sarah Harriet Burney published two Tales of Fancy, we decided to concentrate on The Shipwreck, leaving The Tales of Fancy: Country Neighbours (1820) until later. Our discussion was wide ranging and will hopefully encourage you to read her Tales of Fancy without including any significant ‘spoilers’. My apologies to our group for any misrepresentations included here.

      Our reading group was organized and led by Dr Kim Simpson, Chawton House Library Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature at the University of Southampton. It was also of benefit to our discussion that one member had previously undertaken research on Sarah Harriet Burney.

      Our reading group was generally very appreciative, observing that after the first few chapters it developed into a ‘page turner’, reminiscent of a modern action book. Participants remarked on parallels to our current restricted lifestyle and to television shows such as ‘The Island’. We agreed Burney included Gothic elements: horror, terror, the unknown and threat to the person and chastity of the heroine.

      We were impressed by the quality of language, especially the imagery. The setting was portrayed very realistically with Sarah Harriet demonstrating a thorough knowledge of tropical plants, animals, and tropical illnesses. This may be attributable to information Sarah Harriet gained from her elder half-brother James Burney, who sailed extensively in the tropics.

      The shipwreck and island location reference Odysseus, and more directly Shakespeare’s The Tempest, allowing Sarah Harriet to reimagine this scenario from a feminine perspective, complete with male disguise. Setting her two heroines, a mother and daughter, and sundry male survivors on an island provided Burney with the opportunity to explore gendered responses to disaster and an alien environment. The mother, resilient in the face of adversity, demonstrates domestic competencies in adapting to life in this ‘Garden of Eden’. The character of the male ‘hero’, despite misunderstandings and prejudices, provides insight into the qualities of an ‘ideal’ male. The ‘Other’, in the guise of French sailors and Lascars, are depicted as wanting in moral qualities in comparison to the English survivors. Burney’s narrator provides interesting insights into the thought processes of the main characters including the twists and turns of the daughter’s mental state over time. Overall an interesting and worthwhile read.

      Tales of Fancy Vol 1 The Shipwreck and Vols 2 & 3 County Lives or The Secret are available to read online or to download via this link: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006518408

      Sarah Harriet Burney (1772 – 1844)

      Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) (circle of), Portrait of a Lady, possibly Sarah Harriet Burney (1772-1884) (oil on canvas), Chawton House, Hampshire

      Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) (circle of), Portrait of a Lady, possibly Sarah Harriet Burney (1772-1884) (oil on canvas), Chawton House, Hampshire

      Twenty years younger than her more famous half-sister Frances, Sarah Harriet is an increasingly important subject for Burney research. Sarah Harriet was an author, translator, and caregiver to her ageing father. Lorna J Clark, who has recently joined the UK Burney committee, has produced a scholarly edition of her letters. In the two excerpts below, from a ‘New Year’ letter to Frances, Sarah Harriet exhibits concern for her sister’s failing eyesight and reflects on her own most recent manuscript.

      Since I took up the pen, I have received, my dearest Sister, you most magnificently long, & most incomparably agreeable letter. Why ̶ such a treat ought, and is justly entitled, to be repaid by at least five or six of my very best epistles. ̶ I only regret that you should even make the mere attempt when your eyes are at their weakest. Be assured, I write not for the lucre of gain; & as long as I hear from others that you are tidily well, I acquit you of any repayment, beyond a brief note, now and then, “like angel visits, few & far between”. ̶
      Now – about my long-dormant M.S. I have never looked at it since I came from Florence, & have but a very so so-ish opinion of it. I there read it aloud to my friends Mr & Mrs Layard, and their two boys. (Boys are good by way of tests, as Moliere’s old woman). The first third of the work went off triumphantly. The boys listened with bright, eager eyes, and open mouths; the father and mother gave quiet signs of being pleased; and when the evening ended, I went home, who but I? quite delighted. The next reading, for which my young auditors were all impatience, was considerably flatter. I might have supposed the boys entered with less interest into the story when it stood somewhat still to give opportunity for describing characters, & carrying on conversation. But this unction I could not lay to my soul, because, if the truth must be spoken, I myself thought it grew insipid, […] Having this impression of the work, with what heart can I turn to it again? I will not burn it, poor harmless thing! for it will never do any evil, though it may never do much good. But the toil of copying, or rather, remodelling it, makes me shiver when I think of it. ̶

      Excerpts from Letter 155. To Frances (Burney) d’Arblay, 24 January 1836, from Sarah Harriet Burney, The Letters of Sarah Harriet Burney, Edited by Lorna J Clark (Athens & London: University of Georgia Press, 1997, pp 407- 410)

      In the notes to her edited collection Lorna Clark suggests that the MS in question is most likely to be ‘The Renunciation’, which Sarah Harriet was working on in Bath, following her return from a two year stay in Florence. (n.9 ibid. p. 410). This was published, together with ‘The Hermitage’ in The Romance of Private Life By Miss Burney (London: H. Colburn, 1844) and more recently in a scholarly edition by Lorna J. Clark and published as part of the Chawton House Library: Women’s Writing Series, by Routledge.

      Reports previously published in the Burney Society UK Christmas 2020 Newsletter.

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