On Frances Burney and the Birth of ‘Chick Lit’
A Groundbreaking Storytelling Formula Since the 18th Century
In May of 1775, the English novelist and diarist Frances Burney was having tea at her older sister’s house when she met—or more accurately was set up with—a short, sensible, 24-year-old man named Thomas Barlow. Burney herself was 22 at the time, and here’s how she described Barlow in her diary—a diary she kept in various ways, shapes, and forms from the time she was 16 to her death at the ripe old age of 87.
He has Read more than he has Conversed, & seems to know but little of the World; his Language is stiff & uncommon, he has a great desire to please, but no elegance of manners; neither, though he may be very worthy, is he at all agreeable.
Or, as we might say in the 21st century… thumbs-down emoji.
Four days later, Burney received a letter from Barlow—a really bad letter. That’s not my 21stt century spin on its stilted prose and funky capitalization; it’s Burney’s contemporaneous judgment of the letter, which she found to be “high flown.” She already fancied herself a writer, and what’s true today was probably doubly true in 1775: god help anyone attempting to communicate via the written word with an aspiring-writer type.
The second Burney read Barlow’s “passionate Declaration of Attachment, hinting at hopes of a return, & so forth,” she knew exactly where her heart stood. It was out, “totally insensible.” But how to respond? Unmarried women were required to go directly to their dads with their dating dilemmas back then, and Burney’s advised her to write back something along the lines of you can’t possibly admire and adore me this much. We’ve only just met. Burney objected to this type of response on the grounds that it would be misinterpreted as an invitation to get to know her better. There’s a fine line there, right? One that women are still walking more than two centuries later, always with a bit of fear in their hearts about the consequences if they respond “incorrectly” to any sort of romance-related overture.Like so many diaries written by teenage girls, Burney’s begins with a pledge to confess “my every thought” and “open my whole Heart!”
When Burney explained these anxieties to her father, he moved on to Plan B. Don’t write back at all. But ghosting seemed unnecessarily harsh to Burney, and her older sister Hetty quite agreed. He seemed nice and sensible, this Thomas Barlow. A little stiff perhaps, but why not give it another try? Other family members and friends hopped on board this same train, reminding Burney to factor in her sell-by date and fully “consider the situation of an unprotected, unprovided Woman.” Against all arguments, she held firm to her original assertion that she “had rather a thousand Times die an old maid, than be married, except from affection.” Yet somehow a week later who should just happen to be invited to tea again?
At this next meeting, Burney avoided eye contact with Thomas Barlow and tried to be as forbidding as possible. Although she’d never answered his original letter, soon a second one arrived, and before Burney could figure out how to answer that letter, he paid a call. “Lord! How provoking!” Burney exclaimed when he was announced. Her father muttered something about not being hasty. Thomas Barlow waited alone in the front parlor. Tick tock, tick tock.
It’s easy to picture this moment in a costume drama, is it not? Even easier because this section of Burney’s diary—which I’ve been quoting from here in the unabridged, scholarly edition produced by the Burney Centre at McGill University—is written almost entirely in dialogue. Writing a diary in dialogue might seem unusual except that as biographer Claire Harman has pointed out, Burney “wasn’t simply using her diary to record or comment on events but as a testing ground for different styles.” As I mentioned earlier, in her early 20s Burney was already an aspiring writer.
At 15, she completed her first novel and then ceremoniously burned it in the backyard, most likely because her stepmother didn’t think writing was an appropriate pastime for young women. Shortly after that bonfire, she started keeping her now-famous diary, which includes firsthand descriptions of the Battle of Waterloo, a walk around Kew Gardens with George III at the height of his madness, and a mastectomy she endured in 1811—without anesthesia.
Like so many diaries written by teenage girls, Burney’s begins with a pledge to confess “my every thought” and “open my whole Heart!” Note that 252-year-old exclamation point, which conveys exactly the sort of earnest, unbridled enthusiasm teenage girls are so often pilloried for, whatever it is they’re crushing on. Five years later, Burney’s journal had morphed into something less girlish and also much less private: “journal-letters” written to an elderly family friend, living in the country, who encouraged Burney to write to him informally about her everyday life in London, to “dash away, whatever comes uppermost.”
Although she also had a time-consuming day job as her father’s copyist and amanuensis, Burney embraced this task with enthusiasm, documenting her beloved London life in all its glory: trips to the opera, visitors from abroad, and musical evening parties that featured—in Virginia Woolf’s description—“Fanny herself slipping eagerly and lightly in and out of all this company, with her rather prominent gnat-like eyes, and her shy, awkward manners.” A shy, awkward young woman writing to an older man about her life in the big city suggests something, doesn’t it? It suggests an epistolary novel about a shy, awkward young woman writing to an older man about her life in the big city.
At some point in her 20s, Burney began writing such a novel, one about a young woman having “accidents and adventures” as she finds her way in the world, and by December of 1776, she was far enough along that she queried publisher Thomas Lowndes about a new kind of novel “that has not before been executed.” Burney got a favorable response and quickly sent Lowndes her first two volumes, in which a beautiful young woman comes to London for the first time, gets her hair dressed, buys some new clothes, goes out to a lot of parties and plays, and meets potential love interests, both true and faux. Almost instantly after it was published, Evelina, or The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World became both a critical and a popular success, and once 26-year-old Frances Burney was outed as the anonymous author of this “sprightly, entertaining, & agreeable” work, it launched her on a long and varied writing career.“I have not pretended to show the World what it actually is, but what it appears to a girl of 17.”
Today, of course, it’s easy to think of comp titles for this kind of novel. Most likely we would call it chick lit—or perhaps even more disparagingly, a “shopping and f***king novel.” From Pride and Prejudice to Bridget Jones’ Diary, such stories about youngish people trying to work out their love lives tend to sell well, but routinely come in for derision for their formulaic plots and laughably low stakes: who cares if yet another ridiculously good-looking white girl finds Mr. Right? But in the late 18th century, women—no matter how privileged—didn’t have the same legal or economic rights as men, and divorces were difficult to come by. Marrying someone who treated you badly had enormous consequences, while choosing wisely could secure your future happiness. Indeed, many people still believe that whom you marry profoundly effects your whole life’s happiness, and this likely accounts for the enduring popularity of the storytelling formula Burney created with her first novel.
“I have not pretended to show the World what it actually is,” she later wrote about Evelina, “but what it appears to a girl of 17.” In 1778 this point of view was resoundingly new. Today it’s something we hear and see all time, yet still struggle to see as valid and important. Somehow exclamation points, new clothes, and endless dissections of dating dilemmas always seem to get in the way.
The Spinster Diaries by Gina Fattore is available now via Prospect Park Books.
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