Silent Suppression as Feminist
Expression: Fanny Burney's The Witlings
By Johnna Adams
The role of the professional female playwright
was still very much a work in progress in the English theatre
during the late 18th Century. As a novice playwright, established
novelist Frances "Fanny" Burney wanted to create a comic masterpiece
for the stage--an aspiration she referred to in her journals as
her "golden dream."  But there were no models for her to look
to for the type of satirical, female character-driven work she
wanted to create. In the absence of any guidance, she created
characters that were biting, satirical portraits of other women
in a work called The Witlings. When she realized, however,
that this play might damage the work done by the increasingly
powerful Bluestocking Circle (which she admired) and in particular
its famous salon hostess, Lady Elizabeth Montagu, she made the
decision to suppress her own play. The decision would haunt her
for the rest of her life, and she would never regain the writing
momentum or easy opportunity for production that she gave up by
abandoning this first play. Nevertheless, her choice, made at
a time when female playwrights were not looking critically at
their work to evaluate how it might be perceived by other women,
portray other women, or affect the public perception of women
as literary authorities, makes a significant feminist statement.
A prominent novelist by age 26, Burney
is generally considered to be "the most esteemed woman novelist
of the period" (Janet Todd).  She is almost as well-known for
her detailed diaries and personal correspondence. During her extraordinary
life, she served as Queen Charlotte's lady-in-waiting; was kissed
and chased by mad King George III during a fit of dementia; watched
Napoleon marshal troops in Paris to invade England; heard the
guns of Waterloo and watched its casualties clog the streets and
homes of Brussels; suffered a brutal mastectomy without anesthesia;
and witnessed Queen Victoria's coronation. 
But before all of these adventures, when
young Burney was first introduced to literary society, she suffered
from intense and mortifying shyness. Praise for her first novel,
Evelina, left her feeling uncomfortable and on occasion,
in her own words, "seriously urgent and really frightened." 
In 1779, during a visit with Mrs. Hester
Thrale, a distinguished hostess in literary circles whose Streatham
Park home served as Samuel Johnson's summer retreat, the idea
was first suggested (by Thrale) that the timid Burney explore
a career as a dramatist. Burney recalled Thrale's words:
--you must set about a Comedy, --and
set about it openly; it is the true style of writing for you,
--but you must give up all these fears and shyness, --you must
do it without any disadvantages. 
Taking this advice to heart, Burney secretly
began work on a play influenced by Thrale and the circle of literary
minds that gathered for her dinners, including Johnson and members
of the well-known Literary Club of Samuel Johnson.  She began
writing this play in greater earnest with the encouragement of
Drury Lane's artistic director, Richard Sheridan. When asked if
he would consider producing a play of Burney's without reading
it in January of 1779, Sheridan replied "Yes! . . . . and make
her a Bow and my best Thanks into the Bargain!"  Burney's reaction,
recorded in a letter describing the meeting with Sheridan, was
Consider Mr. Sheridan as an Author and
a Manager, and really this conduct appears to me at once generous
and uncommon. . . . And now . . . -- if I should attempt the
stage,-- I think I may be fairly acquitted of presumption, and
however I may fail,-- that I was strongly pressed to try by
. . . . Mr. Sheridan,-- the most successful and powerful of
all Dramatic living Authors,-- will abundantly excuse my temerity.
Burney's first play, The Witlings,
was written in May of 1779, less than five months after Sheridan's
invitation. It is a social satire in which Lady Smatter, the patron
of a literary salon known as the Esprit Party, forbids her dependent
nephew, Beaufort, to marry his fiancée Cecilia, also Smatter's
dependent, when Cecilia loses all of her fortune through the mismanagement
of an incompetent banker. Eventually, Beaufort's friend Censor,
a respected intellect of the day, resolves the situation, extorting
Smatter's blessing on the marriage by threatening to publish a
vicious verse lampoon he has written about her greed and ignorance.
Read today, the play doesn't seem especially
damaging to the credibility of women's literary contributions,
though it does contain unflattering female stereotypes. A closer
look at the satire, however, reveals that Burney has chosen as
a principal target the leading promoter of female writers of the
day, Lady Elizabeth Montagu, and directed her sharp disdain toward
the establishment of the Bluestocking Circle (the "Blues"). Burney
was a peripheral figure associated with the Blues, a group of
intellectual women (some men as well) who established salons for
critical debate around literary figures and forms. Of the Blues,
Deborah Heller said the organization provided "an instance where
women appear to be full and active participants in the public
sphere."  Not only were the Blues the foremost institution
promoting female literary merit, both as authors and critics;
Heller points out that "as organizers of the English literary
salon, they could be said to be co-architects of the public sphere."
 Sue-Ellen Case also observes that salons like the one created
by the Blues served as "theaters of personal dialogue" and were
an important chapter in theater history. 
Although privately complimentary toward
Lady Montagu and the Blues, Burney began to hear them ridiculed
at Thrale's informal, semi-public dinner parties and to be swayed
by the opinions of Thrale's important guests.  Samuel Johnson
was an enthusiastic fan of Burney's Evelina and maintained
that the novel was better than any of Henry Fielding's novels.
 During her visits at Streatham, he was extremely forthcoming
with her about his opinion of Montagu. Although they were on speaking
terms, Montagu's criticism of Johnson's Preface to Shakespeare
(1765) in her own essay An Essay on the Writings and Genius
of Shakespeare (1769) had caused a rift in their relationship
that left him scornful of the prominent Blue. 
In his 1776 A Dictionary of the English
Language, Johnson defines "witling" to mean, "a
petty pretender to wit," and this would aptly describe his opinion
of Lady Montagu. In a letter written in 1778, Burney recounts
a conversation between herself, Thrale and Johnson in which Mrs.
Thrale announced that Lady Montagu would be joining them for dinner
the next evening. Johnson assumed a "countenance strongly expressive
of inward fun," then turned to Burney and said,
Down with her, Burney! -- down with
her! -- spare her not! -- attack her, fight her, and down with
her at once! You are a rising wit, and she is at the top; and
when I was beginning the world, and was nothing and nobody,
the joy of my life was to fire at all the established wits!
. . . when I was new, to vanquish the great ones was all the
delight of my poor little dear soul! So at her, Burney -- at
her, and down with her! 
As if feeling somewhat ashamed of recording
this, Burney immediately qualifies it by saying, "Mrs. Montagu
is in very great estimation here, even with Dr. Johnson himself,
when others do not praise her improperly. Mrs. Thrale ranks her
as the first of women in the literary way."  Even this apology
admits partiality to Johnson's opinion as she insists there is
"proper" praise for Montagu and "improper" praise and Johnson
could be trusted to distinguish between them.
Johnson's attempt to draw a comparison
between himself as a young writer, attacking the reputations of
leading male intellects of the day, and young Burney launching
a similar attack on prominent female intellects shows Johnson's
lack of understanding about the position of a young female writer
in late 18th-century England. His opinion doesn't allow for the
fact that women's literary relationships of the time were, by
necessity as much as by natural feminine inclination, collaborative
and communal. His world view rejects the Blues's ideal conception
of a literary society founded on principles (in Deborah Heller's
words) of "a social bond consisting in shared speech or communication."
 Instead, he persuades Burney that she is in a competitive
relationship with her most powerful female patron and advocate.
Johnson's influence can be seen in an account
of a dinner party at Streatham in one of Burney's letters. She
observed, "The Bishop [of Chester] waited for Mrs. Thrale to speak,
Mrs. Thrale for the Bishop; so neither of them spoke at all. Mrs.
Montagu cared not a fig, as long a she spoke herself, and so harangued
away."  Montagu was conscious of this type of ridicule, which
often centered on her intense personality and involved disparaging
comments about her wit. Deborah Heller notes that Montagu's conversation
was considered "masculine" and was "marked by a certain amount
of aggressiveness."  Montagu wrote to a new acquaintance after
making a bad first impression,
. . . you had heard I set up for a wit,
and people of real merit and sense hate to converse with witlings;
as rich merchant-ships dread to engage with privateers: they
may receive damage and can get nothing but dry blows. 
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.  Barbara Darby points out
that Montagu's only notable work of literary criticism was her
Shakespearean analysis, and Lady Smatter makes a rather obvious
smear on that accomplishment with her line in Act IV of The
Witlings saying Shakespeare, "is too common; every
body [sic] can speak well of Shakespeare!"  As the character
of Lady Smatter is the wealthiest and most influential of the
Esprit Group in The Witlings, Lady Montagu was the wealthiest
and most influential member of the Blues. 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.
 But Burney's parody reduced the idea of a wealthy woman to
a jealous, superior, greedy and self-satisfying caricature.
Disappointingly, and in contrast to the
Blues's work to expand the notion of women's roles and capabilities,
all of the The Witlings's female characters are versions
of the classic female stereotypes described by Case as "the Bitch,
the Witch, the Vamp and the Virgin/Goddess."  Lady Smatter
fulfills the "Witch" role and also presents a stereotype not discussed
directly by Case, but traceable to Aristotle's Poetics,
which states, "it is possible for a character to be brave, but
it is not appropriate to a woman to be brave or clever." 
The "not clever" female stereotype can be referred to as "the
Air-Head." Lady Smatter's constant misquoting of famous poets
is a classic example of the stereotypical Air-Head female who
apes male cleverness but is an obvious fraud. 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.
The lead character Cecilia is firmly a
Virgin/Goddess, but she also fulfills another female stereotype
very common in Burney's work, "the Victim." She is made penniless
by the banker who loses her legacy and is then thrown out of Lady
Smatter's house for being destitute and, therefore, an undesirable
match for her nephew. Ultimately, Cecilia's salvation comes at
the hands of men through the defeat and humiliation of another
In this play, the pretentious, self-promoting
female who wields masculine powers of wealth and social influence
(Lady Smatter) must be destroyed so that the Virgin/Goddess (Cecilia)
can fulfill her patriarchal purpose and marry Beaufort at the
conclusion of the play. 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."
 Burney's reply, in a letter to her father dated August 13,
1779, indicated that she would suppress the play not based on
petty individual errors but because "the general effect of the
Whole . . . has so terribly failed." 
Darby suggests that the sole reason Burney
suppressed the piece was the disapproval of her father and Crisp
.  But her father's commitment to the suppression of the play
was not absolute. Burney wrote to Crisp in 1780 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.
 She went on to say,
Mr. 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
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."
 Despite drawing up some lists of possible changes in case
Sheridan came knocking on the door demanding to see the script,
as he later threatened, Burney herself remained firm to the idea
of suppression, saying that she had "taken a sort of disgust to
it" and was "most earnestly desirous to let it die a quiet death."
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).  Darby maintains that notes in the margins
of the manuscript include cuts to the text that were never made
and might have been in response to the criticisms around the satire.
 However, my own examination of the manuscript turned up no
conclusive evidence of marks indicating possible alterations to
eliminate offensive comedy.  The notations Darby refers to
are a series of X's in pencil that the librarian at the Berg Collection
says cannot be positively attributed to Burney (although there
is no record of annotations from any other source).  The notations,
which are only present in a short section of Act IV, mark passages
of dialogue that should be delivered as asides by the actor. The
section of Act IV that Darby regards as a major cut features bracketed
dialogue and a single X. 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 (1795),
which was savaged by the critics, ending what might otherwise
have been a notable playwriting career.  Of her novel-writing
career, James E. Person Jr. says, "Burney is considered a significant
transitional figure who employed the methods of Samuel Richardson
and Henry Fielding to create a new subgenre that made possible
the domestic novels of Austen, Maria Edgeworth, and countless
other successors."  Given her impressive innovations in nondramatic
literature, Burney might well have become a leading dramatist
if she had been allowed room to grow as a dramatist.
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.  But the decision
undoubtedly promoted women's increased participation in the arts
and culture, or at least prevented serious setbacks and obstacles.
Perhaps most importantly, it preserved her reputation as a mentor
for the next generation of women writers. Jane Austen, a subscriber
to Burney's serialized fiction, was enormously influenced by Burney's
satires.  Pride and Prejudice owes its name and elements
of its plot to Burney's novel Cecilia, which was written
just after The Witlings and shares several of the play's
characters and storylines.
The line providing Austen with her title
may perhaps harken back to Burney's suppression of own play:
. . . remember: if to pride and prejudice
you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced,
that to pride and prejudice you will also owe their termination.
1. Frances Burney D'Arblay, Diary of
Frances Burney D'Arblay, p. 377.
2. Janet Todd,. The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing and
Fiction, 1660-1800, p. 273.
3. Frances Burney, Journals and Letters, pp. xix-xxi.
4. Ibid., p. 98.
5. Ibid., p. 100.
6. Ibid., pp. xvi, 100.
7. Ibid., p. 111.
9. Deborah Heller,“Bluestockings and the Public Sphere,”
10. Ibid., p. 60.
11. Sue-Ellen Case. Feminism and Theatre, p. 46.
12. Burney, Journals and Letters, p. 101.
13. Ibid., p. 97.
14. “Elizabeth Montagu," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Montagu (accessed October
15. Burney. Journals and Letters, p. 101.
17. Deborah Heller, "Bluestocking Salons and the Public Sphere,"
18. Ibid, p. 72. Quoted from D'Arblay, Diary of Frances Burney
D'Arblay, vol I, p. 364 (brackets Heller’s).
20. Elizabeth Robinson Montagu, 1720-1800, "Letter from Elizabeth
Robinson Montagu to Elizabeth Carter, June 06, 1758," p.
21. Peter Sabor and Geoffrey Still, "Introduction" to
The Witlings, The Woman-Hater, p. xxxiii, note 19.
22. Barbara Darby. Frances Burney Dramatist, p. 24.
23. Elizabeth Child, “Elizabeth Montagu, Bluestocking Businesswoman,”
25. Case. Feminism and Theatre, p. 6.
26. Aristotle, Poetics, Else trans., Else attributes
this translation to Kassel in his note (105) to lines 54a24-6,
27. Frances Burney, The Witlings, p. 335
28. D'Arblay, Diary of Frances Burney D'Arblay, p. 263.
29. Ibid., p. 128.
30. Darby, Frances Burney Dramatist, pp. 24-25.
31. D"Arblay, Diary of Frances Burney D'Arblay,
35. Burney, Journals and Letters, pp. xxviii –
36. Darby. Frances Burney, Dramatist, p. 25.
37. Fanny Burney, The Witlings, unpublished manuscript
in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library, examined October
38. A. Henry W. Thornton and Albert A. Berg Collection of English
and American Literature. Conversation with the author.
39. Darby,Frances Burney, Dramatist, p. 43.
40. James E. Person Jr., Burney, Fanny - Introduction. Nineteenth-Century
Literary Criticism. Vol. 54, p.1.
41. Darby. Frances Burney, Dramatist, p. 25.
42. John Wiltshire, “The inimitable Miss Larolles”:
Frances Burney and Jane Austen, p. 218.
43. Frances Burney. Cecilia, p. 930.
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