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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." [1] 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). [2] 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. [3]

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." [4]

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. [5]

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. [6] 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!" [7] Burney's reaction, recorded in a letter describing the meeting with Sheridan, was ecstatic,

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. [8]

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." [9] 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." [10] 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. [11]

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. [12] Samuel Johnson was an enthusiastic fan of Burney's Evelina and maintained that the novel was better than any of Henry Fielding's novels. [13] 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. [14]

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! [15]

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." [16] 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." [17] 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." [18] 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." [19] 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. [20]

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. [21] 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!" [22] 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. [23]

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. [24] 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." [25] 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." [26] 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! [27]

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 woman.

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." [28] 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." [29]

Darby suggests that the sole reason Burney suppressed the piece was the disapproval of her father and Crisp . [30] 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. [31] 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 myself. [32]

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." [33] 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." [34]

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). [35] 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. [36] However, my own examination of the manuscript turned up no conclusive evidence of marks indicating possible alterations to eliminate offensive comedy. [37] 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). [38] 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. [39] 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." [40] 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. [41] 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. [42] 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. [43]



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.
8. Ibid.
9. Deborah Heller,“Bluestockings and the Public Sphere,” p. 59.
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, (accessed October 12, 2010)
15. Burney. Journals and Letters, p. 101.
16. Ibid.
17. Deborah Heller, "Bluestocking Salons and the Public Sphere," p. 62.
18. Ibid, p. 72. Quoted from D'Arblay, Diary of Frances Burney D'Arblay, vol I, p. 364 (brackets Heller’s).
19. Ibid.
20. Elizabeth Robinson Montagu, 1720-1800, "Letter from Elizabeth Robinson Montagu to Elizabeth Carter, June 06, 1758," p. 374.
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,” p. 154.
24. Ibid.
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, p. 99.
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, p.436.
32. Ibid.
33. Ibid.
34. Ibid.
35. Burney, Journals and Letters, pp. xxviii – xxix.
36. Darby. Frances Burney, Dramatist, p. 25.
37. Fanny Burney, The Witlings, unpublished manuscript in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library, examined October 8, 2010
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.


Aristotle. Poetics, trans. Gerald F. Else, Lansing, MI: Ann Arbor Paperbacks, The Michigan University Press, 1970.

Burney, Frances. Journals and Letters, London: Penguin Books, 2001.

Burney, Frances. Cecilia, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

D'Arblay, Frances Burney, 1752-1840, Diary of Frances Burney D'Arblay, September, 1778, in Diary and Letters of Madame D'Arblay, vol. 1-6: 1752-1840. Barrett, Charlotte Frances, ed. London, England: H. Colburn, 1842.

Case, Sue-Ellen. Feminism and Theatre, New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 1988.

Child, Elizabeth. “Elizabeth Montagu, Bluestocking Businesswoman,” Huntington Library Quarterly Vol. 65, No. 1/2, Reconsidering the Bluestockings, University of California Press (2002), pp. 153-173.

Darby, Barbara. Frances Burney Dramatist, Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

Heller, Deborah. “Bluestocking Salons and the Public Sphere,” Eighteenth-Century Life, Volume 22, Number 2, May 1998, pp. 59-82.

Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language, London: Printed for A. Millar, 1766.

Montagu, Elizabeth Robinson, 1720-1800, "Letter from Elizabeth Robinson Montagu to Elizabeth Carter, June 06, 1758," in The Letters of Mrs. E. Montagu, With Some of the Letters of Her Correspondence, vol. 4. London, England: T. Cadell & W. Davies, 1809.

Person Jr., James E. Burney, Fanny - Introduction. Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Vol. 54. Gale Cengage, 1996. Accessed electronically through the Gale Cengage database Jan 10, 2011.

Rogers, Katherine, ed., The Meridian Anthology of Restoration and 18th Century Plays by Women, New York, NY: Penguin Group, 1994.

Sabor, Peter and Geoffrey Still, eds. The Witlings, The Woman-Hater, London: Pickering & Chatto Limited, 1997.

Todd, Janet. The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing and Fiction, 1660-1800. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

Wiltshire, John, “‘The inimitable Miss Larolles’: Frances Burney and Jane Austen,” in A Celebration of Frances Burney, Lorna J. Clark, ed., Newcastle, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.



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