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
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
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 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. 
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
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 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."  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 myself. 
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 12,
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. 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,”
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.
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.
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