1778 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Elizabeth Montagu

Frances Burney, 1778; Diary and Letters of the Author of Madam D'Arblay, ed. Austin Dobson (1904-05) 1:120-27.



I quite sigh beneath the weight of such praise from such persons — sigh with mixed gratitude for the present, and fear for the future; for I think I shall never, never be able to support myself long so well with them.

We could not prevail with him to stay till Mrs. Montagu arrived, though, by appointment, she came very early. She and Miss Gregory came by one o'clock.

There was no party to meet her.

She is middle-sized, very thin, and looks infirm; she has a sensible and penetrating countenance, and the air and manner of a woman accustomed to being distinguished, and of great parts. Dr. Johnson, who agrees in this, told us that a Mrs. Hervey, of his acquaintance, says, she can remember Mrs. Montagu trying for this same air and manner. Mr. Crisp has said the same: however, nobody can now impartially see her, and not confess that she has extremely well succeeded.

My expectations, which were compounded of the praise of Mrs. Thrale, and the abuse of Mr. Crisp, were most exactly answered, for I thought her in a medium way.

Miss Gregory is a fine young woman, and seems gentle and well-bred.

A bustle with the dog Presto — Mrs. Thrale's favourite — at the entrance of these ladies into the library, prevented any formal reception; but as soon as Mrs. Montagu heard my name, she inquired very civilly after my father, and made many speeches concerning a volume of Linguet, which she has lost; but she hopes soon to be able to replace it. I am sure he is very high in her favour, because she did me the honour of addressing herself to me three or four times.

But my ease and tranquillity were soon disturbed: for she had not been in the room more than ten minutes, ere, turning to Mrs. Thrale, she said—

"Oh, ma'am — but your Evelina — I have not yet got it — I sent for it, but the bookseller had it not. However, I will certainly have it."

"Ay, I hope so," answered Mrs. Thrale, "and I hope you will like it too; for 'tis a book to be liked."

I began now a vehement nose-blowing, for the benefit of handkerchiefing my face.

"I hope though," said Mrs. Montagu drily, "it is not in verse? I can read anything in prose, but I have a great dread of a long story in verse."

"No, ma'am, no; 'tis all in prose, I assure you. 'Tis a novel; and an exceeding — but it does nothing good to be praised too much, so I will say nothing more about it; only this, that Mr. Burke sat up all night to read it."

"Indeed? Well, I propose myself great pleasure from it; and I am gratified by bearing it is written by a woman."

"And Sir Joshua Reynolds," continued Mrs. Thrale, "has been offering fifty pounds to know the author."

"Well, I will have it to read on my journey; am going to Berkshire, and it shall be my travelling book."

"No, ma'am, if you please you shall have it now. Queeny, do look for it for Mrs. Montagu, and let it be put in her carriage, and go to town with her."

Miss Thrale rose to look for it, and involuntarily I rose too, intending to walk off, for my situation was inexpressibly awkward; but then I recollected that if I went away, it might seem like giving Mrs. Thrale leave and opportunity to tell my tale, and therefore I stopped at a distant window, where I busied myself in contemplating the poultry.

"And Dr. Johnson, ma'am," added my kind puffer, "says Fielding never wrote so well — never wrote equal to this book; he says it is a better picture of life and manners than is to be found anywhere in Fielding."

"Indeed?" cried Mrs. Montagu surprised; "that I did not expect, for I have been informed it is the work of a young lady, and therefore, though I expected a very pretty book, I supposed it to be a work of mere imagination, and the name I thought attractive; but life and manners I never dreamt of finding."

"Well, ma'am, what I tell you is literally true; and for my part, I am never better pleased than when good girls write clever books-and that this is clever — But all this time we are killing Miss Burney, who wrote the book herself."

What a clap of thunder was this! — the last thing in the world I should have expected before my face! I know not what bewitched Mrs. Thrale, but this was carrying the jest farther than ever. All "retenue" being now at an end, I fairly and abruptly took to my heels, and ran out of the room with the utmost trepidation, amidst astonished exclamations from Mrs. Montagu and Miss Gregory.

I was horribly disconcerted, but I am now so irrecoverably in for it, that I begin to leave off reproaches and expostulations; indeed, they have very little availed me while they might have been of service, but now they would pass for mere parade and affectation; and therefore since they can do no good, I gulp them down. I find them, indeed, somewhat hard of digestion, but they must make their own way as well as they can.

I determined not to make my appearance again till dinner was upon table; yet I could neither read nor write, nor indeed do anything but consider the new situation in life into which I am thus hurried — I had almost said forced — and if I had, methinks it would be no untruth.

Miss Thrale came laughing up after me, and tried to persuade me to return. She was mightily diverted all the morning, and came to me with repeated messages of summons to attend the company; but I could not brave it again into the room, and therefore entreated her to say I was finishing a letter. Yet I was sorry to lose so much of Mrs. Montagu.

When dinner was upon table, I followed the procession, in a tragedy step, as Mr. Thrale will have it, into the dining-parlour. Dr. Johnson was returned.

The conversation was not brilliant, nor do I remember much of it; but Mrs. Montagu behaved to me just as I could have wished, since she spoke to me very little, but spoke that little with the utmost politeness. But Miss Gregory, though herself a very modest girl, quite stared me out of countenance, and never took her eyes off my face.

When Mrs. Montagu's new house I was talked of, Dr. Johnson, in a jocose manner, desired to know if he should be invited to see it.

"Ay, sure," cried Mrs. Montagu, looking well pleased;" or else I shan't like it: but I invite you all to a house warming; I shall hope for the honour of seeing all this company at my new house next Easter day: I fix the day now that it may be remembered."

Everybody bowed and accepted the invite but me, and I thought fitting not to hear it; for I have no notion at snapping at invites from the eminent. But Dr. Johnson, who sat next to me, was determined I should be of the party, for he suddenly clapped his hand on my shoulder, and called out aloud—

"Little Burney, you and I will go together!"

"Yes, surely," cried Mrs. Montagu, "I shall hope for the pleasure of seeing 'Evelina.'"

"Evelina?" repeated he; "has Mrs. Montagu then found out Evelina?"

"Yes," cried she, I and I am proud of it: I am proud that a work so commended should be a woman's."

Oh, how my face burnt!

"Has Mrs. Montagu," asked Dr. Johnson, "read Evelina?"

"No, sir, not yet; but I shall immediately, for I feel the greatest eagerness to read it."

"I am very sorry, madam," replied he, "that you have not read it already, because you cannot speak of it with a full conviction of its merit: which, I believe, when you have read it, you will find great pleasure in acknowledging."

Some other things were said, but I remember them not, for I could hardly keep my place: but my sweet, naughty Mrs. Thrale looked delighted for me.

I made tea as usual, and Mrs. Montagu and Miss Gregory seated themselves on each side of me.

"I can see," said the former, "that Miss Burney is very like her father, and that is a good thing, for everybody would wish to be like Dr. Burney. Pray, when you see him, give my best respects to him; I am afraid he thinks me a thief with his Linguet; but I assure you I am a very honest woman, and I spent full three hours in looking for it."

"I am sure," cried Mrs. Thrale, "Dr. Burney would much rather you should have employed that time about some other book."

They went away very early, because Mrs. Montagu is a great coward in a carriage. She repeated her invitation as she left the room. So now that I am invited to Mrs. Montagu's, I think the measure of my glory full!

When they were gone, how did Dr. Johnson astonish me by asking if I had observed what an ugly cap Miss Gregory had on? And then taking both my hands, and looking at me with an expression of much kindness, he said,

"Well, Miss Burney, Mrs. Montagu now will read Evelina."

To read it he seems to think is all that is wanted, and, far as I am from being of the same opinion, I dare not to him make disqualifying speeches, because it might seem impertinent to suppose her more difficult to please than himself.

"You were very kind, sir," cried I, "to speak of it with so much favour and indulgence at dinner; yet I hardly knew how to sit it then, though I shall be always proud to remember it hereafter."

"Why, it is true," said he, kindly, "that such things are disagreeable to sit, nor do I wonder you were distressed; yet sometimes they are necessary."

Was this not very kind? I am sure he meant that the sanction of his good opinion, so publicly given to Mrs. Montagu, would in a manner stamp the success of my book; and though, had I been allowed to preserve the snugness I had planned, I need not have concerned myself at all about its fate, yet now that I find myself exposed with it, I cannot but wish it insured from disgrace.

"Well, sir," cried I, "I don't think I shall mind Mrs. Montagu herself now; after what you have said, I believe I should not mind even abuse from any one."

"No, no, never mind them!" cried he; "resolve not to mind them: they can do you no serious hurt."

Mrs. Thrale then told me such civil things. Mrs. Montagu, it seems, during my retreat, inquired very particularly what kind of book it was?

"And I told her," continued Mrs. Thrale, "that it was a picture of life, manners, and characters. 'But won't she go on?' says she; I surely she won't stop here?'"

"'Why,' said I, 'I want her to go on in a new path — I want her to write a comedy.'"

"'But,' said Mrs. Montagu, one thing must be considered; Fielding, who was so admirable in novel-writing, never succeeded when he wrote for the stage.'"

"Very well said," cried Dr. Johnson; "that was an answer which showed she considered her subject."

Mrs. Thrale continued:

"'Well, but a propos,' said Mrs. Montagu, 'if Miss Burney does write a play, I beg I may know of it; or, if she thinks proper, see it; and all my influence is at her service. We shall all be glad to assist in spreading the fame of Miss Burney."

I tremble for what all this will end in. I verily think I had best stop where I am, and never again attempt writing: for after so much honour, so much success — how shall I bear a downfall?