Shrewd, observant and spirited: Fanny Burney
Fanny's period at court lasted for five long years. (Surely most readers will still think of her by that familiar name, although the more formal "Frances" is preferred by these editors.) They were unhappy years for the most part, for she was painfully unsuited to the narrow and repetitive existence as Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte. However, as one would expect from this most spirited of English diarists, her description of the way of life she encountered at Windsor is not dull. It does, though, evoke the reader's sympathy. Poor Fanny was 34 when her servitude at the court began. She had already attained some celebrity as the author of a much-praised novel, which she had written in secret — a decidedly dashing achievement at a time when young ladies were hardly supposed to read novels, much less write them. The "celebrated Miss Burney", as Boswell called her, gained the admiration of such giants of the day as Samuel Johnson and David Garrick and was familiar with a stimulating social scene in London. To be transplanted into a humdrum little world obsessed by social trivialities, and devoid of congenial companions, was a sad decline. No wonder she shed tears at times.
To make matters much worse, she found herself yoked in her royal duties to a monster of a woman whose principal concern appears to have been to dominate those around her. This Mrs Schwellenberg emerges from the Burney account as a nightmarish figure, secretly named "Cerbera" by Fanny after the mythological dog guarding the gates of Hades. One might have expected George III and the queen to be the leading characters in this story, and they are of course prominent presences, both of them kind and courteous to Fanny, for this was well before the king's madness; but the courtiers' limited lives at Windsor and the odious Schwellenberg overshadow all.
Happily the shrewd, observant eye of Fanny the novelist watches over the scene and prompts her to record it in her own lively way. She sets out in some detail her account of the day when a French visitor to the court declared his passionate attachment to her and she had to flee his advances: "This brought him once more on his knees, with such a volley of asseverations, of his sincerity, uttered with such fervour and violence, that I really felt uneasy and used every possible means to get away from him ...more and more vehement, however, he grew...he violently seized hold of me, & compelled me to return to my Chair, with a force, — and a freedom — that gave me as much surprise as offence." The episode ended later with Fanny reflecting upon this Mr Guiffardiere's morality (he was a clergyman, it appears) and writing, "I often wonder how he lives with his Wife. How miserable would such a Husband render me!"