Journals and Letters

Journals and Letters



The Pequod Review:

Penguin's 2001 edition of Journals and Letters is a heavily-abridged collection of Frances Burney's diary entries drawn from across her life. Burney (1752-1840) was an interesting woman living in interesting times, and her diaries are candid, exuberant and intelligent. They begin when she is only fifteen and already she has strong powers of observation:

I have lately Read the Prince of Abyssinia – I am almost equally charm’d and shock’d at it – the style, the sentiments are inimitable – but the subject is dreadful – and, handled as it is by Dr Johnson, might make any young, perhaps old, person tremble – O, how dreadful, how terrible is it to be told by a man of his genius and knowledge, in so affectingly probable a manner, that true, real happiness is ever unattainable in this world! – Thro’ all the scenes, publick or private, domestick or solitary, that Nekaya or Rasselas pass, real felicity eludes their pursuit and mocks their solicitude. In high Life, superiority, envy and haughtiness battle the power of preferment, favour and greatness–and with or without them, all is Animosity, suspicion, apprehension, and misery–in Private familys, disagreement, Jealousy and partiality, destroy all domestick felicity and all social chearfulness, and all is peevishness, contradiction, ill will and wretchedness! – And in solitude, Imagination paints the World in a new light, every bliss which was wanting when in it, appears easily attained when away from it, but the loneliness of retirement seems unsocial, dreary, savouring of misanthropy and melancholy – and all is anxiety, doubt, fear and anguish! In this manner does Dr Johnson proceed in his melancholy conviction of the instability of all human enjoyments, and the impossibility of all earthly happiness. One thing during the Course of the successless enquiry struck me, which gave me much comfort, which is, that those who wander in the world avowedly and purposely in search of happiness, who view every scene of present Joy with an Eye to what may succeed, certainly are more liable to disappointment, misfortune and sorrow, than those who give up their fate to chance and take the goods and evils of fortune as they come, without making happiness their study, or misery their foresight.

Many of her entries cover rather esoteric topics — unless you happen to be a serious student of these periods in British and French history — but she has an enthusiasm that is quite charming.