CONFERENCE REPORT: ‘Scandal and sociability: New perspectives on the Burney family’.

On September 1st, Cardiff University hosted the international symposium, ‘Scandal and Sociability: New Perspectives on the Burney Family’. Organizing this event was a high point of my first year in post at Cardiff. For years, I’ve been fascinated with Frances Burney, one of the most successful and influential novelists of the eighteenth century and a central figure in my doctoral research. But ever since I was lucky enough to spend a month in Montreal researching at McGill’s Burney Centre in the second year of my PhD, I’ve also been fascinated with her brilliant, sociable, polymathic and oddly secretive family circle. Between them, the Burneys published dozens of novels, scores of reviews, books on music and naval exploration, and political tracts. They wrote plays, drew popular prints and composed countless pieces of music. They travelled across the world, and knew or corresponded with most British luminaries of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries working in the fields of literature, art, music, politics, botany, exploration, and court and Church circles.

Despite this, no event or publication had ever considered the Burney family as a composite whole, asking how their sociable network and often tumultuous internal dynamics influenced the remarkable spate of cultural and sociable activity carried out by its members. I hatched a plan to one day hold a symposium that would do exactly that; and, thanks to generous funding from Cardiff’s School of English, Communication and Philosophy and the Burney Society (UK), and excellent support from my PG collaborator Catherine Han and super-administrator Helen Clifford, I was able to do so when I took up my post at Cardiff. Over early 2016, tantalising abstracts poured in from all over the world, and on September 1st we were looking forward to a gratifyingly impressive and interdisciplinary line-up.

11949316_10101288836039409_8345964751836539104_nThe day of the symposium dawned bright and sunny, and delegates began to arrive early, to mingle and catch up with new and familiar faces. I kicked off the symposium with an introduction that celebrated the timeliness of the symposium. In a recent article in Women’s Writing, Devoney Looser issues a call for scholars to use new forms of data visualization and biographical tools in order ‘to think more creatively and collaboratively about new biographical practices that could emerge … in concert with big data’. (Devoney Looser, ‘British Women Writers, Big Data and Big Biography, 1780–1830’, Women’s Writing, 22:2, 165–171, p. 166). As more of the Burney family’s correspondence becomes widely available (thanks to the work of many editors in the lecture theatre), Frances Burney seems like one of the prime candidates with whom we might answer such a call. Using traditional archives or new digital tools to study a figure like Elizabeth Meeke, Marianne Francis or James Burney accomplishes a double objective. These figures are interesting in their own right. But they can also lead to new readings of Frances Burney’s works.

With no further ado, it was time for our first panel, ‘Constructions, Erasures, Fashionings’, which was chaired by Professor Lorna Clark. The first paper, ‘Scandal and secretiveness in the Burney family’, was delivered by Professor Philip Olleson (Nottingham). Philip pointed to ‘ingrained secretiveness’ or ‘lack of candour’ at the heart of the Burney family’s dealings with one another, and outlined the role of the biographer in penetrating these omissions and elisions. He took as an example the secrecy surrounding the two marriages of Charles Burney Sr. to Esther Sleepe and Elizabeth Allen, and queried whether this might have set the pattern for his children’s habits of secrecy. Particularly interesting was Philip’s question: might there be a link between the secrecy of her father’s marriage to Elizabeth Allen and the juvenile Frances Burney’s secretive writings?

Philip’s paper was followed by one from Dr. Cassie Ulph (York): ‘Authoring the ‘Author of My Being’ in Memoirs of Doctor Burney’. Cassie pointed out that when Frances writes her father’s Memoirs, there are interesting tensions present in the way she represents her own authority: is it ultimately public (professional author) or private (daughter, incomparably close to the father she eulogises)? In other words, (pace Jane Spencer) Cassie’s paper sought to explore whether biological kinship or literary kinship is the dominant influence in the Memoirs? Ultimately, she argued that with the Memoirs Burney shifts from obedient amanuensis of her father to ‘his most tyrannical editor’ (Gillen D’Arcy Wood’s words), and figures herself as the more ‘professional’ writer. The real narrative of Memoirs of Doctor Burney is that of Burney’s own literary career (and genius).

The final speaker in the panel was Matthew Spencer (Cardiff), a philosopher who brought an unusual methodology to the table with ‘Talent v. Situation in the case of the Burneys’. Matthew explained his desire to bring the perspective of ‘character, heuristics & modern philosophy’ to Burney scholarship. He used sports data to explore the relationship between situational factors and chosen careers, with intriguing implications for our literary/historical assumptions about biographical cause and effect. In other words: how far do we use heuristics (shortcuts to make sense) when performing biographical readings? Matthew widened the discussion by turning to Dr. Marchmont’s use of heuristics in Frances Burney’s third novel Camilla: or, a Picture of Youth. Despite Burney’s scepticism about Marchmont’s use of heuristics, the fictional world of Camilla is elsewhere shot through with the conventional view that people do have ‘a character’.

After Matthew’s paper finished, questions from the floor revolved around the history of life writing, the idea of ‘scepticism’ across different disciplines, the professional status of ‘entertainers’ in the late eighteenth century… and ice hockey. After a quick coffee break, it was time for the second panel, chaired by Professor Peter Sabor: ‘Print, Traces, Legacies’.

IMG_4781First up in this panel was Dr. Anthony Mandal (Cardiff), speaking about ‘Mrs Meeke and Minerva: The Mystery of the Marketplace’. Anthony began by showing us data visualisations that demonstrated the production of new fiction 1780–1829, outlined shifts in ‘fashionable’ fiction—sentimental, Gothic, evangelical, historical, and located women writers at the forefront of these changes. The most prolific novelist of all in these years—more so even than Walter Scott—was ‘Mrs Meeke’—recently identified by Simon Macdonald as Elizabeth Meeke, Frances Burney’s stepsister. Anthony focused on Meeke’s association with the Minerva Press, the ‘Mills and Boon’ of the Romantic era (John Feather). She wrote under three different authorial identities ‘Mrs. Meeke’, ‘Gabrielli’, ‘Anon.’, and could publish up to five novels a year (!). Anthony broke down the titles of Meeke’s novels to analyse them for ‘Gothicity’: Meeke was fond of Gothic titles, but her novels themselves often don’t follow through in terms of subject matter. Anthony finished with an illuminating comparison of Frances Burney and Elizabeth Meeke, whom he argued was more sensitively attuned to and therefore responsive to the ‘fashionable’ market.

Next up was Professor Lorna J. Clark (Carleton), delivering a paper entitled ‘The Scandalous Sister: The Literary Legacy of Sarah Harriet Burney’. Lorna argued that we should consider the novelist Sarah Harriet as more than just the Burney sister who [probably didn’t] ha[ve] an incestuous relationship with her half-brother James. Looking at Sarah Harriet’s life story separately from this unprovable charge, she argued, is ‘less sensational, but more gripping’. A fascinating overview of Sarah Harriet’s literary career followed, in which Clark argued for her as a Romantic writer, firmly tied into social circles later in life that included Henry Crabb Robinson and Charles Lamb. Her fiction, Lorna said, provides a bridge between ‘Romantic’ and ‘Victorian’ literature, and many of the themes of her novels foreshadow those of Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy. Several moments in Sarah Harriet’s career were particularly pertinent to the themes of the symposium: there was an interesting confluence in 1796, when Frances Burney published her third novel Camilla and the twenty-three-year-old Sarah Harriet published her debut Clarentine within a few weeks of each other: Camilla received supportive ‘puffs’ from family members in literary reviews, whereas Sarah Harriet received no such support. Another such moment was when Henry Colburn, Sarah Harriet’s publisher, insisted on her publishing under the name ‘Miss Burney’—’Burney’ was a valuable brand, it seems. Lorna finished by announcing the splendid news of a forthcoming Chawton House edition of all Sarah Harriet Burney’s novels. A lively Q&A for the panel focused on authorial names and pseudonyms, attribution, payments for novels, and nepotistic reviewing practices.

IMG_4771Over lunch, delegates visited an exhibition of rare print and visual material relating to the Burney family and circle, mainly drawn from Cardiff’s Special Collections (SCOLAR), and designed and curated by myself and our archivist Alison Harvey. Early editions—many beautifully illustrated—of works by Burney family members, Edmund Burke, Richard Owen Cambridge, Hester Thrale Piozzi, John Hawkesworth, James Cook, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander drew much interest. The star attraction, however, was an original portrait lent to us by Dr. John Butterworth, which may or may not be of Frances Burney. Opinion was mixed as to the identity of the subject, but a stimulating discussion ensued about portrait practices and attribution.

After lunch, the third panel was ‘Sociability and Networks’, chaired by Cassie Ulph. My own paper was first up: ‘A Philosophical Gossip: Science and Sociability in Frances Burney’s Cecilia’, in which I argued that Frances Burney’s interest in sociable ‘character’ is informed by an parallel interest in popular science, particularly the principles of Linnaean classification. In several scenes, the social taxonomist Mr. Gosport educates the heroine in the ways of the bon ton by applying a distinctly Linnaean methodology to metropolitan polite society. It is likely, my paper suggested, that Burney’s interest in social classification stemmed from her acquaintance in the early 1780s with the botanist and ‘Philosophical Gossip’ (Charles Burney Sr.’s words) Daniel Solander, which was facilitated by social networks that ultimately originated within the Burney family itself.

Second was Professor Stewart Cooke (Dawson College): ‘Frances Burney and the “Cantabs”’. In this paper, Stewart unpacked the knotty relationship between Frances Burney and the Cambridge family. Burney had an agonising on-off flirtation with the clergyman George Cambridge in the late 80s, which she hoped would result in marriage but ended instead in psychological turmoil and nothing more. Stewart considered various reasons for George Cambridge’s silence in his cold treatment of FB and explained how Burney’s feelings for ‘Mr. G.C.’ affected her relationships with other people, and sensitivity to rumour. It was fascinating to hear about the wider dynamics of the Cambridge family, including George’s charismatic father Richard Owen Cambridge, his reserved mother, and his sisters – one of whom, Stewart suggested, was afflicted by ‘St. Vitus’ Dance’. Frances Burney’s odd treatment at George’s hands takes on a new aspect when viewed as the result of conflicting agendas and perspectives within another complex family unit.

Bringing the panel to a close was Dr. Mascha Hansen (Greifswald): ‘A Friend like dear Marianne’: The Friendship between Marianne Francis and Hester Lynch Piozzi’. In this paper, Mascha considered the rich intellectual friendship between the elderly Hester Piozzi (who was Frances Burney’s dearest friend before their rift in 1784) and Burney’s niece Marianne Francis. Mascha’s research revealed Marianne as a fascinating character, known among the Burney family as a musical prodigy: ‘a monster when attacking the pianoforte’. But there was more to Marianne than music. Mascha gave us an intriguing glimpse into Marianne’s fragment of a novel with a strong-willed anti-marriage heroine, which suggests literary, as well as musical, aspirations. She was also a critic: on Maria Edgeworth’s fiction, her verdict was: ‘An economic Housekeeper, giving the old mutton cold one day & hashed the next.’ She had great admiration for older female writers other than Burney and Piozzi, speaking of Hannah More, she recalled, ‘I followed her about like a little dog.’ One fascinating aspect of the Francis/Piozzi friendship is that, when Piozzi expressed colourful resentments against various members of the Burney family, Marianne—one of the Burneys herself—often colluded in these onslaughts.

After a quick coffee break to fuel us for the final panel, we returned to hear the last panel of the day: ‘Envisioning the Burneys’, chaired by Professor Harriet Guest. The first speaker was Dr. Ruth Scobie (Oxford), whose paper was entitled, ‘Feather’d ornaments and living curiosities: The Burneys’ South Sea encounters’. South sea exploration, Ruth suggested, engendered a metropolitan culture of celebrity, curiosity  and display centring around objects and anecdotes – and the Burney family occupied a central place in this culture, largely thanks to Frances’s brother James Burney, who had sailed with Captain Cook on board the Endeavour. As well as James’s Tahitian friend Mai, the Burney family and their circle discussed inanimate curiosities and rarities from the South Seas, with James Burney cementing social relationships with gift-giving by presenting Tahitian curiosities to the Thrale family. Ruth then moved to discuss the eighteenth-century culture of textile circulation for Pacific goods: Hester Thrale attended a royal birthday wearing a dress designed to emulate the clothes of the ‘Indian who killed Capt Cook’, whereas Frances’s cousin Edward Francisco Burney appropriated Mai’s cultural identity by dressing as him at a masquerade. Finally, Ruth also raised another example of Burney creative collaboration when James forged a second career as a man of letters; his book about his South Sea adventures was illustrated by his cousin Edward (he of the masquerade costume).

The second speaker on this panel was Christine Davies (Kent): ‘Multi-media inspiration for fashion interrogation: Evelina and the print world of Edward Burney’. Christine’s paper outlined further Burney creative and professional partnerships. Edward Burney was a ‘flexible’ artist, who illustrated a range of fashion plates for Ackermann, Lane’s Ladies’ Museum and others, but also illustrated ‘canonical’ literature such as an edition of Paradise Lost, the illustrations for which were less ‘sentimental’. Davies detected a resemblance between Edward Burney’s style for the fashion plates and that of his illustrations for his cousin’s novel, Evelina. She continued to pick out the tension between realism and fashion, which worked oppositionally in the construction of gender. In Frances Burney’s Evelina, 1770s ‘fashionability’ could be equated with artificial Frenchness, which must be exposed and excised from the narrative world. The ordeals faced by eighteenth-century fashionables comprised dressing inappropriately, risking moral exposure, and being bitten by monkeys. What, then, might we infer from Edward’s ‘fashionable’ illustrations of Evelina about his views on his cousin’s literary feat?

The final paper before the keynote was delivered by Dr. Amy Erickson (Cambridge), and entitled ‘The Sleepe family of fanmakers’. Amy shared a fascinating and entirely new discovery, made in the archives of the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers: Frances Burney’s mother Esther Sleepe, grandmother Frances Sleepe and two maternal aunts were all successful fanmakers (about 300 of whom practiced in England during the late eighteenth century, mainly women employing other women). In fact, Amy suggested, since they were based in elite locations and had wealthy, influential customers, they were the ‘financially successful pillars’ supporting Charles Burney and his family, and may even have facilitated many of his social connections too. Frances Burney, therefore, spent her childhood ‘surrounded by successful businesswomen’. Knowing that Burney grew up around fanmakers casts a lot of her literature in a different light – The Witlings and The Wanderer, for example, have both impressed and baffled critics due to their unusually detailed and sympathetic portraits of women’s manual labour. Thanks to Amy’s discovery, we have a context for this tendency – and a fascinating new avenue for Burney studies.

Finally, we welcomed our keynote speaker: Professor Peter Sabor (McGill), whose paper was entitled ‘The march of intimacy: Dr. Burney and Dr. Johnson’. In a recent article, Peter studied Burney as a ‘keeper of the flame’, heaping tributes on Johnson for three decades, from Johnson’s death in December 1784 until his own death in April 1814. In this paper, he looked at the previous three decades, when Burney initiated and gradually burnished a friendship with Johnson, who would play a crucial role in facilitating his move through the ranks as the lowly musician became a highly respected man of letters. Burney’s first letter to Johnson in 1755 ostensibly focused on securing copies of his Dictionary, but was carefully calibrated to gain entry into Johnson’s circle: deletions in the manuscript letter about the Dictionary show, ironically, that he was constantly searching for the right word. Johnson was responsive to Burney’s letter, and the two met and became friends, though on an unequal footing. With the publication of his General History Of Music, however, Burney could transition from Johnson’s fan to his peer. Johnson was known to despise music, but if Burney could be known as a man-of-letters then the problem would be mitigated. Peter gave us an overview of the creative exchanges between the two men in later years: While Johnson was reading proofs of Burney’s General History of Music, for example, Burney was reading the manuscript and proofs of Johnson’s last work: Lives of the Poets. By the time of Johnson’s death, Charles Burney had been high in his estimation, a testament to the inimitable Burney networking skills.


In the final Q&A of a very long day, several themes were raised that responded not only to Peter’s paper but also to the collective corpus of research presented over the whole symposium: networking, ‘intimacy’, professionalism and credibility, and the interplay of visual and textual forms as points of access to ‘the Burney family’. For me, the interdisciplinary makeup of the symposium provided a fitting way—perhaps the only credible way?—to understand a kinship network that was, itself, highly interdisciplinary. The literary endeavours of Frances Burney and her sisters should not be seen in isolation from the artistic, critical, musical, commercial, and cross-cultural activities of other family members: as numerous papers pointed out, the creative partnerships facilitated within the family were crucial to securing literary success.

The day finished with a reception in the beautiful Viriamu Jones Gallery, where Christine Davies was presented with a bursary for the best postgraduate abstract submitted for the symposium, kindly sponsored by the Burney Society (UK). We then enjoyed a fine curry at Juboraj, where sociability (if not scandal) prevailed until the small hours. Many thanks to all delegates and attendees for a fantastic day, and for a fascinating array of new perspectives on the Burney family.

3 thoughts on “CONFERENCE REPORT: ‘Scandal and sociability: New perspectives on the Burney family’.

  1. […] A symposium held at Cardiff University on 1 September 2015 considered the Burney family as a composite whole, asking how their sociable network and often tumultuous internal dynamics influenced the remarkable spate of cultural and sociable activity carried out by its polymathic members. This exhibition of rare print and visual material relating to the Burney family and circle was designed and curated by Dr. Sophie Coulombeau (School of English, Communication and Philosophy) and Alison Harvey (Special Collections and Archives) to complement the symposium. […]


  2. […] A special issue of the journal Eighteenth-Century Life (Duke University Press) called ‘New Perspectives on the Burney Family’ will be published in 2017, edited by Dr. Sophie Coulombeau (Cardiff University). It will feature selected papers from an international symposium held at Cardiff University in September 2015 called ‘Scandal and Sociability: New Perspectives on the Burney Family’. For a report on the symposium, please see here. […]


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