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Sarah Harriet and Frances Burney

The Corvey Project at
Sheffield Hallam University

by Maryam Trabelsi, MA student, May 2006

Comparison Between some of the work of Sarah Harriet Burney and that of Frances Burney

This essay will focus on Clarentine (published in 1796) and Evelina (published in 1778), both of which present the notion of domestic life and manners and are courtship novels. I will also argue how Sarah H.Burney approaches incest in her present novel and to what extent her own life permeated her fiction. In so doing I will compare her work with her half-sister Frances Burney.

For most authors there is a question of why they became writers, for Sarah Burney it is hard to see how she could not become one, growing up as she did in a world of literary activity. She had always known her father as an author and in fact he published his latest work, a biography of Metastasio, in the same year as Camilla and Clarentine. Following in his footsteps was more than an appeal for his approval. It was more of an application for membership of the “first” family, and more of a search for family belonging which can be found in Clarentine. However, the most important familial factor in Sarah’s becoming a novelist was undoubtedly her relationship to Frances, her half sister. This worked on a personal and a more general level. In the first place, the publication of Evelina had transformed the lives of all the Burneys and Sarah had grown up in the knowledge of what Frances had achieved through writing. She had seen how Frances had won their father’s favour in this way since it was only after the success of Evelina that Dr.Burney began to take his shy daughter out into society. An element of sibling rivalry is evident even in the timing of Clarentine.

Sarah was twenty-three when her first novel was published, beating the family record held by Frances of a book by the age of twenty-six. In a gesture that can only be read as defiance, Sarah pits Clarentine, A Novel against Camilla, A Picture of Youth.

Sarah Burney explores the problems that faced orphan young ladies in a society based on patriarchal power. She achieves this exploration through the narrative structure of domestic life and the dynamics of the family. Flint argues that writers of the late eighteenth and the nineteenth century through the structural pattern of narrative discourse, described and instructed readers on family matters, He further argues that

            “The intense detail of the prose fiction, its protracted form, and its sentence-by-sentence scrutiny of the verbal and familial intricacies of relationship evinces an idealized, self-sufficient community of affective individuals whose relationships to each other are concise and fully legible. Thus, despite its often negative representation of family, eighteenth-century prose narrative reified family structure, constructing a cognitive as well as descriptive framework that by its very nature endorsed “familiar relations.” 2

Sarah Harriet’s attitude towards family is reflected in her novel Clarentine. She sees the family as an elusive haven and all her protagonists but one, are orphans who seek to reintegrate the family life they were alienated from.

Sarah Harriet tried in Clarentine to combine satirical comedy with the sentimental heroine like Frances did in Evelina. However, the most memorable source of humour in Evelina is physical, for example the incident with the monkey, Madame Duval’s incident or the race between the old women. It involves humiliation and the grotesque. In Clarentine, the humour is derived from dialogue or actions such as Sophia singing “why so pale and wan, fond lover?” to Eltham. This is a comedy of character, illuminating both Sophia and Eltham and their situation whilst making the reader smile.

Evelina and Clarentine are of an age but whereas the former is completely untried, the latter is mature and capable from the very beginning. At the age of ten she undertakes sole care of little Emma since Lady Delmington “perceived, that though of an age, when most girls require constant observance themselves, Clarentine had prudence enough to preserve her little charge from danger, and penetration enough to discover, and check with mildness, all her infantine caprices and follies”(I,20-1). These characteristics are carried into adulthood where, in place of the often bewildered Evelina, Sarah Burney gives us a heroine who is stable, competent and practical. The fact that she is also proud, petulant, sharp-tongued and fond of attention prevents her from being an ideal “picture of youth” like Camilla. Stangely these characteristics could be applied to Sarah Harriet herself. Moreover, these characteristics shape much of the drama which follows and cause Clarentine some difficulty; for example, upon leaving Delmington house, she writes a note to Sophia which “to one who believed her guilty…. Might appear too much to border upon a spirit of independence and pride” (I,280).(exactly as for Sarah Harriet herself when she ran away to set house with James) But they also ensure that she experiences none of the moral panic to which contemporary heroines are so prone. They demonstrate a major change in preoccupation from Evelina. While the heroine of that novel is constantly worried that her social faux pas will make a bad impression on her new acquaintances, Clarentine is angry, at one point “sickened”, that others are so quick to attribute to her sentiments which she does not feel. This anger makes her self-image more substantial than that of Evelina.

Clarentine’s early maturity stems from her unsettled upbringing and need to adapt to unfamiliar surroundings. Like Frances, Sarah Harriet Burney was fascinated by questions of dislocation and lost identity. The heroines of both authors are mainly brought up by parental substitutes and find their birthright troublesome but Clarentine’s situation is worse than that of her counterparts. Evelina and Cecilia are given warm, loving backgrounds, regardless of their orphaned status, and their childhood homes offer protection from danger. Clarentine, by contrast, is kept at Delmington House partly “from ignorance where to place her”(I,20) and she lacks both steady affection and a sense of belonging. Although loved by all, she is treated differently from her cousins, gaining her education “by being suffered to assist at the lessons” bestowed on them (I,26) and deferring to the demands of the “real” family as nursemaid or companion. Her ease and reputation are swiftly sacrificed when they conflict with the dynastic ambitions of the family as represented by Edgar’s marriage to Lady Julia.

The precariousness of Clarentine’s situation is underlined by the fact that for her the home is never a refuge but the place in which trouble finds her. While still at Delmington House, she finds her peace broken by the outside world, first in the warnings given by Somerset and then in the machinations against her by Mrs Harrington. It is significant that the first description of Clarentine’s beauty comes from a stranger, Mrs Harrington, viewing her in a domestic setting and misrepresenting what has been natural behaviour as calculated seduction. The home provides no hiding place from such wilful misunderstanding and assaults. In her aunt’s house, Clarentine is pursued by Edgar to the bedroom she shares with Emma, while in Sidmouth, Eltham stealthily enters through the garden window, catching her unawares. Her first reaction on seeing her apartment in Hampstead is that she, at last, has a place of her own, but even while she is thinking this, Miss Barclay bursts into the room and later this space becomes a prison from which she watches Somerset and Mrs Hertford and waits in vain for Somerset’s visit. Clarentine is frequently described as dashing upstairs or into the heart of a house to escape persecution but each of the houses in which she stays rapidly becomes claustrophobic and none provides defence against invasion.

In establishing the source of Clarentine’s vulnerability, Sarah Harriet Burney replaces Evelina’s lack of paternal recognition with a lack of wealth to support the heroine’s name, thereby highlighting the link between poverty and weakness. Mrs Harrington, and to a lesser extent Lady Delmington, see Clarentine as a threat to Edgar because she has no fortune. Somerset tries to strengthen Clarentine’s position by giving her money, literally in the form of a pocket book and symbolically as a pledge of support, but it is not until Clarentine at last inherits money from his father that she is finally secure and the chain of surrogate fathers who have died on the point of ensuring her independence is broken. Tellingly, it is in response to this news that Lady Delmington refers to her as potentially one of the “proud Delmingtons”(II,165). Her kinship is questionable until she has a financial identity. It is also only when she has reached this coming of age that she is able to mature emotionally and begin to love as an adult woman.

While Evelina concentrates mostly on the social inexperience of the heroine, Clarentine’s inexperience lies wholly in emotional terms and it is there that her education in the novel must also be concentrated. She moves from the cold certainties of childhood, where she can tell Edgar and Eltham that she does not love them and then dismiss them with little fellow-feeling of their genuine suffering, to the less sure world of adult emotions where the standard rules and morals do not work. Awareness of the change in the nature of her love for Somerset shakes her out of her complacent faith in her won judgement. Previously she has always relied on her own integrity, fearing for her aunt’s reputation rather than her own as regards the acquaintance with Mrs Hertford, for example. Suddenly, she finds herself forced into false positions and unable to behave naturally. Her ease is shattered by adult emotions, rather than adult responsibilities or the actions of others, and her pride causes her to fight against these feelings. Although consumed by jealousy of Mrs Hertford, she is driven to pretence and flight by an overwhelming need to avoid pity, whether from Lenham or Somerset.
In a sense, it is her struggle to combat love which creates most of the complications in the second half of the novel, leading to the point at which she declares “of late, my whole life has been a lie!”(III,68).

The instability which results from this loss of composure and internal conflict leads to violent mood swings. She admits to “a slight degree of resentment against Somerset” for his seemingly inconsistent behaviour (II,198), but at the same time reflects that she has not right “to manifest open to blame, or cherish secret displeasure” and that it is “as degrading to evince such unwarranted petulance, as even to betray her unreturned partiality” (II,232). The transition to emotional maturity is intensely realised through some of the most affecting and powerfully written scenes in the novel. It has a psychological interest and depth remarkable for a work in this genre.
Clarentine is different from the self-effacing Camilla because in the first there is a strong advocacy of a woman’right to love whom she will, regardless of society or the convention which demands a woman must love only on command, which allies Sarah Harriet Burney with Wollstonecraft and Hays.

Clarentine’s relationship with Somerset, contrasted with her other suitors, is self-evidently what makes this a courtship novel but its development further shows Burney working against the conventions and towards an exploration of the appropriate response to romantic love. Shaffer addresses one type of familialization which happens when a sibling or parental/filial love changes to romantic/sexualized love at least on one side.

“Here I distinguish between actual incestuous feelings and what I call "figural incest" to represent that shift in emotion occurring when the characters in question are not related but have nonetheless developed sibling or parental/filial love for one another before sexualization arises…As with literal incest, the relation of figural incest to familialization might seem contradictory because normally, loving someone as though he or she were already a part of one's family means excluding the possibility of loving that person sexually. Hence the taboo against incest, which ensures that sexuality extend the family or kinship chain. Yet in the late 18th century, familial feeling between two non-blood-related characters is shown capable of glossing into sexual feeling unproblematically. Throughout the period, female protagonists say they love their suitors as a sister loves her brother, and sometimes this means they will never love that suitor martially as in Charlotte Smith's 1788 Emmeline. Elsewhere, female characters who at first love their suitors as brothers or father-figures find their love shifting into maritally-directed feelings, and this movement is treated as positive; such is the case in Austen's novels - Emma and Mansfield Park, for instance, as Glenda Hudson has recently argued. Other such works include Burney's 1778 Evelina, in its treatment of Evelina's relationship with Lord Orville.”3

Frances Burney in Evelina approached incest like many other authors of her time to titillate her readers’interest. Whereas, Sarah Harriet Burney introduced incest in Clarentine to make the family stronger in the same manner that Jane Austen did. As Hudson argues that Jane Austen used the incest theme between cousins who lived together since childhood and behaved towards each other like true brother and sister, to promote and fortify the family. Unlike the protagonists of Shelley and Byron in their depiction of incestuous relationships which are in fact scandalous and involve sibling incest, she further argues:

            “Austen does not appear to be breaking any taboo or taking a rebellious or scandalous stand in her depiction of endogamous unions; rather, she seems to be concerned with desensationalizing the fixation with incest. Her concerns are wholly antipathetic to those of Byron and Shelley in their portrayals of incestuous liaison. In fact, Austen finds positive reasons for members of the same family unit to marry, providing, of course, that they are not actually siblings. In her novels, the in-family marriages between the cousins and in-laws are successful because they do not grow out of sexual longing but are rooted in a deeper, more abiding domestic love which merges spiritual, intellectual, and physical affinities.”4

In Clarentine, Edgar is the protagonist’s cousin and they have been brought up together as brother and sister. They are bound by strong family obligations and their affections have been formed within the domestic circle and therefore they are seen by the society as brother and sister. However, Edgar courts Clarentine as soon as she reaches puberty but in her innocence she does not understand his behaviour until he declares his love to her in tender words. The destruction of Edgar’s relationship with Clarentine through his unrequited passion casts a dark shadow on Clarentine’s seemingly one-sided love for Somerset, given the similarity of the circumstances. Edgar is the first character to find that the need to hide deep feelings injures where one wishes to protect as he is forced to break his bond of trust with his cousin and act dishonestly towards her. He leaves Clarentine bewildered and betrayed, long before his selfish behaviour and lack of restraint forces her out of the house . She misses the signs of his jealously because she still looks upon him as a playmate, a brother, while Edgar’s reaction to her leads others to view her as a sexual object and therefore a danger to domestic harmony.

Therefore, Sarah Harriet Burney, sees Edgar’s love for Clarentine as incestuous because they have shared a house together, played together and hence should consider themselves as sister and brother. Edgar’s declaration to Clarentine shakes the balance of the domestic harmony and as a punishment he has to marry Lady Julia whom he does not love. As for Clarentine she has to go because she is the evil serpent that disturbed the family paradise.

Sarah Burney condones Clarentine and William Somerset love and marriage although they are first cousin, because, although they shared a house when children for sometime, they lived separately and met once again when Clarentine was thirteen and later when she was seventeen. Even though William was many years older than Clarentine and behaved protectively towards her, his attitude was more like an uncle than that of a cousin. Neverthe less, having not shared a house when growing up was for Burney reason enough not to consider their relationship incestuous.
Edgar demonstrates all that is wrong in an incestuous relationship; selfishness, jealousy and deception brought right into the family home in violation of all honour, while William Somerset represents a higher level on which likeness creates harmony and trust.

Clarentine also shares a rake with Evelina , Eltham’s behaviour throughout is disreputable. He threatens Clarentine’s reputation and peace of mind. However, he is also a romantic figure in his wilful pursuit of his own passion and his belief that real love is a question of “the animated and ever-varying transports of a passion, which sometimes breaks out into petulance and caprice, then melts again into tenderness and complacency” (II,221)

Clarentine is confronted for the second time with explicit sexual feelings. Eltham declares that if Clarentine rejects his friendship, she should make him “a passionate, but selfish – a designing lover”(II,113); he threatens rape, asking “why should I be so much my own enemy, as to renounce from a chimerical notion of honour, a false principle of rectitude, which even you expect me not now to be guided by, the only chance of happiness I have yet in view, the happiness of confirming your dependence upon me, though I cannot secure your heart”(II,122); and, as Clarentine is all too well aware although he has avowed himself to her, “his hand, or his faith, had never been comprised in the enumeration!”(II,243). It is only when he is absolutely dismissed that Eltham is compelled to make an honourable proposal to her. Her refusal transforms him from a Sir Clement Willoughby into a comic but sympathric, crest fallen lover.

Clarentine is also a courtship novel , it is the story of the transition from girlhood to marriage, with the heroine facing challenges in learning to judge the world, to overcome emotional problems and to select an appropriate husband. Kelly analysed Frances Burney’s use of the conventions :

            “Burney’s novels expose a young, inexperienced, and sensitive heroine to the perplexing relativities of a complex and conflicted social world, relativities that the heroine must negotiate in order to reach her true or rightful place in society. This place turns out to be a home and husband of her own, a domestic refuge from the social relativities traversed with such peril to the self, its moral integrity, and its social identity.(5)

In Clarentine, the emphasis on personal feeling overrides the usual preoccupation with a young woman’s introduction to society. For Sarah Burney the social world is a fact of life. Clarentine and her companions are not accustomed to fancy balls and other entertainments but neither are they daunted by them. The heroine simply laughs when she does not understand an invitation, and the standard dilemma of whether or not one is engaged to dance is a source of amusement rather than embarrassment. Crucially, the young women in Clarentine are not judged on their ability to negotiate an unfamiliar and menacing world. In the models on which Sarah Burney drew, society is often the principal test of the heroine’s worth and the greatest influence on her happiness. In Frances Burney’s novels, the heroines struggle to prove their worthiness to their prospective husbands through their moral survival in a social world where the rules are traps to catch the unwary and the impact on those who falter is increasingly horrific. In Clarentine, on the other hand, marriage results in an extension of social opportunities in the same benevolent world as before, not a retreat from it. Society is not a metaphor for one’s path through life but a mechanism for moving the plot forward.

A good example of the difference is the contrast between Clarentine’s attempt to visit the theatre with Mrs Barclay, the only social disaster she suffers, and Evelina’s visit to the opera with her cousins. Evelina almost dies of shame to be seen in such poor company; Clarentine is unable to enter the theatre, although unobserved, because she is unused to crowds. The episode gives Eltham a chance to behave in an honourable fashion, rescuing Clarentine in the same way as she was rescued by Somerset in the first chapter of the novel. The allusion to Sir Clement Willoughby who carries Evelina off by force is also surely intended.

The inclusion of the D’Arzeles in the novel could be as a parallel to Evelina’ s Mme Duval, her grand-mother ,though it has been attributed by critics to Sarah Burney’s wish to pay homage to her sister and brother-in-law. If so, it is a mixed compliment since the Chevalier de Valcour’s abstention from romantic involvement is explained as a noble reaction to the disadvantages of his impoverished position (II,36). This could easily be read as criticism of M.d’Arblay who was reduced to living off his wife’s earnings in similar circumstances. However, the biographical references should not obscure more important reasons for the inclusion of French émigrés in Clarentine. They give the novel precise contemporary relevance, and their treatment has interesting implications for Sarah Burney’s reaction to French thought and politics.

Clarentine’s own connections with France are strong but finely balanced. The fact that Clarentine is half-French, named after her French mother, is never stressed and although her intimacy with the d’Arzeles is given a positive value, she is clearly superior in strength and decisiveness to her gentle, elegant aunt. Moreover, while shunning the horrors of the Revolution itself, Clarentine is not supportive of the regime which preceded it and with which the d’Arzeles are associated.

Clarentine then is a novel of the 1790s. It uses the basic narrative of Evelina and similar works to explore themes which do not naturally fit into the novel of manners and courtship. Clarentine is less about finding a husband and conquering the social world that about establishing friendships and relying on one’s own judgement. Whereas men judge and reward in Evelina and Camilla and demand sacrifices in Cecilia, in Clarentine female power is the ascendant. There are no father-figures with any influence and neither the heroine nor the other girls regard the younger male generation as mentors or moral guides. They are therefore free to choose, where they have the wit to do so, and to assert their own judgement and values.
Clarentine is concerned with psychology rather than plot twist. It is about desensationalizing incestuous relationships between first cousins in a society that shuns such relationships.One cannot help, when reading Clarentine, but make a connection between the relationship of the protagonist and her future husband Somerset, with Sarah Burney’s relationship with her half-brother James.

It is obvious then that Sarah Burney was reacting to her sister’s work in her own style rather than slavishly copying it. It is really the difference between the two that make Clarentine stand out as a work in its own right. Moreover, I would argue that Sarah Harriet shares many of the subtleties and stylistic and thematic concerns of Frances Burney and Jane Austen. She writes in a style a great deal more elegant than most of her contemporaries and draws very believable and not excessively romantic characters.


Primary Texts
1- Burney Sarah Harriet ,Clarentine, A Novel,3 vols , J.Robinson, London,1796
2- Burney Fanny, Evelina,1778, ed.Edward A.Bloom, World’s Classics Oxford,1982
3-Burney Fanny, Camilla,1796, ed.Edward A.Bloom and Lillian D.Bloom, World’s Classics Oxford,1983
4-Burney Fanny, Cecilia,1778, Judy Simons, Virago, London, 1982

Secondary Texts:
1- Katherine Sobba Green, The Courtship Novel 1740-1820, Lexington : Kentucky University Press, (1991),p.2

2-Flint Christopher , Family Fictions: Narrative and Domestic Relations in Britain 1688-1798, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, (1998), p.16-17

3-Shaffer Julie, Forming Friends, Family, and Lovers:The Sexual Problematics of Sentimental Bonds in Non-Canonical Late 18th-Century Woman-Penned, Novels Conference:Early Modern Culture 1450-1850, Group for Early Modern Cultural Studies,Rochester, New York, November 1994
4- Hudson Glenda A., Sibling Love and Incest in Jane Austen’s fiction.,Macmillan Academic and Professional Ltd, London, 1992, p.25
5- Kelly Gary, English Fiction of the Romantic Period, 1789-1830, Longman, (1988),p.45