Fanny Burney

Curiosity regarding the author of Evelina

Streatham, Sept.—Our Monday’s intended great party was very small, for people are so dispersed at present in various quarters: we had, therefore, only Sir Joshua Reynolds, two Miss Palmers, Dr. Calvert, Mr. Rose Fuller, and Lady Ladd. Dr. Johnson did not return.

Sir Joshua I am much pleased with: I like his countenance, and I like his manners; the former I think expressive, and sensible; the latter gentle, unassuming, and engaging.

The dinner, in quantity as well as quality, would have sufficed for forty people. Sir Joshua said, when the dessert appeared, “Now if all the company should take a fancy to the same dish, there would be sufficient for all the company from any one.”

After dinner, as usual, we strolled out: I ran first into the hall for my cloak,—and Mrs. Thrale, running after me, said in a low voice,

“If you are taxed with Evelina, don’t own it; I intend to say it is mine, for sport’s sake.”

You may think how much I was surprised, and how readily I agreed not to own it; but I could ask no questions, for the two Miss Palmers followed close, saying,

“Now pray, ma’am, tell us who it is?”

“No, no,” cried Mrs. Thrale, “who it is, you must find out. I have told you that you dined with the author; but the rest you must make out as you can.”

Miss Thrale began tittering violently, but I entreated her not to betray me; and, as soon as I could, I got Mrs. Thrale to tell me what all this meant. She then acquainted me, that, when she first came into the parlour, she found them all busy in talking of Evelina, and heard that Sir Joshua had declared he would give fifty pounds to know the author!

“Well,” said Mrs. Thrale, “thus much, then, I Will tell you; the author will dine with you to-day.”

They were then all distracted to know the party.

“Why,” said she, “we shall have Dr. Calvert, Lady Ladd, Rose Fuller, and Miss Burney.”

“Miss Burney?” quoth they, “which Miss Burney?”

“Why, the eldest, Miss Fanny Burney; and so out of this list you must make out the author.”

I shook my head at her, but begged her, at least, to go no further.

“No, no,” cried she, laughing, “leave me alone; the fun will be to make them think it me.”

However as I learnt at night, when they were gone, Sir Joshua was so very importunate with Mr. Thrale, and attacked him with such eagerness, that he made him confess who it was, as soon a the ladies retired. Well, to return to our walk. The Miss Palmers grew more and more urgent.

“Did we indeed,” said the eldest, “dine with the author of Evelina?”

“Yes, in good truth did you.”

“Why then, ma’am, it was yourself.”

“I shan’t tell you whether it was or not; but were there not other people at dinner besides me? What think you of Dr. Calvert?”

“Dr. Calvert? no! no; I am sure it was not he: besides, they say it was certainly written by a woman.”

“By a woman? Nay, then, is not here Lady Ladd, and Miss Burney, and Hester?”

“Lady Ladd I am sure it was not, nor could it be Miss Thrale’s. O ma’am! I begin to think it was really yours! Now, was it not, Mrs. Thrale?”

Mrs. Thrale only laughed.

“A lady of our acquaintance,” said Miss Palmer, “Mrs. Cholmondeley, went herself to the printer, but he would not tell.”

“Would he not?” cried Mrs. Thrale, “why, then, he’s an honest man.”

“Oh, is he so?—nay, then, it is certainly Mrs. Thrale’s.”

“Well, well, I told you before I should not deny it.”

“Miss Burney,” said she, “pray do you deny it?” in a voice that seemed to say,—I must ask round, though rather from civility than suspicion.

“Me?” cried I, “well no: if nobody else will deny it, why should I? It does not seem the fashion to deny it.”

“No, in truth,” cried she; “I believe nobody would think of denying it that could claim it, for it is the sweetest book in the world. My uncle could not go to bed till he had finished it, and he says he is sure he shall make love to the author, if ever he meets with her, and it should really be a woman!”

“Dear madam,” cried Miss Offy, “I am sure it was you but why will you not own it at once?”

“I shall neither own nor deny anything about it.”

“A gentleman whom we know very well,” said Miss Palmer, when he could learn nothing at the printer’s, took the trouble to go all about Snow Hill, to see if he could find any silversmith’s.”

“Well, he was a cunning creature!” said Mrs. Thrale; “but Dr. Johnson’s favourite is Mr. Smith.”

“So he is of everybody,” answered she: “he and all that family; everybody says such a family never was drawn before. But Mrs. Cholmondeley’s favourite is Madame Duval; she acts her from morning to night, and ma-fois everybody she sees. But though we all want so much to know the author, both Mrs. Cholmondeley and my uncle himself say they should be frightened to death to be in her company, because she must be such a very nice observer, that there would be no escaping her with safety.”

What strange ideas are taken from mere book-reading! But what follows gave me the highest delight I can feel.

“Mr. Burke,” she continued, “dotes on it: he began it one morning at seven o’clock, and could not leave it a moment; he sat up all night reading it. He says he has not seen such a book he can’t tell when.”

Mrs. Thrale gave me involuntarily a look of congratulation, and could not forbear exclaiming, “How glad she was Mr. Burke approved it!” This served to confirm the Palmers in their mistake, and they now, without further questioning, quietly and unaffectedly concluded the book to be really Mrs. Thrale’s and Miss Palmer said,—“Indeed, ma’am, you ought to write a novel every year: nobody can write like you!”

I was both delighted and diverted at this mistake, and they grew so easy and so satisfied under it, that the conversation dropped, and Offy went to the harpsichord.

Not long after, the party broke up, and they took leave. I had no conversation with Sir Joshua all day; but I found myself more an object of attention to him than I wished; and he several times spoke to me, though he did not make love!

When they rose to take leave, Miss Palmer, with the air of asking the greatest of favours, hoped to see me when I returned to town; and Sir Joshua, approaching me with the most profound respect, inquired how long I should remain at Streatham? A week, I believed: and then he hoped, when I left it, they should have the honour of seeing me in Leicester Square.

In short, the joke is, the people speak as if they were afraid of me, instead of my being afraid of them. It seems, when they got to the door, Miss Palmer said to Mrs. Thrale, “Ma’am, so it’s Miss Burney after all!”

“Ay, sure,” answered she, “who should it be?”

“Ah! why did not you tell us sooner?” said Offy, “that we might have had a little talk about it?”

Here, therefore, end all my hopes of secrecy!

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MLA Citation

Burney, Fanny. “Curiosity regarding the author of Evelina.” . Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 1 Dec 2006. 22 May 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/burney/curiosity_regarding_the_author_off_evelina/>.

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