A Frances Burney Mystery

An engraved portrait of Frances Burney, after a 1782 painting by Edward Francis Burney (MA 146391.150)

Working my way through the Morgan’s enormous collection of letters, one by one—as I’ve been doing for the past ten months on a cataloging grant from the Leon Levy Foundation—has meant regularly encountering extraordinary items whose significance often hasn’t been fully understood. 

One of the former is a single leaf from the eighteenth-century British author Frances Burney’s first novel, Evelina, or A Young Lady’s Entrance into the World. Burney, who Virginia Woolf called “the mother of English fiction,” began writing Evelina when she was in her mid ‘20s, while she was working as her father Charles Burney’s secretary and copyist. Charles Burney was a musician and the author of books on music, and Frances had helped him ready his monumental History of Music for publication in the early 1770s. Frances, however, wanted to publish her novel anonymously, and this posed a problem: publishers might recognize her handwriting and assume that the esteemed historian of music Charles Burney had written this “anonymous” novel about a young lady’s romantic entanglements. So she devised what she called a “feigned hand”—a style of handwriting that masked her own—and copied over the first and second volumes of the novel in this hand. It was the manuscript in the “feigned hand” that she had her brother Charles (got up in what Frances later described as “an old great coat, and a large old hat, to give him a somewhat antique as well as vulgar disguise”) bring to the bookseller Thomas Lowndes, who accepted the novel provisionally, as long as he liked the rest of it, and ended up publishing it in 1778. 

In the very first folder of my department’s collection of Burney materials lies a page containing the text from the end of Letter 18 (Evelina is an epistolary novel) with a note in Burney’s handwriting at the top, reading “specimen of the feigned hand in which Evelina was written for disguise to Mr. Lowndes." My job was to examine the existing catalog record for the page and improve it, if possible, with new or fuller information. But as I studied the page, I felt there was a more fundamental question to be answered: was this item what it said it was? What did Burney mean by “specimen”? Was this a page from the manuscript she had submitted to Lowndes, or something she’d created later, in order to demonstrate the hand and re-tell the entertaining backstory of her first, and very successful, publication? One way to try and determine this would be to find other pages of the “feigned hand” manuscript, if they still existed, and compare them with the Morgan’s page.  

The Morgan’s page from Evelina (MA 35.1) Zoom

Fortunately, it turned out that one of the world’s largest collections of Burney materials was right up the block, at the Berg Collection of English and American Literature in the New York Public Library. And the Berg’s online catalog said that they had an autograph (meaning written by Burney) manuscript of Evelina. Could the Morgan’s page have come from the Berg manuscript? Had they been lying a few blocks away from each other in New York all these years? It made a kind of sense. Maybe they’d traveled over from England at the same time, in a single sale or bought by a single collector, and had been parceled out among different institutions when they reached New York.  

So I scheduled an appointment to see the Berg manuscript and went in, clutching my library card and an iPad with a photo of the Morgan’s page. And they were nothing at all like each other: the Morgan’s page is carefully copied out in a spiky bold hand on a large sheet of paper, with headings and chapter numbers included, as if ready to be set in type by the printer. The Berg’s manuscript was utterly different: a pile of pages of variable sizes, covered with deletions and re-workings, all written in the loping “natural” hand I’d become familiar with as I’d read Burney’s letters to her brother James and other family members, which form the bulk of the Morgan’s Burney collection. It was very unlikely, I concluded, that the Morgan’s page had come from this stage of Evelina’s composition, and it certainly wasn’t the “feigned hand” manuscript I’d been looking for. 

At this point, I turned to scholars, specifically Stewart J. Cooke, who had edited the 1998 Norton edition of Evelina. Cooke is Associate Director of the Burney Centre at McGill University, from which the many volumes of the scholarly edition of Burney’s complete correspondence have been issuing since the 1970s. I sent off an email, asking if he knew anything about the location of the rest of the “feigned hand” manuscript, and in a few weeks, the answer came back. Cooke had consulted with two other Burney scholars, Hilary Havens and Peter Sabor, and they concurred that they knew of no other existing pages from this manuscript. I turned back to the folder with the leaf from Evelina in it. The Morgan’s page looked vivid and crisp. But it had also acquired a kind of solitary spookiness. And preciousness. Evelina is three hundred and thirty-seven pages long in the Norton edition, and yet apparently, despite the importance of this manuscript to Burney’s career and to literary history, only one page had survived. I put it away very carefully. 


Sal Robinson is a Levy Project Cataloger in the Literary and Historical Manuscripts department, conducting research on a large collection of British letters from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. She has also worked as an editor for international literature at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Melville House.

The Leon Levy Foundation is generously underwriting a major project to upgrade catalog records for the Morgan's collection of literary and historical manuscripts. The project is the most substantive effort to date to improve primary research information on a portion of this large and highly important collection.

Blog category: