Charles Burney (1726-1814), eminent music historian and man of letters, son of a musician and dancer, was a central figure in the literary, artistic and musical world of late eighteenth-century London, regularly to be found at Joshua Reynolds’ dining club among the leading figures of the day.
In February 1783 the French philosopher and politician Jacques Pierre Brissot (1754-1793), known as Brissot de Warville, moved to London with his wife, Félicité Dupont, a year after their marriage. Shortly after his arrival Brissot met Burney at the home of the lawyer and pamphleteer Simon Nicolas Henri Linguet (1736-1794). About a month later, on 16 March 1783, Brissot wrote to Burney, in French, from his lodgings in Brompton Row, initiating a correspondence that would continue for several months. In his letter, intended to renew their recent acquaintance, Brissot expressed his high esteem for Burney’s General history of music (1776-1789), of which the first two of four volumes had been published, and indicated his eagerness to meet Burney again. Enclosed with the letter was a prospectus for a forthcoming periodical, in which Brissot hoped to reproduce a portrait of Burney’s daughter Frances (1752-1840), whose bestselling first novel Evelina (1778) had recently been followed by the much longer and also highly successful Cecilia (1782).
This intriguing letter, held by the Beinecke Library at Yale University, has never been published, although it is briefly summarized in the notes to the first volume of Burney’s letters, the only one published to date. (The Letters of Dr Charles Burney, vol. 1, 1751-1784, ed. Alvaro Ribeiro, S.J., Oxford, 1991, p.357. Five further volumes of this edition are now in progress, under my general editorship; Burney’s letters to Brissot will be published as an appendix to volume six.) This volume does include an undated draft of Burney’s reply, which he wrote, in laboured French dictated to Frances, on the verso of the second page of Brissot’s letter. Burney here tells Brissot that although his daughter is flattered by the request, she cannot grant it. Thomas Cadell, the publisher of Cecilia, had also wished to reproduce her portrait as the frontispiece to the fourth edition, ‘mais y ayant une répugnance invincible, elle lui a donné un refus absolu’ (p.358). Unknown to Ribeiro, the fair copy of this letter, in Charles Burney’s hand and dated 25 March 1783, is also extant, in the Fonds Brissot of the Archives nationales de France. This copy contains a concluding paragraph, absent from the draft published by Ribeiro, in which Burney cagily tells Brissot that while he would like to invite him for a visit to the Burneys’ home on St Martin’s Street, ‘je suis si rarement au logis, qu’il m’est à cet heure impossible de trouver un moment pour entretenir mes amis les plus intimes’.
Brissot’s reply to Burney’s letter, probably sent in late March, is missing. But Burney’s response to that letter, written on 2 April 1783, is also in the Fonds Brissot, together with three further hitherto unknown letters by Burney. This cache of material was discovered by the historian of eighteenth-century Anglo-French relations Simon MacDonald, to whom I much indebted. I am also grateful to the Burney scholar Lorna Clark, for providing me with photographs and draft transcriptions of the letters.
In his April letter to Brissot, Burney addresses his new correspondent in English, in preference to what he terms ‘the miserable French I am able to write’. He thanks Brissot for the interest he has taken in Frances Burney’s novels, and ‘the frank manner in which you have spoken of their merits & defects’; in the absence of Brissot’s letter, regrettably, the nature of these criticisms remains unknown. Burney next alludes to remarks that Brissot has made about Voltaire, who, ‘with all his wit & reputation, has never been able to convince the English that Shakespeare was a Barbarian, any more than many eminent Writers among my Countrymen, have been able to persuade the French that their taste in many things is false and frivolous’. He looks forward, he claims, to discussing ‘Literary projects’ mentioned by Brissot, but cannot spare time for a meeting at present, since he is immersed in volume three of the History of music.
The third letter from Burney in the Fonds Brissot is a note dated Saturday 12 July, sent from St Martin’s Street to Brissot at Brompton Row. Here Burney invites Brissot and his wife for a visit ‘next Friday afternoon’. Another note by Burney in the Fonds, dated 23 July, reveals that the visit had not materialized; instead Burney proposes another afternoon visit to take place on the following day. Brissot, however, somehow mistook the date for this second invitation. In a letter to Burney of 29 July, held by the Beinecke Library, he apologizes for the misunderstanding, and hopes to make amends by enclosing a copy of the Mercure d’Allemagne containing his review of Cecilia, of which a German translation had been published in Leipzig earlier that year. (See Catherine M. Parisian, Frances Burney’s Cecilia: a publishing history, Burlington, 2012, p.336.)
A fifth and final letter from Burney in the Fonds Brissot, written on 1 August 1783, reveals that the Brissots had made a visit to St Martin’s Street but without finding the family at home. Burney was ‘extremely mortified & concerned’ at having missed them, but hoped that they would still be able to meet, either at his home or at the Brissots’ lodgings. In the event, the Brissots did eventually come to St Martin’s Street, as an extensive note appended by Frances Burney to Brisot’s letter of 29 July reveals. Writing long after the event, Frances reports that there was an ‘Evening Rendez-Vous’. Brissot was ‘rather agreeable, from fullness of literary information’, while his wife was ‘very young, & very civil, & a sort of flaming beauty, by the dazzling crimson of her natural complexion, & lustre of her Eyes’. Brissot, however, then made the fatal mistake of leaving London to join the ‘dreadful Duke d’Orleans’, and ‘Ten years after this peaceful meeting … he was Guiliotined [sic], with 20 other Members of The Convention!’
No further correspondence between Brissot and Burney is known to be extant, but in her Memoirs of Doctor Burney (1832) the eighty-year old Frances, now the widowed Mme d’Arblay, provides a four-page account of the letters and meetings of 1783. Over the years she had turned against Brissot, and her portrait of him is distinctly hostile. He had, she claims, ‘a certain low-bred fullness and forwardness of look, even in the midst of professions of humility and respect, that were by no means attractive to Dr. Burney’. Her father thus avoided ‘this latent demagogue’, whose ‘jacobinical harangues and proceedings, five years later, were blazoned to the world by the republican gazettes’. Brissot’s ‘pretty wife’, she added, seemed unobjectionable, but Burney ‘always regretted that he had been deluded into shewing even the smallest token of hospitality to her intriguing husband’ (Memoirs, II, 336, 337). Thanks to the newly discovered letters in the Fonds Brissot, we can now, for the first time, compare Frances Burney’s harsh retrospective account of 1832 with the delicate social manoeuvring revealed by surviving correspondence between Brissot and Dr Burney in 1783.