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To those who have ever read a book of Fanny Burney's I bow. To those who dare challenge the statement that she was one of God's dullest creatures, (a medieum of literary wit notwithstanding) I take off my hat. But to those who say that Emily Hahn has not written an excellent biography of Fanny Burney, dullness or no, I reply in heated words. "A Degree of Prudery" is that miracle of writing: an absorbing book about an almost flat person.
Miss Hahn is much exercised to achieve this happy result. She is obliged to pad the life story of the eighteenth century novelist with fairly detailed studies of many of her close and not-so-close acquaintances. By this transparent device she manages to write a great deal about people intrinsically far more interesting than Fanny herself, notably Fanny's Father Charles Burney, the fashionable music teacher, and Hester Thrale, the fascinating woman who lodged Dr. Johnson for many years. This gallery of piquant people is what makes the biography so entertaining.
But, after all, the book is about Fanny Burney though, Heaven knows, she doesn't deserve it. Fanny wrote her first book "Evelina," published it anonymously, and though the enjoyed a considerable critical success for that casual age, it was six months before she told her father about it. With remarkable firmness for a girl of that time, she early refused to marry her father's candidate for her hand; later she missed a shot at a prayer-reading super-respectable Colonel Dig-by; finally at 41 she had enough gumption to marry an almost penniless French emigre. She was a strange mixture of the prudise and the unconventional, though admittedly far more of the former.
Her first two novels displayed some freshness and even considerable wit, which seems out of character for a prude, and were extremely popular; her later works were bogged down in convoluted style and were also popular. She spent five long dull years at court as Keeper of the Queen's Robes.
But her latent unconventionality showed up again when she resigned the the post--an act as unprecedented and unlikey as actually refusing to serve if one is elected.
It is interesting to note that Miss Hahn cuts off her biography almost immediately after Fanny marries--less than half way through her life. Fanny is not rich material for a book.
Miss Hahn brings to this biography her unquestioned talent for giving an intimate impression of her characters, as well as her casual, chatty prose style with its humor shining quietly around the edges. As in her earlier biographies, she seems to take the reader into her confidence as she runs over the conflicting records of an anecdote (she is an indefatigable researcher) or discusses the curious character of her heroine. Unquestionably Miss Hahn is one of the finest biographers writing today; certainly only she could have made such a success out of Fanny Burney.
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