PhD progress.

I have reached the beginning of easter term, though for postgraduates such terms (ha!) are pretty much meaningless. I know it’s something of a cliche, but the time really does fly, and I’m getting to the point where the hand in date, though 2.5 years away, doesn’t look half as remote as it did at the start. I hope my creative writing discipline for 1k words a day, every day, come rain or shine, kicks into action. Indeed, having written 3 full manuscripts already, an 80k thesis doesn’t seem quite so… daunting, if that’s the right word. Of course, everything about the PhD is daunting, but those things – archives, notes, general research – are mostly connected to meticulous note keeping rather than sitting down and writing the damned thing.


I have never blogged about what my PhD is about, exactly. But then ‘what a PhD is about’ is rather like asking a writer what their novel is ‘about.’ The short answer is ‘religious toleration and British national ident[y]ies in the 18th century’, if you’ve made the mistake of looking interested, I’d add ‘how Frances Burney’s novels reflected her inner struggle between her conservatism, anglicanism, French and Catholic sympathies.’ Most people, unless you’ve got a secret love for 18th century literature or have studied an English degree, won’t have heard of Burney, so to avoid peoples’ eyes glossing over I tend to eliminate that part and move the conversation swiftly on.


But since you’ve read this far: Frances Burney d’Arblay (1752 – 1840) wrote 4 novels (each declining in popularity), several dramas, and has only in the last 30 years grown out of being a footnote to Austen. Critics and biographers all argued that her love for her French Roman Catholic grandmother Francis Sleepe was formative in the development of her social criticism, a criticism which their work argued placed her as a great, socially astute, writer. Yet despite the critical attention given to this love, almost nothing has been said about religion in her novels or wider life. This is obviously a bit odd, especially when we consider not only the garish yet sympathetic franco-british character of Madame Duval in Evelina, the prominence of religion in the 18th century, but also how quietly yet persistently sympathetic she is to France and Catholics in her novels as a whole. Then there’s her life: her father (the musicologist Charles Burney) certainly feared her love for her grandmother was a potential source of conversion, and though she never did convert as far as we can tell, she did marry a Roman Catholic French emigre general in a Roman Catholic ceremony, and spent ten years in Paris amongst a group of Catholic friends at the height of the Napoleonic wars.

What I broadly argue is that her novels show her not only deeply sympathetic to the Britishness of Roman Catholics in the late eighteenth century, but also reveal how her own national identity was split between the need to conform to the sectarian protestantism of britishness, and an understanding of how this britishness was predicated on the misrepresentation of loyal English Catholics as ‘papists.’ British identity, she understood, was a voracious, colonising thing, kicking out Catholics from history and community, denying their local toleration, and seeking to assert the pure claims of Protestantism to British bodies, culture, history, and land.

It’s particularly interesting, then, that her long life involved correspondents and friendships with some of the highest cultural, political, and theological forces. She spent five years at court, sparking a loving correspondence with the princesses that lasted for decades. She knew Burke, Johnson, Thrale, and attended the trial of Warren Hastings. Her husband and his group of friends – the juniper hall set – were French constitutionalist emigres. Her own and her family’s correspondents reach to Pitt, to Shute Barrington, to the Plowdens. Her life was interwoven with an eighteenth-century society struggling with questions of emancipation and revolution. That’s what makes my project so interesting for historians – and partially why i’m in the history faculty – now that we’ve (well, me) noticed these connections, it gives us a new perspective on the formation on national identity, catholic emancipation, and the lived experience of ‘britishness.’

A lot of the historiography so far on British national identity has focussed on the big questions: i.e, whether it was anti-papist or not, to what extent the state was confessional – i.e sectarian – or not, the various theological and political wrangling that went on around the government, the extent to which it – and protestantism – was influenced by what went on in Europe, and more recently, how Britishness rubbed against other national identities in Britain. But very little has been said about how local identities rubbed against this, how a British subject weighed their own local identities against the overbearing legal force of the state (tentative answer: with a lot of angst and use of toleration-filled kinship networks to get around the worst of state repression). Burney gives us such a record.

Similarly, historians of Catholicism have spent a lot of time in the last 50 years dragging the discipline out of its recusant corner and into the wider historiography. Many of the early Catholic historians were Catholics themselves: either lay members or in Aveling’s case, a member of a religious community. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but a tendency to write insular histories seals off the discipline from wider historiographical currents and tends towards narratives of self-fashioning. (of course, all history and historians can be guilty of the charge, hence why it’s  important to be read and critiqued as widely as possible). Again, current trends have focussed on the big questions still to be answered in the wider period: what was Catholic life like in the first half of the 18th century, to what extent were Catholics integrated into society? (Answer: much more than we thought) and picking away at the wider issue of catholic involvement in public life in a deeply oppressive society. But again, little has been said about the actual day to day lives of English Catholics under Britishness.

To some extent this is the fault of what survives: little enough primary material of 18c lives survives, and criticising the government was risky business for anyone, let alone a Anglican Catholic sympathising woman.

This is why Burney’s lives and selves, hidden and whispered between the lines, is so exciting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s