The Wanderer: Volume I

There are many things that Frances Burney's The Wanderer (1814) is not: short; Burney's best work of fiction; cheerful. There are even more things, however, that it is: a cogent argument for political moderates; a consideration of how History (wars, generals, and nations) affects history (the daily life of unknown individuals living in a given historical period); a reflection on the rock and a hard place between which the eighteenth-century woman lived; an early example of frienemies in literature; a consummate eighteenth century novel, despite its late publication (and Doody's claim that it is actually a product more of Romanticism than the culture of sensibility). This novel, which by an accident of history falls through the cracks of literary study, being beloved neither by eighteenth-centuryists nor romanticists, compels respect for its ability to show the impact of history's events on the growth of individual young minds.

Our heroine, a young and beautiful incognita who sometimes goes by the name of Mrs. Ellis, has escaped to England from Robespierre's France with her head, remarkably, still attached to her shoulders. Her escape from mortal danger only serves to prove how many other dangers one bereft of name, reputation, money, and protectors must face. The tyrannies inflicted by good breeding and the deeply held beliefs of a blood based social hierarchy (only made stricter and more rigid by the attacks made against them across the channel) push the young woman towards a dissolution as surely as her stay in France would have done, although the demise she confronts is here slower, and arguably, less gruesome. As in Robespierre's France, women are at the forefront of the inhuman cruelties perpetrated on society's targets.

Perhaps the most interesting of Ellis's tormentors is the young Elinor, who herself is a victim of the status quo. Elinor comes across on the same boat as Ellis, having been in France trying to restore bad health brought on by her desire to escape an engagement made on faulty principles without losing face among her social set. Her holiday succeeds in its ends insofar as it gives her grandiose ideas that encourage her to send her lover packing and bravely accept the consequences as the coin in which liberal minds must be paid in a conservative world. France has taught the young woman that when held back from individual perfection by social customs, humans are "the mere dramatis personae of a farce; of which [she is], when performing with fellow actors, a principal buffoon" (153). In her mind, where she applies the rules of masses to the individual, her intended was just such an actor, and she herself could never have been anything more had she joined her lot to his. Her pseudo-political awakening results in a very simple life creed: resist the status quo and its representatives without hesitation. This code of action creates in her a defendant of the friendless Mrs. Ellis because inviting unknown women into one's house is not the done thing. Since her protection is based on rebellion rather than sympathy, however, Mrs. Ellis's benefit is small and comes at the price of negligence and disdain.

NB Page numbers refer to the Oxford World's Classics edition.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Readers of the nineteenth century would be very surprised to find people still studying "The Wanderer" as when it was first reviewed it was regarded by all the critics as unreadable trash. None of the critics of the time believed it was by the same author as the first three Fanny Burney novels, since "The Wanderer" was so badly written. Most of the copies of it were returned and pulped.

In fact,these critics were correct as "The Wanderer" was the only novel written by Fanny Burney herself. As I show in my recently published book "Jane Austen - a New Revelation" the well written first three novels (Evelina, Cecilia and Camilla) were written by Jane Austen's cousin, Eliza de Feuillide(Fanny Burney was forced to write The Wanderer herself as she was stuck in France between 1802 and 1812). Eliza also went on to write the novels we now know as those of Jane Austen. Eliza could not publish any novels under her own name, as she was the secret illegitimate daughter of Warren Hastings, the Governor General of India.