Peter Sabor at CECS

CECS Research Seminar 28 January 2014

 Professor Peter Sabor (McGill)

‘Additional Letters of Frances Burney, 1791-1840’

  On Tuesday 28 January, CECS was delighted to welcome Professor Peter Sabor, Director of the Burney Centre at McGill University, to our research seminar series. Peter was speaking about his experiences editing the Additional Letters of Frances Burney, 1791-1840. The publication of this volume, the twenty-fifth in an edition which has taken over forty years to complete, will mean every extant piece of correspondence written by the novelist, dramatist and diarist Frances Burney will finally be available to scholars and the public.

Peter began by giving us an overview of the corpus of extant Burney correspondence, and the history of its published editions. Over 10,000 manuscript pages of letters and journals survive written by Burney, as well as many thousands more addressed to her. Nineteenth and early-twentieth century editions of this correspondence excluded over 50% of the manuscripts and neglected to attempt to decipher excised passages. The exhaustive scholarly edition of Burney’s correspondence that is now nearing completion (based at the Burney Centre, at McGill University in Montreal) was the brainchild of Joyce Hemlow, who began the project of comprehensively publishing Burney’s letters in the 1960s. Hemlow published twelve volumes before her retirement, and a further seven were then published under the general editorships of Lars Troide and Peter himself. The last four volumes of Burney’s Court Journals (eds. Lorna Clark, Geoffrey Sill and Nancy Johnson) will be published by OUP in 2014 and 2015, alongside the 1784-1786 volume (ed. Stewart Cooke), meaning that for the first time correspondence from all periods of Burney’s life will be publicly available. And the twenty-fifth volume, Additional Letters 1791-1840, which is comprised of letters from the period 1791-1840 unknown to Hemlow, will be published in a few year’s time. This final volume was the subject of Peter’s talk.

As a keen Burney scholar myself who was lucky enough to work at the Burney Centre last summer, I have often wondered about the challenges of editing her voluminous correspondence (which is divided between the British Library, Yale University and the New York Public Library, with numerous small collections scattered in other libraries around the world). Peter’s talk pointed up some interesting problems that would never have occurred to me. For example, Burney’s letters sometimes come up on E-Bay, meaning that, when the Burney Centre is unsuccessful in a bid, the seller and buyer are both unknown; all that can be grasped is a tantalizing glimpse of a letter en route from one private collection to another. There was also particular audience interest in the processes by which Peter went about recovering the sections that Burney methodically excised from her manuscripts, by scoring rows of looping doodles across the text; Peter told us that success in deciphering these censored passages is dependent on time, Photoshop proficiency and familiarity with Burney’s distinctive vocabulary and register. Excised passages can reveal, for example, references to her younger half-brother Richard Burney, the black sheep of the Burney family who was sent to India after a mysterious family rift; as well as more prosaic references to underclothes.

Peter hoped that this last volume of Burney’s letters might encourage scholars to think anew about her relationship with Hester Thrale (later Hester Piozzi) and her family, especially her eldest daughter Queeney, with whom Burney corresponded right up until her death. He also pointed out interesting references to the composition of Burney’s final novel, The Wanderer, about which very little is currently known. He remains hopeful that more hitherto undiscovered stashes of Burney letters survive, especially in France and Italy; but admits that for a general editor attempting a comprehensive edition this thought can be dispiriting as well as exciting.

Peter’s talk was followed by a convivial trip to the Lamb and Lion, where students and staff chatted about the Burneys and other research projects over a pint. Many thanks to Peter for making a detour to York to speak to us, and for his fascinating talk. More information about the Burney Centre and its work is available here. http://burneycentre.mcgill.ca/

Sophie Coulombeau

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