After my recent post about book reviews and reviewers, I was interested to read Frances Burney’s thoughts about reviewing in the dedication to her 1778 novel Evelina. For background, Burney published the novel anonymously and was very nervous about getting found out and worried about what kind of reviews she would get. As she wrote the novel, she kept it a secret from her father and worried about what his response would be when he discovered it. In fact, she, with the help of her brother, found a publisher for it before it was finished and only then, very nervously, did she tell her father. She was battling against her own nerves, the uncertain status of women writers at the time (hence the anonymous publication, quite common for women), and her fear of her father.
She dedicates the book “to the authors of the Monthly and Critical Reviews,” taking the reviewers on directly, and starts off:
Gentlemen, The liberty which I take in addressing to You the trifling production of a few idle hours, will, doubtless, move your wonder, and, probably, your contempt.
Now, I don’t think we can take this at face value — it was tradition to write dedications that were more about the author’s rhetorical positioning than about saying anything sincere, and modesty was a familiar — and often feigned — trope. But as Burney moves through the dedication, her attitude towards reviewing gets interesting. She claims the reviewers as her “patrons,” since she has no aristocratic patron of the traditional type, the one to whom the dedication is usually made:
to whom can I so properly apply for patronage, as to those who publicly profess themselves Inspectors of all literary performances?
She calls on their “protection,” but then says:
The language of adulation, and the incense of flattery, though the natural inheritance, and constant resource, from time immemorial, of the Dedicator, to me offer nothing but the wistful regret that I dare not invoke their aid. Sinister views would be imputed to all I could say; since, thus situated, to extol your judgment, would seem the effect of art, and to celebrate your impartiality, be attributed to suspecting it.
So what is a dedicator supposed to do, right? Flattery is traditionally a part of the dedication, but if she flatters the reviewers, she’ll be seen as angling for a good review rather than saying anything truthful. But, of course, in saying all this, she IS angling for a good review — she’s flattering them while saying she’s not. She goes on:
As magistrates of the press, and Censors for the Public, — to which you are bound by the sacred ties of integrity to exert the most spirited impartiality, and to which your suffrages should carry the marks of pure, dauntless, irrefragable truth, — to appeal for your MERCY, were to solicit your dishonour; and therefore, — though ’tis sweeter than frankincense, — more grateful to the senses than all the odorous perfumes of Arabia, — and though “it droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath,” I court it not! to your Justice alone I am entitled, and by that I must abide. Your engagements are not to the supplicating author, but to the candid public, which will not fail to crave “The penalty and forfeit of your bond.”
She is saying, in effect, even though I really, really want you to have mercy on me and write me a good review — it would be a heavenly gift –and notice how I’m flattering you as I say this, oh wonderfully impartial magistrates of public opinion, I won’t ask for one. And notice how eloquently I’m not asking you for a good review, since really, although I won’t say this directly to you, I’m communicating a bit of contempt for reviewers through my over-the-top language in the midst of my compliment-laden sentences. For after all, if it weren’t for writers like me, you wouldn’t have anything to write about, although, as a first-time author, I depend on you too:
Let not the anxious solicitude with which I recommend myself to your notice, expose me to your derision. Remember, Gentlemen, you were all young writers once, and the most experienced veteran of your corps, may, by recollecting his first publication, renovate his first terrors, and learn to allow for mine.
If you have an ounce of heart in you, you’ll remember what it’s like to be me, you’ll think about the person whose work you’re critiquing and you’ll write with a picture of the anxious young author who loves her book in the back of your mind. After all this, how can you be anything but kind?