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A Tale in Two Cities

Fanny Burney and Adèle, Comtesse de Boigne


Brian Unwin


London: I.B. Tauris, 2014

Hardcover. xxiv+259 p. ISBN 978-1780767840. £20


Reviewed by Isabelle Bour

Université de la Sorbonne nouvelle



Frances Burney and Adèle, Comtesse de Boigne were born thirty years apart, the former in 1752, the latter in 1781, but had comparable lives in some ways : while Burney kept a diary, Comtesse de Boigne wrote memoirs, and both lived abroad for about a decade. Burney, by then Madame d’Arblay, lived in Paris from 1802 to 1812, because after the end of the Peace of Amiens in 1803 she could not go back to England; Comtesse de Boigne, then Adélaïde d’Osmond, fled with her family from the French Revolution and lived abroad from 1790 to 1804, first in Naples, then in England. They never met but had some common acquaintances, notably Talleyrand and Madame de Staël, whom they came across at Juniper Hall in Surrey, where a number of French émigrés settled.

As is explained in the Introduction, “this book is a story, largely told in their own words, about the lives and experiences of two remarkable women” [3]; it draws on Madame de Boigne’s two-volume memoirs, which it felicitously quotes in French (then translating the selected passages) and on the selections from Burney’s letters and diaries edited by Peter Sabor and Lars Troide in 2001. After two chapters providing surveys of the protagonists’ lives, there are thematic chapters entitled “Napoleon”, “Wellington”, “Kings & Queens”, “Actors, Artists & Intellectuals”, “Views across the Channel”, “Blood & Deathé, followed by a concluding chapter “Fanny & Adèle : a Comparison” and an Epilogue. This approach cannot but lead to many repetitions, as the information provided in the opening chapters is taken up later, and as it is difficult, for instance, to quote and account for the views of the two women on Wellington without rehearsing some points made in the previous chapter. Indeed, repetition is a feature of the whole book, as the chapters seem to have been written independently rather than as parts of a cohesive whole. There are typos in the French quotations and quite a few erroneous dates: Louis XVIII did not die in 1814 but in 1824 [135], David Garrick did not move to London in 1840 but in 1737, he did not take over the Drury Lane Theatre in 1740 but 1747 [144], Talleyrand was not born in 1854 but in 1754 [213]. The author is not aware that Jane Austen, like Burney, published anonymously [16]; Maria Edgeworth did not write gothic novels [196] nor did Staël a work of fiction entitled Sophie [159]. In 1789, Mrs Fitzherbert was not strictly speaking the Prince of Wales’s mistress [44], as she had married him in 1785 (though the marriage was invalid as it had not been approved by the King and the Privy Council). The name of Mrs Delany is spelt with an “e” throughout.

Despite these blemishes, the book may be a good read for the general reader, as the most striking episodes in the two women’s lives are recounted, and their most vivid narratives are quoted from.


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