Why Didn’t Burney Stage The Witlings?

by manofwhitwit

There’s something odd about the relationship between “The Bas Bleu” and The Witlings, and I’m not sure what to make of it. Taken together they seem to manifest some form of underlying tension. Eger helps to explain it somewhat, but I’m not sure I’ve puzzled out exactly what is going on, so I’ll present it to my astute readers for help and consideration.


The Hannah More poem “The Bas Bleu” is preceded by the following characterization of the Blue Stockings (as she writes it): “learning was as little disfigured by pedantry, good taste as little tinctured by affectation, and general conversation as little disgraced by calumny, levity, and the other censurable errors with which it is too commonly tainted, as has perhaps been known in any society.” What follows is a clever poem that depicts the struggle between affected learning in speech and true conversation, two modes which More presents as being mutually exclusive. The goal of “wit” for More is to be “both learn’d and gay,” an impossibility for those whose primary goal is to demonstrate erudition rather than produce meaningful engagement in conversation (line 61). I really enjoyed the poem, which makes this distinction in a variety of witty and well-crafted ways. I won’t mention them here, since it’s secondary to my point. Instead, I want to think about the poem in relation to the Frances Burney play The Witlings. The play’s theme is exactly that of the More poem; the introduction by Ray Davis tells us “Burney builds her play on a rigorously distributed social premise: Self-regard blocks communication.” Great, except that Burney was told not to stage the play by her father because it would, apparently, offend the powerful members of the Bluestockings. So a play with the same theme as a poem that venerates the Bluestockings, a play written by a member of the group, couldn’t be produced for fear of insulting the group’s leadership.


This made me curious about how this play was discussed critically. Odai Johnson, writing a performance review of a modern staging of the play, says it couldn’t be staged in the 18th century because it “satirized the very literary society upon whom [Burney] was dependent for support.” Fair enough. Except, Peter Sabor and Geoffrey Sill, editors of a collection of works by Burney, say that critics who agree with this view “ignore the fact that Burney’s witlings are not a bluestocking group. The founding members of the Esprit Club are Lady Smatter, Dabler, Mrs. Sapient, and Codger,” thus making the play “satire of would-be intellectuals.” So Burney is mocking the same people More is, not groups like the Bluestockings. I’m not sure where I come down on the issue, but I was intrigued by the scholarly disagreement. It seems to point to a difficulty in knowing exactly how to read Burney and the Bluestockings.


Eger does help explain this to some extent. She points out that there are two distinct eras in the Bluestockings, and that the first was more intimate, the latter the lavish, public version that Montagu created. She tells us that “Hannah More lamented this change in character” in 1791 (73). Indeed, “The Bas Bleu,” written in 1787, is explicitly about a version of the Bluestockings that is described in the past tense. The Witlings is written earlier, though, in 1779. Meanwhile, Eger tells us that Montagu’s extravagance was mostly a creation of the 1780s and 1790s, with Montagu moving in to her new mansion in 1781. Maybe Burney was already aware of the coming change while Montagu was building the mansion, and this is simply a historical question. But even if we assume that Eger explains how a play that predates the thing it mocks could exist, it doesn’t explain scholarly disagreement on the nature of the play centuries later. And what I’m really wondering is if there is something about the uncertainty of where this play stands that parallels or relates to the evolution of the Bluestockings in general. You might say that there’s an underlying tension between the two eras of the group itself. They’re identified under one name, but More, at least, feels the disconnect between the them, saying “‘The old little parties are not [to] be had in the usual style of comfort. Everything is great and vast and late and magnificent and dull’” (73). “Dull” in particular stands out, as I doubt that Montagu or many of her visitors would describe the world she created in that way.


So is Burney mocking the Bluestockings or not? If she is, is she accusing the Montagu version of succumbing to precisely the vices that More said the original version avoided as well as any society ever had? I haven’t decided yet, but my first thoughts upon reading The Witlings didn’t scream out to me “this is satirizing the Bluestockings.” I saw the message as more aligned with “The Bas Bleu.”