During the era when the Soviet Union and its central and eastern European satellites demanded that that literary work must “serve the people”, many creative writers chose not to bend their practice to official prescriptions but to write simply for themselves, or “for the drawer” as it was sometimes put. There is nothing new, however, about writing for oneself, or at most for a very small readership of family and intimate friends, without hope of publication. In the eighteenth century the increasingly popular genre of the novel was regarded as a rather low form (as distinct from the high art of poetry) and reading novels, a practice to which women and girls seemed particularly addicted, was believed by many to be injurious to public morality. Writing fiction then – or indeed writing anything apart from the purely utilitarian letter ‑ was really not a fitting activity for a young Christian gentlewoman: apart from moral considerations it was bound to take up a good deal of time and detach her from her family and household obligations.
Thus it was that in June 1767, in an apparent fit of piety and remorse for past sins, the young Frances Burney consigned to a bonfire her collected works to that date, a substantial sheaf of papers on which she had written “Elegies, Odes, Plays, Songs, Stories, Farces”, “Tragedies and Epic Poems” and a novel, The History of Caroline Evelyn. By the following year, however, she seemed to have forgiven herself to a sufficient degree that she began to keep a private journal, not for publication (it was not to be published until after her death) but for her own eyes – for the drawer as it were. She began it:
To have some account of my thoughts, manners, acquaintance and actions, when the Hour arrives at which time is more nimble than memory, is the reason which induces me to keep a Journal: a Journal in which I must confess my every thought, must open my whole Heart! But a thing of this kind ought to be addressed to somebody – I must imagine myself to be talking – talking to the most intimate of friends – to one in whom I should take delight in confiding, and feel remorse in concealment: but who must this friend be? – to make choice of one to whom I can but half rely, would be to frustrate entirely the intention of my plan. The only one I could wholly, totally confide in, lives in the same House with me, and not only never has, but never will, leave me one secret to tell her. To whom, then must I dedicate my wonderful, surprising and interesting adventures? – to whom dare I reveal my private opinion of my nearest Relations? The secret thoughts of my dearest friends? My own hopes, fears, reflections and dislikes – Nobody!
To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal! Since To Nobody can I be wholly unreserved – to Nobody can I reveal every thought, every wish of my Heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity to the end of my Life! For what chance, what accident can end my connections with Nobody? No secret can I conceal from No-body, and to No-body can I be ever unreserved. Disagreement cannot stop our affection, Time itself has no power to end our friendship. The love, the esteem I entertain for Nobody, No-body’s self has not power to destroy. From Nobody I have nothing to fear, the secrets sacred to friendship, Nobody will not reveal, when the affair is doubtful, Nobody will not look towards the side least favourable.
I will suppose you, then, to be my best friend, tho’ God forbid you ever should! My dearest companion – and a romantick Girl, for mere oddity may perhaps be more sincere – more tender – than if you were a friend in propria personae – in as much as imagination often exceeds reality. In your Breast my errors may create pity without exciting contempt; may raise your compassion, without eradicating your love.
From this moment, then my dear Girl – but why, permit me to ask, must a female be made Nobody? Ah! my dear, what were this world good for, were Nobody a female? And now I have done with preambulation.
Frances Burney was fifteen.