By Simon Macdonald
During the French Revolution many of the losers in the process of regime change found their property, including their private papers, snapped up by the new authorities. For historians, some of the richest pickings among this material relate to people whose lives, had they not collided with the revolutionary state, might otherwise have gone unrecorded. While exploring these archives a few years ago, I came across a remarkable cache confiscated from an Englishman who had been living in revolutionary Paris. This included a fascinating diary from the early 1780s, which described his travels in Switzerland and France, his social life in Paris against the background of the American War of Independence, and a host of highly personal details regarding his relationship with his wife and her complicated extended family. Who were these people? Digging a little further, I established that the diarist’s name was Samuel Meeke, and that his wife, Elizabeth Meeke, was a step-sister of the celebrated novelist Frances Burney. I also learned about their scandalous marriage in 1777, the result of an elopement — or rather an abduction — in which the middle-aged Meeke had spirited the fifteen-year-old Elizabeth away from Paris, where her family had sent her to be educated. Scandalized contemporaries described Meeke as ‘Bankrupt in Fame as well as Fortune’ and ‘an adventurer’.
Subsequently, while undertaking research at the Burney Centre in Montreal, I was able to follow up a tantalising reference to a certain ‘Mrs Meeke’ who translated numerous books from French to English in the early nineteenth century. Moreover, this ‘Mrs Meeke’ had written a total of twenty-six novels between 1795 and 1823, and was indeed the most prolific novelist of the period, with an output exceeding even that of Sir Walter Scott. None of the ‘Mrs Meeke’ publications gave a first name for the author. Might this ‘Mrs Meeke’ have been the same person as the Elizabeth Meeke whose history I had encountered in the archives in Paris?
Further research revealed that there was, fortunately, one primary source which gave the writer’s full name: a bestseller list produced in 1798 by the Minerva Press, the pioneering mass-market publishing house which produced the ‘Mrs Meeke’ novels. In this document — of which only a single copy remains, held by the St Bride Library in London — the author’s name is specified as ‘Elizabeth Meeke’. With a little more digging, corroborative evidence emerged that this ‘Elizabeth Meeke’ was indeed the Elizabeth Meeke related to the Burney family. Notably, the first two Meeke novels had received unsigned flattering book reviews in the Monthly Review, and these puff pieces are known — thanks to a surviving annotated editorial mastercopy — to have been written by Charles Burney, Elizabeth Meeke’s stepbrother.
At face value, it seems somewhat disorientating to discover that the most prestigious novelist of the period, Frances Burney, was a stepsister of the era’s foremost writer of cheap novels. In twentieth-century terms, this would be roughly akin to identifying a family tie linking Virginia Woolf to Agatha Christie. But what had led Elizabeth Meeke to take up the pen in the first place?
In the authorial voice of one of her novels, Midnight Weddings (1802) she indicated that her motives were unabashedly commercial, advising would-be novelists that ‘should you fail to meet with a purchaser, the labour you hope will immortalize you is absolutely lost; a most mortifying circumstance in every sense of the word’. Her own literary career began following a series of personal crises. The Meekes’ rocky marriage collapsed in 1787, and their separation blackened Elizabeth Meeke’s reputation. Frances Burney, who encountered her in London around this time, attempted pleasantness but found ‘my chilled Heart felt pain & averseness, even to horror, in every effort!’ One very junior member of the extended Burney clan, the five-year-old Norbury Philips, took note in his journal about the ‘terrible stories of Mrs Meeke’ circulating among his elders: ‘What, did she go away from her husband with another Gentleman! — Why then I think she was like Queen Helen, who was such a naughty Woman & left Menelaus to go away with Paris’. Socially disgraced, Elizabeth Meeke apparently continued to live abroad, returning to Britain only in 1793 as the French Revolutionary Wars gathered pace. Meeting her again, her sister Maria Rishton hoped that ‘the Prodigal’ was now as ‘a sincere Penitent’, but was soon disillusioned on this score, and decided to ‘leave her to the Almighty’.
If Elizabeth Meeke’s biography reads like the plot of a potboiler novel, it could also be said to have given her ample material for her own popular fiction writing. Her first novel, Count St Blancard (1795), for example, was set largely in pre-revolutionary France and featured a series of Gothic family dramas: abductions, inter-generational feuding, and thwarted romance. This set the tone for much or her ensuing output. Fans of her work included the eminent historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, who described his ‘fondness for Mrs Meeke’s novels’ as proof that his literary taste was ‘incurably vulgar’. As his sister Hannah Macaulay recalled, ‘There was a certain prolific author named Mrs. Meeke, whose romances he all but knew by heart; though he quite agreed in my criticism that they were one just like another, turning on the fortunes of some young man of a very low rank who eventually proves to be the son of a Duke’.
It is ironic that a novelist whose plotlines revolved around the mistaken identity of her characters should herself have endured such a fate for so long. But the unexpected connection which emerges between Elizabeth Meeke and Frances Burney proves, on closer analysis, to be less paradoxical than at first sight. It was no accident that there was such a gulf between Burney’s ambitious high-end fiction and the more derivative crowd-pleasers written by her stepsister. Ostracized by much of her family, and writing prolifically and unashamedly for money, Elizabeth Meeke’s career vividly illuminates the opportunities and imperatives of the developing popular literary market.
Dr Simon Macdonald is a Teaching Fellow in Early Modern European History at University College London, and a Visiting Fellow at the Beinecke Library, Yale University. His paper, ‘Identifying Mrs Meeke: Another Burney Family Novelist‘ is the 2012 Essay Prize Winner in The Review of English Studies. You can read the paper for free on the journal’s website.
The Review of English Studies was founded in 1925 to publish literary-historical research in all areas of English literature and the English language from the earliest period to the present. From the outset, RES has welcomed scholarship and criticism arising from newly discovered sources or advancing fresh interpretation of known material. Successive editors have built on this tradition while responding to innovations in the discipline and reinforcing the journal’s role as a forum for the best new research.
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Image credit: Frances Burney by Edward Francesco Burney (1760-1848) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons