Fanny Burney having had the great success of the comic novel Evelina in 1779, took strength from her public’s enthusiasm to write a dramatic comedy called The Witlings. Fanny Burney took offers of help from Arthur Murphy and Richard Brinsley Sheridan to create a wonderful satire on London society and especially London literary society with all its pretensions.
The Witlings is a play that exposes a cast of false characters and utilises them to expose painful truths about a London whose society had developed a whole language of superficial means. The plot centres around the love story of Cecilia and Beaufort. Burney’s natural gift with dialogue enables her to build the characters through actions rather than what the characters say they are. One of Burney’s main targets was a send up of the Bluestockings and because of this Burney’s father, and their family friend Samuel Crisp, would not allow her to publish the play. It was considered by them at least to be potentially offensive and so too big a risk. They also had reservations about Fanny writing a comedy.
The play tells the story of the lovers Celia and Beaufort, whose families kept them apart due to “economic insufficiency”.
Burney’s plays were lost for a couple of centuries until they came to light again in 1945 after her papers were acquired by the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. It wansn’t until 1995 though that the first complete edition was published in Montreal which was edited by Peter Sabor, Geoffrey Sill, and Stewart Cooke.