Monday, October 03, 2011

The Long Day of the Second Keeper of the Robes

Portrait miniature on ivory of Fanny Burney
by John Bogle, circa 1783.
Image from
Lest you should be tempted to complain of your own long hours, hear now how Fanny Burney spent each day from mid-1786 until 1790, when her health began to fail...

MONDAY, JULY 24TH. Let me endeavor to give you, more connectedly, a concise abstract of the general method of passing the day, that then I may only write what varies, and occurs occasionally. I rise at six o'clock, dress in a morning gown and cap, and wait my first summons*, which is at all times from seven to near eight, but commonly in the exact half hour between them. The Queen never sends for me till her hair is dressed. This, in a morning, is always done by her wardrobe-woman, Mrs. Thielky, a German, but who speaks English perfectly well. Mrs.Schwellenberg*, since the first week, has never come down in a morning at all. The Queen's dress is finished by Mrs. Thielky and myself. No maid ever enters the room while the Queen is in it. Mrs. Thielky hands the things to me, and I put them on. 'T is fortunate for me I have not the handing them ! I should never know which to take first, embarrassed as I am, and should run a prodigious risk of giving the gown before the hoop, and the fan before the neck-kerchief.

By eight o'clock, or a little after, for she is extremely expeditious, she is dressed. She then goes out to join the King, and be joined by the Princesses*, and they all proceed to the King's chapel in the Castle, to prayers, attended by the governesses of the Princesses, and the King's equerry. Various others at times attend; but only these indispensably. I then return to my own room to breakfast. I make this meal the most pleasant part of the day; I have a book for my companion, and I allow myself an hour for it. At nine o'clock I send off my breakfast things, and relinquish my book, to make a serious and steady examination of everything I have upon my hands in the way of business in which preparations for dress are always included, not for the present day alone, but for the courtdays, which require a particular dress; for the next arriving birthday of any of the Royal Family, every one of which requires new apparel; for Kew*, where the dress is plainest; and for going on here, where the dress is very pleasant to me, requiring no show nor finery, but merely to be neat, not inelegant, and moderately fashionable.

That over, I have my time at my own disposal till a quarter before twelve, except on Wednesdays and Saturdays, when I have it only to a quarter before eleven. My rummmages and business sometimes occupy me uninterruptedly to those hours. When they do not, I give till ten to necessary letters of duty, ceremony, or long arrears; and now, from ten to the times I have mentioned, I devote to walking. These times mentioned call me to the irksome and quick-returning labors of the toilette. The hour advanced on the Wednesdays and Saturdays is for curling and craping the hair, which it now requires twice a week.*

A quarter before one is the usual time for the Queen to begin dressing for the day. Mrs. Schwellenberg then constantly attends; so do I; Mrs. Thielky, of course, at all times. We help her off with her gown, and on with her powdering things, and then the hairdresser is admitted. She generally reads the newspapers during that operation When she observes that I have run to her but half dressed*, she constantly gives me leave to return and finish as soon as she is seated. If she is grave, and reads steadily on, she dismisses me, whether I am dressed or not; but at all times she never forgets to send me away while she is powdering, with a consideration not to spoil my clothes, that one would not expect belonged to her high station. Neither does she ever detain me without making a point of reading here and there some little paragraph aloud.

When I return, I finish, if anything is undone, my dress, and then take Baretti's Dialogues, my dearest Fredy's Tablet of Memory, or some such disjointed matter, for the few minutes that elapse ere I am again summoned. I find her then always removed to her state dressing-room, if any room in this private mansion can have the epithet of state. There, in a very short time, her dress is finished. She then says she won't detain me, and I hear and see no more of her till bedtime.

It is commonly three o'clock* when I am thus set at large. And I have then two hours quite at my own disposal: but, in the natural course of things, not a moment after! These dear and quiet two hours, my only quite sure and undisturbed time in the whole day, after breakfast is over, I shall henceforward devote to thus talking with my beloved Susan, my Fredy, my other sisters, my dear father, or Miss Cambridge.; with my brothers, cousins, Mrs. Ord, and other friends, in such terms as these two hours will occasionally allow me. Henceforward, I say; for hitherto dejection of spirits, with uncertainty how long my time might last, have made me waste moment after moment as sadly as unprofitably.*

At five, we have dinner*. Mrs. Schwellenberg and I meet in the eating-room. We are commonly tete-a-tete: when there is anybody added, it is from her invitation only. Whatever right my place might afford me of also inviting my friends to the table I have now totally lost, by want of courage and spirits to claim it originally. When we have dined, we go upstairs to her apartment, which is directly over mine. Here we have coffee till the terracing* is over: this is at about eight o'clock. Our tete-a-tete then finishes, and we come down again to the eating-room. There the equerry, whoever he is, comes to tea constantly, and with him any gentleman that the King or Queen may have invited 1m the evening* ; and when tea is over, he conducts them, and goes himself, to the concert-room. This is commonly about nine o'clock.*

From that time, if Mrs. Schwellenberg I never quit her for a minute, till I come to my little supper* at near eleven. Between eleven and twelve my last summons usually takes place, earlier and later occasionally. Twenty minutes is the customary time then spent with the Queen: half an hour, I believe, is seldom exceeded.

I then come back, and after doing whatever I can to forward mv dress for the next morning, I go to bed and to sleep, too, believe me: the early rising, and a long day's attention to new affairs and occupations, cause a fatigue so bodily, that nothing mental stands against it and to sleep I fall the moment I have put out my candle and laid down my head. Such is the day to your F. B. in her new situation at Windsor; such, I mean, is its usual destination, and its intended course. I make it take now and then another channel, but never stray far enough not to return to the original stream after a little meandering about and about it.

Madame d'Arblay, nee Frances (Fanny) Burney, in her lifetime a celebrated author and playwright, is today best remembered as one of most prominent chroniclers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in England. The massive repository of journals and letters she left us, written in a toasty warm, lively style and giving minute details of all she experienced, have offered readers almost since her death an unparalleled window into the worlds of the English court, life in Bonaparte's France, and much, much, much more.

In 1786, in her early thirties and unmarried, she was offered the position at the English Court of Second Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte. In bare essence -- minus the honor of service at Court -- she served as a lady's maid; she helped the Queen on and off with her clothes, as many times a day as the Queen needed to change them.

This Court position would offer her a much-sought position of honor, money, rooms and perks and influence, but knew it would exhaust her and leave her little time to write. Reading the above, anyone could see why...she almost keeps the hours of a mother with a month-old baby! I count perhaps a little over six hours' sleep per night?

*Summons by a bell, which she hated as being a sign of a menial position.
*First Keeper of the Robes. Apparently she was ill-tempered and somewhat crude. Nice.
*George the Third and some of his many children
*We learn that the old palace at Kew was the smallish and most favored of King George's homes.
*I believe she means getting her own hair ready.
*"half dressed": Fanny's rooms were relative close to those of the Queen; I wonder how much privacy she had?
*I believe the Queen took 1/2 hour to dress for breakfast and Chapel, then two hours plus for the day, which by our schedules seems to start very late.
*Fanny had not wished to take the position at Court; she did so for the benefit of her family.
*"terracing": As Constance Hill writes, "The 'terracing' refers to King George's well-known custom of walking with his family in procession each evening, when the weather was fine, up and down the Castle Terrace to the gay sounds of a band of music. The King would walk first with the Queen leaning upon his arm, followed by the youthful Princesses, and their attendants bringing up the rear. The public, who gathered eagerly on these occasions to witness the sight, were honoured sometimes by a friendly nod or a gracious curtsey, while the musicians received from the King upon his retiring a profound bow with the words, 'Thank you, gentlemen.'"
*Her "mid-day" meal. Note that it's followed by hours of coffee and then of tea. Caffeinated they were, and I think they all needed it.
*According to Constance Hill in Fanny Burney at the Court of Queen Charlotte, men could never sit down in the presence of the Queen; therefore men could not have dinner with their Majesties. p. 26
*Good grief, concerts just beginning at nine. Those are college hours; nowadays I am getting ready for bed about then.
*We use this term for a late dinner even today.


Kleidung um 1800 said...

Thank you for taking the time to type this down! It so sounds like the NOT perfect day for Fanny Burney. Unfortunately there's hardly any literature avaible from/about her in German...sigh!


ZipZip said...

Dear Sabine,
Yes, it is tiring just to read it. I would be flat on my back and hallucinating with lack of sleep within two weeks. She lasted four years...

That's too bad that there is so little of Fanny Burney's journals translated to German. They actually are not difficult reading, though, and quite a number of extractions from her journals are online through Google and Since she wrote through 1840, the Regency era is well represented.

Very best,


Le Bombette said...

I've always been amazed by Fanny's description of her masectomy...she underwent a masectomy without anesthesia in 1811 and managed to be coherent enough to write about it later. Also, she was married later in life, had her first child at 41 and still lived a long life...such an awesome lady! :) Thanks for the great post!

ZipZip said...

Dear La Bombette,

Indeed, Fanny Burney is fast becoming a favorite personality, along with Mrs. Delany. Her life's trajectory especially endears her to me, as it's a little similar to many things beginning late in life.

Very best, and welcome!