Fanny Burney, later Madame D'Arblay, (June 13, 1752-January 6, 1840) was an English novelist and diarist. She published her first novel Evelina anonymously in 1778. The revelation of its authorship brought her nearly immediate fame by its narrative and comic power. She published Cecilia in 1782 and Camilla in 1796. Her three major novels, much admired by Jane Austen, are about the entry into the world of a young, beautiful, intelligent but inexperienced girl. Her fourth novel, The Wanderer, was published in 1814. During her lifetime, she was best known as a novelist, but the posthumous publication of her journals and letters led to a later characterization as an eighteenth-century observer and writer of character sketches. She was virtually addicted to "scribbling" and produced large quantities of writing over the course of her long life.
She was born Frances Burney, daughter of Dr. Charles Burney, a self-made man and musician of some distinction at King's Lynn, Norfolk, where her father was organist. Her mother, Esther (née Sleepe) was granddaughter of a French refugee named Dubois. Frances was the fourth child in a family of six.
Of her brothers, James (1750-1821) became an admiral and sailed with Captain James Cook on his second and third voyages, and Charles Burney was a well-known classical scholar. In 1760 the family moved to London, and Dr. Burney took a house in Poland Street. Mrs. Burney died in 1761, when Frances was only nine years old, and her father was too busy to give her any attention. Her sisters Esther (Hetty), afterwards Mrs. Charles Rousseau, and Susanna, afterwards Mrs. Phillips, were sent to school in Paris, but Frances was largely self-educated.
Early in 1766 she paid her first visit to Dr. Burney's friend Samuel Crisp at Chessington Hall in Surrey. Dr. Burney had first made Crisp's acquaintance in about 1745 at the house of Charles Cavendish Fulke Greville, and they had studied music together. Crisp's play, Virginia, staged by David Garrick in 1754 at the request of the countess of Coventry (née Maria Gunning), had been unsuccessful, and Crisp had retired to Chessington Hall, where he frequently entertained Dr. Burney and his family, to whom he was familiarly known as "Daddy" Crisp.
It was to her "Daddy" Crisp and her sister Susan that Frances Burney addressed large portions of her diary and many of her letters. In 1767, Dr. Burney married Elizabeth Allen, widow of a King's Lynn wine-merchant. Frances lived in the midst of an exceptionally brilliant social circle, gathered round her father in Poland Street, and later at his new home in St. Martin's Street, Leicester Fields. David Garrick, the best-known actor of the period, was a constant visitor. Of the various "lyons" they entertained she leaves a graphic account, notably of Omai, the Otaheitan native, and of Alexis Orlov, the favorite of Catherine II of Russia. She first met Samuel Johnson at her father's home in March 1777.
Her father's drawing-room, where she met many of the chief musicians, actors and authors of the day, was Frances' only school, but he had a huge library; Macaulay stated that in the whole of Dr. Burney's library there was only one novel, Henry Fielding's Amelia. Frances was acquainted with the Abbé Prévost's Doyen de Killérine, Marivaux's Vie de Marianne, Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, the books of Elizabeth Griffith, and those of Frances Brooke. Her diary contains the record of her reading. The young Frances once made a bonfire of her manuscripts, among them a History of Caroline Evelyn, a story containing an account of Evelina's mother. She also mentions then famous courtesan Kitty Fisher in her diaries.
However, Burney made up for this loss in later years. The first entry in her journal or diary was made on May 30, 1768, addressed to "Miss Nobody," and it extended over seventy-two years. The earlier parts were savagely edited in later days, and much was obliterated by Burney herself in revising manuscripts. Editors Lars Troide and Joyce Hemlow recovered some of this obscured material while researching their late twentieth-century editions of the journals and letters.
Burney kept the composition of her first novel a secret from her father, though her sisters were in on the secret. Evelina, or A Young Lady's Entrance into the World was planned out long before it was written down. Burney, who worked as her father's amanuensis, copied the manuscript in a "disguised hand" to prevent any identification of the book with the Burneys, thinking that her own handwriting might be recognized by a publisher. It was published by Thomas Lowndes in January 1778, but it was not until June that Dr. Burney learned its authorship, when the book had been reviewed and praised everywhere.
Hester Thrale wrote to Dr. Burney on July 22: "Mr. Johnson returned home full of the Prayes of the Book I had lent him, and protesting that there were passages in it which might do honour to Richardson: we talk of it for ever, and he feels ardent after the denouement; he could not get rid of the Rogue, he said." Miss Burney soon visited the Thrales at Streatham Place, "the most consequential day I have spent since my birth" she calls the occasion. It was the prelude to much longer visits there. Dr. Johnson's best compliments were eagerly transcribed in her diary. His affectionate friendship for "little Burney" only ceased with his death.
Evelina was a continued success. Sir Joshua Reynolds sat up all night to read it, as did Edmund Burke, who came next to Johnson in Burney's esteem. She was introduced to Elizabeth Montagu and the other bluestocking ladies, to Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and to the gay Mrs. Mary Cholmondeley, the sister of Peg Woffington, whose manners, as described in the diary, explain much of Evelina. At the suggestion of Thrale, and with offers of help from Arthur Murphy and encouragement from Sheridan, Burney began to write a comedy. Crisp tried to dissuade her, and the piece, The Witlings, was suppressed in deference to the views of "her two 'daddies.'" The piece may have contained satirical hits at contemporaries.
Meanwhile her friendship with Thrale left her little time for writing. She went with her to Bath in 1780, and was at Streatham Place again in 1781. Her next book was written partly at Chessington Hall and after much discussion with Mr. Crisp. Cecilia; or, Memoirs of an Heiress, by the author of Evelina, was published in five volumes in 1782 by Messrs Payne & Cadell (who paid the author £250). Cecilia is more skillfully constructed than Evelina, and contains many examples of what Johnson called Burney's gift of "character-mongering." Burke sent her a letter full of high praise. Some of her friends found the writing too closely modeled on Johnson's, and Horace Walpole thought the personages spoke too uniformly in character.
On April 24, 1783, Burney's "most judicious adviser and stimulating critic," "Daddy" Crisp, died. He was her devoted friend, as she was to him, "the dearest thing on earth." The next year she was to lose two more friends. Johnson died; Thrale's remarriage alienated her from many friends, including Burney. Burney had met the celebrated Mrs. Delany in 1783, and she now attached herself to her. Delany, who was living (1785) in a house near Windsor Castle presented to her by George III, was on the friendliest terms with both the King and Queen, and Burney was honored with more than one royal interview.
Queen Charlotte, soon afterwards, offered Miss Burney the post of second keeper of the robes, with a salary of £200 a year, which after some hesitation was accepted. Unfortunately this position exhausted her and left her little time to write. She felt dominated by her superior, Mrs. Schwellenberg, who has been described as "a peevish old person of uncertain temper and impaired health, swaddled in the buckram of backstairs etiquette", and this was the worst part of Burney's duties.
She had written nothing for four years, and felt she had used her best material. "What my daddy Crisp says," she wrote as early as 1779, "that it would be the best policy, but for pecuniary advantages, for me to write no more, is exactly what I have always thought since Evelina was published". However, Burney's journals from this time are full of amusing court gossip, and sometimes deal with graver matters, notably in the account of Warren Hastings' trial, and in the story of the beginning of George III's madness, as seen by a member of his household. On one famous occasion, she was chased by him at Kew Palace, an incident that at first frightened her but which she transformed in writing.
After departing royal service
The strain told on her health, and Dr. Burney prepared with her a joint memorial asking the queen's leave to resign. She left the royal service in July 1791 with a retiring pension of £100 a year, granted from the queen's private purse, and returned to her father's house at Chelsea. (Dr. Burney had been appointed organist at Chelsea Hospital in 1783).
In 1792 Frances became acquainted with a group of French exiles, who had taken a house, Juniper Hall, near Mickleham, where Frances' sister, Mrs Phillips, lived. On July 31, 1793 she married one of the exiles, Gen. Alexandre D'Arblay, an artillery officer, who had been adjutant-general to La Fayette. They built Camilla cottage at Westhumble on the proceeds from Frances' third novel and her pension. In 1793 she produced her Brief Reflections relative to the Emigrant French Clergy.
Her son Alexandre was born on December 18, 1794. In 1795, her play, Edwy and Elgiva, was produced, which had been written during her unhappy time at court; it failed. In 1802 the family travelled to France, where Alexandre hoped to resume a position with the military. They remained for ten years, during which time Burney suffered a mastectomy without anaesthetic, for suspected breast cancer. The couple were trapped in Brussels by the Battle of Waterloo, and Fanny's Waterloo Journal is a useful source document.
She returned to England and published another novel, The Wanderer (1814), which fell flat.
She remained in Britain for the rest of her life, settling in Bath until her husband's death in 1818, and survived her father, sister (Mrs. Phillips), and son, not to mention Jane Austen, whose work seems to have been strangely unknown to her. Burney's last work was an edition of her father's memoirs (1832), written in an extraordinarily grandiloquent style, for which she cannibalized many of her own personal writings from years before.
- This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
- This article incorporates public domain text from: Cousin, John William (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London, J.M. Dent & sons; New York, E.P. Dutton.
- Burney, Fanny (1988). Lars E. Troide The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney. Oxford: Clarendon. ISBN 0-19-812581-X.
- Burney, Fanny (1986). Joyce Hemlow Selected Letters and Journals. Oxford: Clarendon. ISBN 0-19-818528-6.
- Doody, Margaret Anne (1988). Frances Burney: The Life in the Works. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP. ISBN 0-8135-1355-3.
- Hemlow, Joyce (1958). The History of Fanny Burney. Oxford: Oxford UP.
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