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Burney, Frances (Mme. D'Arblay; 1752–1840)

BURNEY, FRANCES (Mme. d'Arblay; 17521840)

BURNEY, FRANCES (Mme. d'Arblay; 17521840), celebrated English novelist, diarist, playwright. The daughter of music historian Charles Burney, Frances was born in King's Lynn in Norfolk, but grew up in London, where her father associated with many famous literary figures including Samuel Johnson and his "Club" and members of the Blue Stocking Circle, an informal group of learned women who, during the 1750s, held receptions for important literary figures and met to discuss art and literature.

Burney started writing in 1768 when she began keeping a journal (addressed "to nobody") that she continued to keep for the rest of her life. In 1778, she published her first novel, Evelina, or a Young Lady's Entrance into the World, having written it in secret and arranged for it to be published anonymously. The story of a naïve and innocent young woman introduced into fashionable, and often eccentric, aristocratic London society, Evelina was an instant success. When the London Review reported that "there is much more merit, as well respecting stile, character & Incident, than is usually to be met with in modern Novels," Burney felt confident to confess to her father that she was its author, and she was subsequently introduced into London literary society, with the help of Samuel Johnson's friend Hester Thrale, as an accomplished novelist.

Encouraged by her celebrated arrival on the literary scene, Burney's writing career took off. In 1782 she published her second novel, Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress. The story of a young woman with a large fortune in search of a suitable husband, Cecilia was immensely successful, being an accurate reflection of the eighteenth-century marriage market. Having begun, and then abandoned, her first play, The Witlings, in 1778, Burney was exhausted by the writing of Cecilia and did not complete any further novels or plays for six years.

In 1786, following a number of unsuccessful courtships, Burney was offered, and accepted, a position as second keeper of the robes to Queen Charlotte, moving into the queen's lodge in Windsor in June that year. Upholding this position until poor health forced her to retire in 1791, Burney dutifully recorded her years as a member of the royal household in her Court Journals. During this time she also wrote more plays, including the tragedy Edwy and Elgiva, which was staged at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1795, though it survived only one performance. Other plays quickly followed: Hubert de Vere and The Siege of Pevensey in 1790, and the incomplete Elberta in 1791.

Having left the royal household, Burney began a secret courtship with a French Catholic General, Alexander d'Arblay, who was living in exile in England. They married in 1793, and continued to live in England, during which time Burney completed and published (1796) her third novel, Camilla, or a Picture of Youth, which, like her two earlier novels, told the story of the entrance into society of a beautiful, intelligent, but inexperienced young woman. Two years later she wrote another play, this time a comedy, Love and Fashion, which was accepted for Covent Garden Theatre but never performed. In 1800 she wrote two more comic plays, A Busy Day and The Woman-Hater, neither of which were performed in her lifetime.

In 1802, when General d'Arblay felt it was safe to return home and recover his family estates, he and Burney moved to France, where they lived in Paris for ten years. During this time, Burney's health deteriorated and she realized she was suffering from breast cancer. In 1811 she underwent a mastectomy without anesthetic, and, remarkably, lived to enjoy relative good health and record the details of her operation in a frank and extraordinary letter to her sister.

In 1812 Burney and her husband returned to England. Two years later she published her fourth and final novel, The Wanderer, or Female Difficulties, which did not enjoy anything like the success of her earlier works. The remainder of her life was spent in London and Bath; in 1832 she published the Memoirs of Doctor Burney, as well as her father's papers, and edited her own journals and letters in preparation for their likely publication after her death. She died in London in 1840, outliving most of her family and, to an extent, her literary reputation. The Diaries and Letters of Madame D'Arblay (17781840), edited by her niece Charlotte Barrett, was published in seven volumes in London, 18421846, confirming her reputation as one of the eighteenth century's most important novelists, and her importance as an inspiration for later woman writers like Jane Austen, who greatly admired her works.

See also Defoe, Daniel ; Diaries ; Drama: English ; English Literature and Language ; Johnson, Samuel ; Richardson, Samuel ; Smollett, Tobias ; Sterne, Laurence.


Primary Sources

Burney, Fanny. Camilla, or A Picture of Youth. Edited by Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom. Oxford and New York, 1983.

. Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress. Edited by Peter Sabor and Margaret Anne Doody. Oxford, 1988.

. The Complete Plays of Frances Burney. Edited by Peter Sabor and Stewart J. Cooke. 2 vols. London, 1995.

. The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney. Edited by Lars E. Troide. Oxford and New York, 1988.

. Evelina, or The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World. Edited by Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom. Oxford and New York, 1982.

. The Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney (Madame d'Arblay). Edited by Joyce Hemlow. 12 vols. Oxford, 19721984.

. The Wanderer, or Female Difficulties. Edited by Margaret Anne Doody, Robert L. Mack, and Peter Sabor. Oxford and New York, 1991.

Secondary Sources

Cutting-Gray, Joanne. Woman as "Nobody" and the Novels of Fanny Burney. Gainesville, Fla., 1992.

Doody, Margaret Anne. Frances Burney: The Life in the Works. Cambridge, U.K., 1988.

Epstein, Julia L. The Iron Pen: Frances Burney and the Politics of Women's Writing. Madison, Wis., 1989.

Grau, Joseph A. Fanny Burney: An Annotated Bibliography. New York, 1981.

Harman, Claire. Fanny Burney: A Biography. London and New York, 2000.

Straub, Kristina. Divided Fictions: Fanny Burney and Feminine Strategy. Lexington, Ky., 1987.

Alison Stenton

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