The English novelist and diarist Fanny Burney (1752-1840) was one of the most popular novelists of the late 18th century. She was also an important chronicler of English manners, morals, and society.
Fanny Burney, originally named Frances, was the daughter of Dr. Charles Burney, the distinguished historian of music. She captured London's literary society with the publication of Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World, the best of her four extant novels. Although she had begun to compose Evelina as early as 1767, she did not publish it until 1778, and then only anonymously. The heroine's search for a father and a husband exposes both the vanity and affectation of life among the upper class and the vulgarity and lack of feeling which she associates with low life. An effective novel told in letters, it displays Burney's wit, knowledge of English society, technical versatility, sentiment, interest in contemporary theater, and gift for depicting character.
Evelina won Burney admission to the salons of the great and famous, many of whom she described vividly in her diaries and journals. From 1787 to 1791 she served as second keeper of the robes to Queen Charlotte. In 1793 she married Gen. d'Arblay, a French refugee, with whom she lived in France from 1802 to 1812.
Her priceless record of life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries is preserved in what she called an "immense Mass of Manuscripts," consisting of diaries, journals, notebooks, and a voluminous correspondence begun in her fifteenth year.
Before publishing her second novel, Cecilia, in 1782, Burney had written and abandoned a comedy entitled The Witlings. While the immensely popular Ceciliaaga in shows Burney's mastery of plot, it is both less comic and more sentimental than Evelina. Melodramatic scenes, revealing the influence of the contemporary stage, frame Cecilia Beverley's efforts to marry young Delvile.
Camilla (1796) and The Wanderer (1814) lack narrative interest and are perhaps better considered courtesy books than novels. Camilla teaches the lessons of propriety, prudence, and fortitude to a young girl; The Wanderer depicts the difficulties faced by a penniless and unprotected spinster trying to earn her living in England.
In 1832 Fanny Burney published three volumes of the Memoirs of Dr. Burney, a project begun in 1814. Seven volumes of The Diary and Letters of Madame d'Arblay, published between 1842 and 1846, and two volumes of The Early Diary of Francis Burney, not published until 1907, reveal her pert and astute observations about fashionable life in Georgian England.
The authoritative biographical study of Fanny Burney is Joyce Hemlow, The History of Fanny Burney (1958). Her major works are discussed in J. M. S. Tompkins, The Popular Novel in England, 1770-1800 (1932); Lionel Stevenson, The English Novel: A Panorama (1960); and Ronald Paulson, Satire and the Novel in Eighteenth Century England (1967). Recommended for general background reading are J. H. Plumb, England in the Eighteenth Century (1951); A. R. Humphreys, The Augustan World: Life and Letters in Eighteenth Century England (1954); and lan P. Watt, The Rise of the Novel (1957). □