Burney, Fanny (1752–1840)

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Burney, Fanny (1752–1840)

English novelist, playwright, and diarist whose 18th-century "scribblings" and career reflect a society at once graced by wit and intellect, yet so ignorant of its assumptions concerning women that it missed, even discouraged, a rare dimension, preferring female sentiment to feminine insight. Name variations: Frances d'Arblay, Madame d'Arblay. Born Frances Burney at King's Lynn, England, on June 13, 1752; died in London on January 6, 1840; daughter of Charles (the musician) and Esther (Sleepe) Burney, who died when Fanny was ten; half-sister of Sarah Harriet Burney (1772–1844); married Alexandre d'Arblay, July 28, 1793; children: a son, Alexander (b. December 18, 1794).

Her education neglected in favor of her pretty sisters and talented brothers, Burney could not read at age eight, but was writing creatively at ten; burned her first novel, Caroline Evelyn (1767), but undertook the famous Early Diary (1768), though it was not published until long after her death; published most celebrated novel, Evelina, anonymously (1778), and became friends with Samuel Johnson and other literary and political figures; dissuaded from publication of comedy, The Witlings (1779); published Cecilia (1782) and served Queen Charlotte as second keeper of the robes (1786–91); published Camilla (1796); lived in France (1802–12); published The Wanderer

and returned to France (1814); published The Memoirs of Dr. Burney (1832); posthumous publication of Diary and Letters of Madame d'Arblay in seven volumes (1843–46) and The Early Diary of Frances Burney in two volumes (1889).

Gifted with acute observation and expression, Fanny Burney both adored and dissected the polished society into which she was born; conscious of her talent, she knew equally well that her work, whether good or indifferent, was judged differently because she was female, always because she was female.

Frances Burney, known to contemporaries and history as Fanny, was a shrewd observer of her times and a clever recorder of its charms and its follies. In her first published novel, Evelina, Fanny, aged 25, used the epistolary style to portray the mid-18th century English upper-middle class she knew so well through the innocent but sharp eyes of a 17-year-old girl. Superficially comical, the novel was also a challenge to the pretensions of her day, including that of masculine superiority; it is not certain, however, that she was as consciously feminist as some modern biographers wish her to have been. Fanny's talent was not employed solely to deflate insensitive men, though she could do that well; her targets also included pomposity, hypocrisy, self-righteousness, churlishness, and many women. New in her work was the woman who must and could make her way in an indifferent or hostile world. That is why she influenced later writers, including Jane Austen and William Makepeace Thackeray, and why, while much of her writing is diminished by contrivance, her diaries and some of the works published during her life may still be read for enjoyment and instruction.

Fanny Burney, Journal, March 1768">

To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal! … No secret can I conceal from Nobody…. From Nobody I have nothing to fear.

—Fanny Burney, Journal, March 1768

Frances Burney was born on June 13, 1752, at King's Lynn, England. Her family was a large and illustrious one, and in her early life Fanny did not appear as promising as her brothers, James and Charles, or her attractive sisters, Charlotte, Esther , and Susannah . Her father Charles Burney, an accomplished musician and musicologist who moved the family to London in 1760, gained entry into higher levels of society by talent and force of character. Fanny's mother Esther Sleepe Burney , of French descent, died in 1761, but greatly influenced Fanny who never forgot her warmth and intelligence. When her father remarried in 1766, Fanny gained additional siblings, including Sarah Burney , to share the busy and apparently pleasant household.

Perhaps as a refuge from the others, Fanny, a quiet, modest child, began to write for herself at age ten and authored several pieces, including a novel, Caroline Evelyn. This work, which she burned at age 15 in an act of contrition for writing such frivolity, was to serve as the foundation of her later published novel, Evelina. Fortunately, she did not destroy the journal she had also undertaken and to which she would add for the rest of her long and colorful life. It is in the journals, running to 12 volumes, that Fanny is best seen as a perceptive observer and able recorder of the late 18th-century English. Take, as an example, her description, in 1770, of a certain Miss Dalrymple:

[S]he is about 28 or 9, rather handsome, lisps affectedly, simpers designedly, & lookes conceitedly. She is famed for never speaking ill to any ones Face, or well behind their Backs: an amiable Character.

By her early 20s, Fanny had had the opportunity to behold many of the most renowned personages of her day, including the celebrated actor David Garrick, who was a frequent visitor at the Burney house. Garrick had befriended Charles Burney and introduced him to a widening circle of English luminaries. Moreover, despite Fanny's unassuming ways, Garrick had singled her out from her siblings and particularly enjoyed her gift for mimicry. Indeed, that very ability to imitate and amuse indicated Fanny's fine cognizance of character and the satirist's capacity to seize upon the central flaw in speech, appearance, and manners to express disapproval or disdain. It was to be the talent that won her public approval, but it is unlikely that the great world really comprehended that Fanny's humor was a tool rather than an end in itself.

Burney, Sarah Harriet (1772–1844)

English novelist. Born in 1772; died in 1844; daughter of Charles Burney (a musicologist) and his second wife; half-sister of Fanny Burney.

Novelist Sarah Burney's first success was with her novel Clarentine, published in 1798. While working as a governess and companion, she also wrote Geraldine Fauconberg (1808), Traits of Nature (1812), The Shipwreck (1815), and Tales of Fancy (1816–1829). Sarah's writing was often compared to that of her half-sister Fanny Burney . Wrote a critic for the London Monthly Review in 1813: "We have before remarked that together with family talents, we discern a family likeness in this lady's productions."

Fanny's biographers have agreed that she was enormously influenced by her intellectual father throughout her life and, in her young womanhood, by Samuel Crisp, a close family friend. So special was Crisp to her as a mentor and confidante that she called him "Daddy" Crisp. To a great extent, these men defined the role of women for Fanny, and it was a definition reinforced by the upper-middle-class world she inhabited. That role was essentially domestic, not public, subordinate, not dominant, and decidedly not political. But Fanny's native intelligence and sharp judgment allowed her to see the inconsistencies of such a system, if not overtly to rebel against it. Never one for radical political change in the style of her contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft , Fanny opted instead for the vehicles of novels and plays to affirm women's capabilities and to persuade her readers that the female was mentally the equal of the male and certainly no more foolish. She started with Evelina.

Evelina emerged from Fanny's humorous exchanges with her brothers and sisters concerning the comings and goings of the great and those ambitious to be great in their society. She had it published anonymously in 1778 as Evelina, or a Young Lady's Entrance into the World. Couched in the form of the letters of a 17-year-old girl, the book is both a novel of manners and a clever reversal of the role of the author rather than the heroine. Evelina is conventionally young, innocent, and beautiful, the object of matrimonial manipulations. Burney, however, shrewdly evaluates the heroine, the hero Lord Orville, and a cast of worldly characters. Though weakened by contrived meetings, improbable resolutions, and some unconvincing characters, Evelina suggests that woman's path is difficult, is made the worse by male exploitation, springing from a failure or refusal to take women seriously, and must be traveled with circumspection.

Evelina was published without Charles Burney's knowledge, but when he learned of his daughter's accomplishment he was, to Fanny's relief, pleased. No doubt Charles saw the possible advantages to his family from the large and unexpected popularity of the book. Yet there is no reason to deny that he certainly took pride in the daughter who, as a child, and as an unmarried woman, seemed so unpromising. On her side, Fanny enjoyed the acclaim and accepted invitations to discuss her book with eminent personages. Indeed, she soon became a favorite of Hester Thrale , whose home at Streatham was a center of literary and political discourse. At Streatham, Burney was lionized by Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds, and others of similar fame. It is unlikely that such supporters saw in Evelina an indictment of conventions they took for granted. They loved its wit, its sentiment, and its wicked skewering of familiar types, and they loved Fanny for it. Fanny Burney had made her own entrance into the world.

Mrs. Thrale's lively and critical views and Johnson's magic language captivated Fanny. Johnson, particularly, was adored. In him was combined encyclopedic knowledge, strong opinions, and inimitable skill of expression. Burney could never hear of his faults and took great exception to James Boswell's famous biography for daring to display Johnson's less endearing attributes. In such a circle, Fanny's conservative political views were reinforced, yet while her shyness contrasted with Hester Thrale's assertiveness, her notice of the contrast between those things permitted of men and those of women was magnified.

In the spring of 1779, Burney finished a play, The Witlings. The play concerns the problems of two lovers, Cecilia and Beaufort, who are kept apart by family on the familiar ground of economic insufficiency. Beaufort's aunt, Lady Smatter, is a wonderfully satirical example of Blue Stocking pomposity, but Fanny does not really question the notion that happiness is impossible apart from economic well being. But it was not that truism that bothered Fanny's father. It was the lampooning of recognizable and influential individuals that alarmed him. With the powerful support of "Daddy" Crisp, the elder Charles dissuaded Fanny from allowing the play to be performed. She may not have agreed that the play's performance would have harmed her reputation, as her father and Crisp asserted, but she dutifully bowed to these gentlemen and their paternal views. Perhaps, given her background and her own doubts about the wisdom of undermining the established order, Fanny could not have defied her father. But it is a misfortune, as her biographer, Michael Adelstein, has noted, that Fanny lost the chance to use The Witlings to go on to other equally pithy satires of her times. It was a rich vein to mine, and in subsequent works Burney, choosing safer subjects, did not speak in her own adroit, spontaneous voice but in the more formal and conventional tone of the world she hoped to please.

In her next novel, Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress, published in 1782, Fanny continued to deal with the economic problems of women but created a complex book fraught with plots, subplots, myriad characters, and boundless sentiment. The novel was an enormous popular success—Edmund Burke especially adored it—but the reviews were less favorable. While there are moments reminiscent of the fun of Evelina, the turgid characterizations and use of the intrusive omniscient view of the narrator indicate a falling off from Burney's previous works.

Cecilia was not a great book, but it nevertheless expanded her fame and brought her into even more refined social ranks. It also made her a more eligible marriage prospect. Fanny, who had firmly turned down the proposal of Thomas Barlow, a man of modest means, in 1775, apparently was quite attracted to a handsome cleric, George Cambridge, in the early 1780s. Cambridge made no offer, however, and Fanny, now a close associate of Mrs. Mary Granville Delany , an elderly lady with impressive connections in both literary and royal circles, moved on to charm the great families of the court. Eventually, she made the acquaintance of the royal family and was soon held in warm regard by George III and Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz . Their favor led to an offer of a position as second keeper of the robes for the queen. Many women would have been delighted with such a sign of approbation, but Fanny knew that the post would confine her, remove her from her friends, and deprive her of the independence she needed to write. On the other hand, the financial rewards would be substantial, her father wished her to accept the dignity, and Fanny knew all too well that the future of a female with no husband was very uncertain. Hesitantly, in 1786 she accepted the post.

Fanny Burney had doubted the sagacity of becoming the queen's close servant, and she soon had her doubts confirmed. The job involved many long hours of assisting the queen in her dressing and undressing, and Fanny was made miserable by her immediate supervisor, Mrs. Schwellenberg . Yet Fanny admired Charlotte, though she was hurt by the queen's apparent indifference to her unhappiness. For four years, Burney endured this duty, but, fortunately, she continued her diary. Among other interesting events recorded was Fanny's account of the celebrated parliamentary trial of Warren Hastings for official misconduct in India. Of particular notice is her fine record of the brilliant oratory of Edmund Burke. Restricting as her position was, Burney did not lose her gift for seeing deep into human character. She knew and admired Hastings, but she saw true greatness in Burke.

Less public was Fanny's relationship with Colonel Stephen Digby in these years. Digby, an official of the royal household, appeared to court Fanny, but disappointed her by marrying a wealthier woman. Now in her mid-30s, Burney had again experienced personally the problematic conduct of men toward women and the great attraction of money. Tired and downhearted, she began to lose her health by 1790. She could not go on in the queen's employ, and finally, with assistance from her friends, she was released. It renewed her zest for life and provided her with the chance to rekindle her interest in fiction and to meet the man she was to love for the remainder of her life.

Fanny Burney wrote several plays in the early 1790s, but only Edwy and Elgiva, an historical tragedy, reached the stage. Performed in London only one night in March 1795, it was so poorly received that it closed immediately. This failure proved again that while she knew human vanity well enough, her strength lay in depicting the absurdities of her times, not in serious drama. Yet just across the English Channel in France a vast, stark drama was in motion.

The French Revolution, beginning in 1789, had first attracted the English with its early generous sentiments. But as the revolution evolved into a massive and bloody struggle over the very fundamentals of political and social intercourse, Fanny and most of the others of her station sympathized with the beleaguered French monarchy, nobility, and clergy. When thousands of French aristocrats and clergy took refuge in England, Burney was willing to use her pen to drum up subscriptions for financial assistance for them. In 1793, she published Brief Reflections Relative to the Emigrant French Clergy, a pamphlet imploring her compatriots to give generously. The work is a standard one for its time, but it possesses interest in that Fanny, for all her justified concern about the devaluation of women, makes an argument for toleration of the French that she could and would as well apply to the masculine sex:

Are we not all the creatures of one Creator? Does not the same sun give us warmth? And will not the days of the years of our pilgrimage be as short as theirs?

Perhaps it was this magnanimous view of the emigrants that led Fanny to the arms of Alexandre d'Arblay. D'Arblay was a destitute emigrant who undertook to teach Burney French and introduced her to other French travelers, including the slightly disreputable writer, Madame Germaine de Staël . D'Arblay had lived an adventurous life before fleeing the revolution, and his kindness and charm appealed to Burney, but her father was uneasy with her growing fondness for a foreign and poor Catholic. At 41, however, Fanny decided to marry d'Arblay, and the wedding took place on July 28, 1793, at Mickleham. The couple were in love and were to remain so for the rest of their lives.

In the first years of their marriage, the d'Arblays suffered financial difficulties, but Fanny was content and overjoyed at the birth of their son Alexander in 1794. When Fanny published Camilla in June 1796, the first edition sold out, and the creditors were kept at bay. Indeed, the novel was such a commercial success that the d'Arblays were able to build a new residence at West Humble, which Fanny called Camilla Cottage. Actually, Camilla presents the familiar story of frustrated young love, the desperate need for money, and the obstacles to happiness for blameless women. Again, Fanny is heavy handed in her long admonishments to readers to be good, but there are sparks of the old Burney gift for characterization. Take, for example, when Lionel declaims to Camilla:

He's just a girl's man, just the very thing, all sentiment, and poetry and heroics. But we, my little dear, we lads of spirit, hold all that amazing cheap. I assure you, I would as soon be seen trying on a lady's cap at a glass, as poring over a crazy old author when I could help it.

Still, Camilla was just another indication of Fanny Burney's decline as a writer. Having long since departed from her natural style and having given up caricature for tragedy, Burney's public writing lost its bite. Her fame remained, and her diary continued to be fresh and charming, but her best days as a writer of fiction were over.

In 1802, the d'Arblays sailed for France as Alexandre took service in Napoleon Bonaparte's government. When war with England resumed the next year, Fanny's husband was often away, but she made many friends and lived as well as she could among foreigners at Passy, near Paris. She was frequently desperate for news of her father and brothers and sisters, but she doggedly supported her husband. In fact, it is the French period of her life that displays Fanny Burney at her best as a dedicated and courageous person if not as a writer. Most indicative of her mature strength was the harrowing mastectomy she endured, without anesthesia, in 1811. Fanny has left a complete account of the operation to remove cancer. Nothing in all her fictional renditions of woman's suffering bears so powerful witness as the agony inflicted upon her living flesh and bone.

Fanny recovered from her illness and returned under dangerous circumstances to England in 1812 to forestall her son's conscription into the French army. Once again short of funds, she finished another novel, The Wanderer, in 1814. A story of love and misalliance set in the French Revolution, the novel lacks even the occasional insights of Camilla. It did nothing to revive her declining professional reputation.

Charles Burney also died in 1814 having long outlived his time. Fanny loved and respected him to the end, and the last great public work of her life was the meticulous collection and publication of his memoirs in 1832. After his death, however, she returned to France as her husband joined the forces of the restored French King, Louis XVIII, when the Emperor Napoleon escaped from exile in Elba and marched on Paris. Fanny was in Brussels when the epic battle of Waterloo occurred, and her report of the events surrounding the decisive military engagement of her age summons up the fear and eventual elation of those memorable June days.

On the morrow of victory, Fanny and her husband returned to England in joy, but d'Arblay was not well. Having been injured in 1815, his health declined, and Fanny's happiness in their reunion was replaced by lingering grief when he died in 1818. In fact, most of her old friends were going or were gone as the years slipped by. It was no longer the world of Evelina and Cecilia, and Fanny was becoming a relic of another age. New generations had new and even better authors to read, while time's passage ravaged Fanny's health as it had diminished her work. To her other sorrows, her son Alexander added new ones, first by failing as an Anglican cleric and then by dying young in 1837. Fanny, old and suffering from mental lapses, survived Alex by three years. Then, in 1840, at the age of 87, Fanny Burney relinquished her pen forever.

Fanny Burney was a good writer in an age of extraordinary writers. If she suffers in comparison with Fielding, Smollet, Goldsmith, Austen, and Thackeray, it is because she chose, after the publication of her first novel, to limit her true voice to her diaries. Even so, she was one of the best depictors of human character of her time and certainly a steady, if not spectacular, defender of the potential of women. Yet Fanny was quite acceptable to the establishment of her day. Her wit, sometimes broad and sometimes subtle, did slice through the pretensions and absurdities of the masculine world of 18th-century England, but she was careful to restrain it when warned or when she thought it would be too costly.

The most enduring of Burney's contributions is her journal and the early diary, both published posthumously. In them, the reader enters a world long past, as seen by one of its inhabitants, and one that is endlessly fascinating and civilized in a way later ages could not be. The diaries leave posterity a picture of that crowded stage, upon which tread so many unforgettable players, and many of them would be lost to us forever except for their quiet but gifted chronicler.


Adelstein, Michael. Fanny Burney. Twayne, 1968.

Burney, Fanny. Brief Reflections Relative To The Emigrant French Clergy (1793). The Augustan Reprint Society, 1990.

——. The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney. Vol. I. Edited by Lars E. Troide. McGill-Queens University Press, 1988.

——. The Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney (Madame D'Arblay). Vol. VI. Edited by Joyce Hemlow. Clarendon Press, 1975.

Cutting-Gray, Joanne. Woman as 'Nobody' and the Novels of Fanny Burney. FL: University Press of Florida, 1992.

Doody, Margaret Anne. Frances Burney: The Life in the Works. NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988.

suggested reading:

Rogers, Katherine M. Frances Burney: The World of "Female Difficulties." Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990.

C. David Rice , Ph.D., Professor of History, Central Missouri State University, Warrensburg, Missouri

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Burney, Fanny (1752–1840)

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