Monday, June 13, 2011

Frances Burney

The exceptional life of Frances Burney is a bit of Cinderella tale with the exception of Fanny's intelligence and talent saving her from a stepmother and life of drudgery rather than a handsome prince.

Fanny was born June 13, 1752 to Dr Charles Burney and his wife, Esther.  Dr Burney was an esteemed musical historian and Mrs Burney was the daughter of a French emigrant with the familiar name of DuBois.  The Burneys had six children, Fanny the third-born and subjugated to middle-child injustices.  Her sisters, Susanna and Esther were sent to be educated in Paris while at the age of eight, Fanny still didn't know the alphabet.  However, two years later Fanny had learned to read and couldn't stop writing stories which she secretly did on scraps of papers; for to be caught would surely earn her a punishment for not contributing to helping out around the house.  It was at this age that Fanny suffered the loss of her mother, a loss she would never fully heal from. 

Fanny continued her writing in secret, even beginning a draft of a novel, The History of Carolyn Evelyn, what would become a prequel to Evelina.  Although scholarly, Dr Burney only had one novel in his home, and frowned upon writing.  At the same time Fanny was plagued with guilt for her dirty habit of writing which was "unladylike" and only acceptable in society if a woman was in desperate financial need for money based on her writing.  On her fifteenth birthday she attempted to forever extinguish her dirty habit by burning all her writing in a bonfire, including the ill-fated The History of Carolyn Evelyn.   But we all know that didn't work.  Fanny already had the story of Evelina in her head, she just hadn't written in down yet.

The Burney brood soon grew larger.  The same year Fanny made her resolution not to write, her father remarried a woman with three children from her previous marriage and who wasn't kind to her new stepchildren.  The situation, however unfortunate, did serve to make the Burney children closer to one-another.  Fanny spent her teenage years acting as her father's secretary.  Her urge to write could no longer be suppressed and she began writing Evelina in secret.

Evelina was published in secret too.  To preserve her decency it was published anonymously.  Fanny's younger brother, Charles even dropped off the manuscript to publishers disguised as an older gentleman.  By 1778 the novel was on bookshelves in three volumes and many were singing the unknown twenty-five year old's praises.  One of those who sung the book's praises was Dr Burney who read it after stumbling upon the truth of the author and proudly proclaimed it, "...the best Novel I know except Fielding's..."*

When the author's true identity was revealed, she was quickly swept up in the creme de la creme of London.  She became very close with Hester Thrale and was introduced to other great minds of the time.  In 1782 she published Cecilia which also received praises.  Four years later Fanny found herself in employment to the queen (a huge fan of Evelina) as a Keeper of the Robes.  Fanny was hesitant to accept the position, worried that it would interfere with her time to write but felt obligated to accept.  After four years in the position Fanny decided it was time for her to move on and resigned, yet continued her friendship with the queen and princesses.

It was now 1791, the French Revolution was in full-swing and Fanny was nearly forty.  In Fanny's many circles she became acquainted with a number of French exiles but one in particular caught her attention. General Alexandre D'Arblay was an artillery officer who fought alongside Lafayette.  Fanny was smitten with him and in 1793 the two were married.  The following year the D'Arblays welcomed a son, Alexander.

In 1801 Alexandre was offered a position with Napoleon's government.  The family moved to Paris, expecting to live there for a year, but instead remained there for ten years.  While still in France Fanny underwent a mastectomy to remove a cancerous breast.  She documented the ordeal and it remains one of the most compelling accounts of a successful early mastectomy, although many who read it find themselves surprised she survived the ordeal at all!

Fanny continued to live and to write for many years after her surgery.  She outlived both her husband and son, whom she was buried with when she eventually died at the age of 87 in Bath, 1840.  The posthumous publishing of her journals and letters only served to earn her a greater appreciation, almost downplaying her novels.  Today she is considered one of the great writers of the 18th century who continues to delight many with her real and fictional accounts of English life in the Age of Reason.

*Probably Amelia since that was the only novel in the house!


  1. How interesting :) I still have to read that book. I haven't gotten around to borrowing it from the library yet :)

  2. Oh god... This is ridiculous, but... Up to now I knew both Fanny Burney's name AND her Dr Charles Burney's name since I'm studying musicology but I never realized he was her father!! Happily quoting him and reading her novels and I never was bright enough to realize it xD Oh well. It's a very interesting story, I loved it :)

  3. @Rebecca, I think you'll really enjoy it once you get around to it!

    @Anon, How funny! A happy realization, I am sure :)

  4. I've been fascinated with Fanny Burney ever since I saw a production of one of her plays called A Very Busy Day. Thanks for this! I only wish that the BBC or ITV would adapt one of her novels for television. I don't think many people know how she influenced Jane Austen.

  5. .. nice post .. I remember when Fanny Burney came to visit Georgiana in Bath, when she was so ill ... very moving part of the book, Georgiana ... one of my truly favorite books.

  6. The edited journals and letters are a gem; from her shy youth, copywriting her dad's music manuscript, writing Evelina in private and thrilling to visits by Davey Garrick to the court years when George III was losing his marbles to her house arrest in Napoleonic France and her mastectomy...All written so vividly.

    Amazing how someone who seemed so quiet and shy ended up having such a busy, almost swashbuckling life.

  7. I never knew mastectomies were performed way back in the 1800s. It must have been so dangerous back then considering that there weren't standardized rules to sterilization in hospitals! I learn something everyday from reading yours and your partner's (Marie Antoinette's Gossip Guide) blogs!

  8. Oh God yes, can you imagine? You can actually read her account of it since she was conscience for's awful!

  9. Oh my goodness, conscious? Meaning, no brandy/whiskey? Nothing? I couldn't imagine. *shudders* I just cannot imagine. The pain. Oh my gosh. I mean, do you know how many nerves there are in there? Thinking about it gives me chills.

  10. If I recall she had some spirits but said it did absolutely nothing for the pain was so great!
    *and thank you for excusing my awful spelling error which I am just now noticing, doh!*