Frances Burney

Frances Burney (also known as Fanny Burney; married name Madame d’Arblay; 13 June 1752 – 6 January 1840) was an English writer.

While her sisters were sent by their father to be educated in Paris, Frances, who was still illiterate at eight years old and was considered a less gifted child, was left to be home-schooled. Frances is said to have suffered from a form of dyslexia, and educated herself by reading the family’s book collection. By the time she was ten, she started to write stories as a form of entertainment. At the age of eleven, her family started to call her ‘the Old Lady’, because of her grave demeanour. Her mother died when Burney was 10 years old. When she was fifiteen, at the insistence of her father and her stepmother, Frances burnt the manuscripts of the first novel she wrote, The History of Caroline Evelyn.

 On 27 March 1768, she started a new diary which she addressed to ‘Nobody’:

To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal! since to Nobody can I be wholly unreserved – to Nobody can I reveal every thought, every wish of my heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity to the end of my life! … No secret can I conceal from Nobody, and to Nobody can I be ever unreserved.

In 1778, Frances anonymously published her first novel, Evelina, which had been written as a sequel to the now lost The History of Caroline Evelyn. The novel was a success, and the secret about its authorship was soon revealed. Burney was then invited by Hester Thrale, a famous bluestocking and patron of the arts, to visit her home and take part in her salons. This was Burney’s debut into literary society, and she then enjoyed the acquaintance of Elizabeth Montagu, another famous bluestocking, and became intimate with the artist Mary Delany.

‘I am frightened out of my wits from the terror of being attacked as an author, and therefore shirk, instead of seeking, all occasions of being drawn into notice’ (Diary, Berg, September 1778).

In 1782, Burney published another successful novel, Cecilia. Jane Austen seems to have been inspired by a sentence in Cecilia to name her novel Pride and Prejudice: “The whole of this unfortunate business,” said Dr Lyster, “has been the result of pride and prejudice.” Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke were also among Burney’s admirers.   

Through her friendship with Delany, who was a court favourite at Windsor, Frances was able to travel to the court to be presented to King George III and Queen Charlotte, in 1785. Soon afterwards, she was offered the post of attendant of the Queen. Unmarried at 34 and with no concrete career prospects, Burney reluctantly accepted the position. 

She kept detailed journals throughout her time at court, but found the position exhausting, and deplored the lack of time to write fiction. In 1790, she prevailed on her father to draft a petition to the Queen, asking permission to resign her post on grounds of ill health. Frances was then permitted to retire on half-pay, receiving a yearly pension of £100, and left the office in 1791. She returned to her father’s house, and continued to correspond with the royal family until 1840.

During this period, Burney favored the early ideals of the French Revolution, particularly with regard to equality and social justice. She became acquainted with a group of French exiles, and was introduced to the writer Germaine de Staël. Around this time, aged 41, Frances fell in love with Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard D’Arblay, a French career soldier and former adjutant-general to the marquis de Lafayette. Her father opposed their relationship, and declined to attend their wedding, in 1793. In 1794, Frances gave birth to a son, Alexander. As D’Arblay was penniless, her court pension and the proceeds of her novels supported the family.

In 1796, she published Camilla, or, A Picture of Youth, in three volumes, through a subscription campaign. Anne RadcliffeHannah MoreMaria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen were among the subscribers of the novel. On its proceeds, Frances was able to build a house in Surrey, where the family moved in 1797.

In 1801, her husband was offered an official post in Napoleon Bonaparte’s government, and Frances and her son joined D’Arblay in France in 1802. Because of the war between France and England, they found themselves trapped in the country, and remained in Paris as exiles for ten years.

In 1811, after suffering from breast pains for about a year, Frances had a cancer diagnosed in her right breast and underwent a mastectomy, performed by Napoleon’s military surgeon, in a operation which was carried out with no anaesthetic. A year later, she was allowed to return to England with her son, to visit her ailing father. By this time, Alexander started his studies at Cambridge. In 1812, Frances published The Wanderer, a novel on The French Revolution which she wrote while living in France.

After her father’s death, in 1814, Burney returned to Paris and later went to Brussels, where her husband had taken a military post. She registered in her journals the events leading up to Waterloo. It is said that William Makepeace Thackeray made use of her journal entries to write his novel Vanity Fair. D’Arblay was injured during a campaign, and was forced to retire from the army.

In 1815, they returned to England and settled at Bath. In 1818, Frances’ husband died from what is said to have been colon cancer. Frances then retired to London, where she devoted her attention to writing her father’s Memoirs, which were published in 1832. In 1837, Frances’ son, whose life had been marked by ill health and depression, died of a sudden fever.

Frances Burney died at her home, in Bath, in 1840. Her writing  significantly influenced Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen, among others. In A Room of One’s Own (1929), Virginia Woolf wrote that “Jane Austen should have laid a wreath upon the grave of Fanny Burney”. 

 

Books

Fiction

Non-fiction

  • Brief Reflections Relative to the French Emigrant Clergy, 1793
  • Memoirs of Doctor Burney, 1832
  • The Early Diary of Frances Burney 1768–1778. 2 vols, edited by Annie Raine Ellis, 1889
  • The Diary and Letters of Madame D’Arblay, edited by Austin Dobson, 1904
  • Dr. Johnson & Fanny Burney, by Fanny Burney, edited by Chauncy Brewster Tinker, 1912
  • The Diary of Fanny Burney. edited by Lewis Gibbs, 1971
  • The Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney (Madame D’Arblay) 1791–1840, 12 vols. Vols. I–VI, ed. Joyce Hemlow, with Patricia Boutilier and Althea Douglas; Vol. VII, ed. Edward A. and Lillian D. Bloom; Vol. VIII, ed. Peter Hughes; Vols. IX–X, ed. Warren Derry; Vols. XI–XII, ed. Joyce Hemlow with Althea Douglas and Patricia Hawkins, 1972–84.
  • The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney, 1768–1786. 5 vols. Vols. 1–2, edited by Lars Troide; Vol. 3, edited by Lars Troide and Stewart Cooke; Vol. 4, edited by Betty Rizzo; Vol. 5, edited by Lars Troide and Stewart Cooke, 1988-2012
  • Journals and Letters. edited by Peter Sabor and Lars E. Troide, 2001
  • The Court Journals and Letters of Frances Burney. 4 vols. Vol. 1, edited by Peter Sabor; Vol. 2, edited by Stewart Cooke; Vols. 3 & 4, ed.ited by Lorna Clark; V. 5, edited by Geoffrey Sill; V.6, edited by Nancy Johnson, 2011-2019
  • The Additional Journals and Letters of Frances Burney, 2 vols. Vol. 1, ed. Stewart Cooke; Vol. 2, ed. Peter Sabor, 2015 – 2018

Plays

  • The Witlings, 1779 
  • Edwy and Elgiva, 1790
  • Hubert de Vere, 1788–91?
  • The Siege of Pevensey, 1788–91?
  • Elberta, (fragment) 1788–91?
  • Love and Fashion, 1799
  • The Woman Hater, 1800–1801
  • A Busy Day, 1800–1801
  • The Complete Plays of Frances Burney. 2 vols. Vol. 1, Comedies; Vol. 2, Tragedies, ed. Peter Sabor, Stewart Cooke, and Geoffrey Sill, 1995

About her

  • Frances Burney: The Life in The Works, by Margaret Anne Doody, 1988
  • The Iron Pen: Frances Burney and the Politics of Women’s Writing, by Julia Epstein, 1989
  • Fanny Burney: A Biography, by Claire Harman, 2001
  • Fanny Burney: The Mother of English Fiction, by Nigel Nicolson, 2002

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