Frances Burney (13 June 1752 – 6 January 1840), also known as Fanny Burney and after marriage as Madame d’Arblay, was born in King’s Lynn, England, on 13 June 1752, to musical historian Dr. Charles Burney (1726-1814) and Mrs. Esther Sleepe Burney (1725-62). The third of six children, she was self-educated, and began writing what she called her “scribblings” at the age of ten. She married in 1793 at forty-two, to a French exile, General Alexandre D'Arblay. Their only son, Alexander, was born in 1794. After a lengthy writing career, and travels that took her to France for over ten years, she settled in Bath, England, where she died on 6 January 1840.
Frances Burney was a novelist, diarist, and playwright. In total, she wrote four novels, eight plays, one biography, and twenty volumes of journals and letters. In addition to the critical respect she receives for her own writing, she is recognized as a literary precursor to prominent authors who came after her, including Jane Austen and William Makepeace Thackeray. She published her first novel Evelina anonymously in 1778. When its authorship was revealed, it brought her almost immediate fame, due to its unique narrative and comic strengths. She followed with Cecilia in 1782, Camilla in 1796, and The Wanderer in 1814. All of Burney’s novels explore the lives of English aristocrats, and satirize their social pretensions and personal foibles, with an eye to larger questions such as the politics of female identity. With one exception, Burney never succeeded in having her plays performed, largely due to objections from her father who thought that publicity from such an effort would be damaging to her reputation. The exception was Edwy and Elgiva, which unfortunately was not well received by the public and closed after the first night’s performance.
Although her novels were hugely popular during her lifetime, following her death Burney’s reputation as a writer suffered at the hands of biographers and critics who felt that the extensive diaries, published posthumously in 1841, offered a more interesting and accurate portrait of eighteenth century life. Today, however, critics are returning to her novels and plays with a renewed interest in her perspective on the social lives and struggles of women in a predominantly male-oriented culture. Scholars continue to value Burney’s diaries as well, for their candid depictions of eighteenth-century English society
Throughout her career as a writer, her wit and talent for satirical caricatures were widely acknowledged: literary figures such as Dr. Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Hester Thrale, and David Garrick were among her admirers. Her early novels were read and enjoyed by Jane Austen, whose own title Pride and Prejudice derives from the final pages of Cecilia. William Makepeace Thackeray is reported to have drawn on the first person account of the Battle of Waterloo, recorded in her diaries, while writing Vanity Fair
Frances Burney’s early career was deeply affected by her relationship with her father, and by the critical attentions of their family friend Samuel Crisp. Both men encouraged her writing, but also employed their influence in a critical fashion, dissuading her from publishing or performing her dramatic comedies because they felt that to work in the genre was inappropriate for a lady. Many feminist critics thus see her as an author whose natural talent for satire was stifled by the social pressures exerted on female authors of the age. In spite of setbacks however, Burney persisted in writing. When her comedies received criticism, she returned to novel writing, and later tried her hand at tragedies. She supported both herself and her family with the proceeds of her later novels Camilla and The Wanderer. While some early historians derided the “feminine sensibility” of her writing, her fiction is now widely acknowledged for its critical wit and for its deliberate exploration of the lives of women.
Recent Burney scholarship, in particular that of Margaret Anne Doody in her text The Life in the Works, has drawn attention to conflicts within the Burney family that affected Frances’ writing and her personal life. The incestuous relationship of James Burney and his half sister Sarah, which resulted in their eloping in 1798 and living together for nearly five years, was kept from the public, but created a great internal strain on the family.
Frances Burney’s mother, described by historians as a woman of “warmth and intelligence,” was Catholic, the daughter of a French refugee named Dubois. Esther’s French heritage influenced Frances Burney’s self-perception in later life, possibly contributing to her attraction and subsequent marriage to Alexandre D’Arblay. Esther Burney died when Frances was ten years old, in 1762, a loss which Frances felt throughout her life.
Her father, Charles Burney, was respected not only for his personal charm, but also for his talents as a musician, musicologist, composer, and as a man of letters. In 1760 he moved his family to London, a decision that improved their access to the cultured elements of English society and as a consequence, their own social standing as well. They lived in the midst of brilliant social circle that gathered around Charles at their home on Poland Street.
In 1766, Charles Burney eloped in order to marry for a second time, to Elizabeth Allen, the wealthy widow of a King’s Lynn wine merchant. Allen had three children of her own, and several years after the marriage, the two families merged into one. This new domestic situation was unfortunately fraught with tension. The Burney children found their new stepmother overbearing and quick to anger, and they took refuge from the situation by making fun of the woman behind her back. However, their collective unhappiness served in some respects to bring them closer to one another. In 1774, the family moved again, to Newton House, St. Martin’s Street, in Leicester.
A critical aspect of Frances’ literary education was her relationship with the Burney’s family friend, the “cultivated littérateur” Samuel Crisp. He encouraged Burney’s writing by soliciting frequent journal-letters from her that recounted to him the goings on in her family and social circle in London. Frances paid her first formal visit to Crisp at Chessington Hall in Surrey 1766. Dr. Burney had first made Crisp's acquaintance in about 1745 at the house of Charles Cavendish Fulke Greville. Crisp's play, Virginia, staged by David Garrick in 1754 at the request of the countess of Coventry (née Maria Gunning), had been unsuccessful, and Crisp had retired to Chessington Hall, where he frequently entertained Dr. Burney and his family.
Burney was fifteen by the time her father remarried, in 1767. Entries in her diaries suggest that she was beginning to feel pressured to give up her writing, which was “unladylike” and “might vex Mrs. Allen”. Feeling that she had transgressed what was proper, she set fire that same year to her first manuscript, The History of Caroline Evelyn, which she had written in secrecy. Despite this repudiation of writing, however, Frances did maintain her diaries and she wrote an account of the emotions that led to her dramatic act. She eventually recuperated some of the effort that went into the first manuscript by using it as a foundation for her first novel Evelina, which follows the life of the fictional Caroline Evelyn’s daughter.
In keeping with this sense of impropriety that Burney felt towards her own writing, she savagely edited earlier parts of her diaries in later life. Burney destroyed much of her own diary material in revising the manuscripts. Editors Lars Troide and Joyce Hemlow recovered some of this obscured material while researching their late twentieth-century editions of the journals and letters.Evelina or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, was published anonymously in 1778, without her father’s knowledge or permission. Evelina was published by Thomas Lowndes, who voiced his interest after reading its first volume, agreeing to publish it upon receipt of the finished work. The novel was rejected by a previous publisher, Robert Dodsley, who refused to print an anonymous work. Burney, who worked as her father's amanuensis, had copied the manuscript in a "disguised hand" to prevent any identification of the book with the Burneys, thinking that her own handwriting might be recognized by a publisher. It was unthinkable at the time that a young woman would deliberately put herself into the public eye by writing, and Burney’s second attempt to publish the work involved the collusion of her eldest brother, who posed as its author to Lowndes. Inexperienced at negotiating with a publisher, Burney only received twenty guineas as payment for the manuscript.
The novel was a critical success, receiving praise from respected individuals, including the statesman Edmund Burke, and literary critic Dr. Johnson. It was admired for its comic view of wealthy English society, and for its realistic portrayal of working class London dialects. Burney’s father read public reviews of the novel before learning that the author was his own daughter. Although the act of publication was radical for a woman at that time and of her age, he was impressed by the favourable reactions to the book and largely supported her. Certainly, he saw social advantages to having a successful published writer in the family, and was pleased that Frances had achieved recognition through her work.
In choosing to narrate the novel through a series of letters written by the protagonist, Burney made use of her own previous writing experience to recount the protagonist’s views and experiences to the reader. This tactic has won praise from critics, past and present, for the direct access to events and characters that it allows to the reader, and for the narrative sophistication that it demonstrates in reversing the roles of narrator and heroine. The authors of Women in World History argue that she draws attention to difficulties faced by women in the eighteenth century, especially surrounding questions of romance and marriage. She is described as a “shrewd observer of her times and a clever recorder of its charms and its follies.” What critics have consistently found unique and interesting about her writing is the introduction and careful treatment of a female protagonist, complete with character flaws, “who must make her way in a hostile world”. These are recognizable as features of Jane Austen’s writing, and show Burney’s influence on the later author’s work.
A testament to its popularity, the novel went through four editions before the end of its print run. In 1971 it was still considered a classic by the writers of Encyclopaedia Britannica, which stated that “addressed to the young, the novel has a quality perennially young”.
The play satirized a wide segment of London Society, including the literary world and its pretensions. It takes particular aim at the women known as Bluestockings in the unflattering figure of Mrs. Smatter The play tells the story of Celia and Beaufort, lovers kept apart by their families due to “economic insufficiency.” Unfortunately, Frances was convinced by her father and by Samuel Crisp not to have it performed, because they had reservations about the propriety of a woman writing comedy.
Her plays came to light in 1945 when her papers were acquired by the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. A complete edition of the plays was published in Montreal in 1995, edited by Peter Sabor and Geoffrey Sill.
The plot of Cecilia revolves around the heroine, Cecilia Beverley, whose inheritance from her uncle comes with the stipulation that she find a husband who will accept her name. This proves impossible, given the social climate that she lives in, and she gives up her fortune to marry for love. The work received praise for the mature tone of its ironic third person narration, but was viewed as less spontaneous than her first work, and as weighed down by the author’s self-conscious awareness of her own audience . Some critics claim to have found the narration intrusive, while some of her friends found the writing too closely modeled on Johnson's. Edmund Burke greatly admired the novel, but moderated his praise with a criticism of the enormous array of characters and convoluted intertwined plots.
In 1785, thanks to her association with Mary Granville Delany, a woman known in both literary and royal circles, Frances traveled to the court of King George III and Queen Charlotte, where the Queen offered her the post of “Second Keeper of the Robes,” with a salary of £200 per annum. Frances hesitated in taking the office, not wishing to be separated from her family, and especially resistant to any employment that would restrict the free use of her time in writing. However, unmarried at 34, she felt pressured to accept, and she thought that perhaps improved social status and an income would allow her greater freedom to write. She accepted the post in 1786. She developed a warm relationship with the queen and princesses that lasted into her later years, yet her anxieties proved to be accurate: this position exhausted her and left her little time to write. She was unhappy and her feelings were intensified by a poor relationship with her superior Mrs. Schwellenburg, the Keeper of the Robes. She felt dominated by her superior who has been described as "a peevish old person of uncertain temper and impaired health, swaddled in the buckram of backstairs etiquette.”
During her years in court, Burney continued to produce her journals. To her friends and to Susanna, she recounted her life in court, as well as significant political events, including the public trial of Warren Hastings for “official misconduct in India.” She also recorded the speeches of Edmund Burke at the trial . She was courted by an official of the royal household, Colonel Stephen Digby, but he eventually married another woman of greater wealth . The disappointment, combined with the other frustrations of her office, contributed to her failing health at this time. In 1790 she prevailed on her father (whose own career had taken a new turn when he was appointed organist at Chelsea Hospital in 1783) to request that she be released from the post, which she was. She returned to her father’s house in Chelsea, but continued to receive a yearly pension of £100. She maintained a friendship with the royal family and received letters from the princesses from 1818 until 1840.
The French Revolution began in 1789 and Burney was among the many literate English figures who sympathized with its early ideals of equality and social justice. Durning this period Frances became acquainted with a group of French exiles, known as “Constitutionalists,” who had fled to England in August 1792 and were living at Juniper Hall, near Mickleham, where Frances' sister Susanna lived. She quickly became close to Gen. Alexandre D'Arblay, an artillery officer who had been adjutant-general to La Fayette, a hero of the French Revolution whose political views lay between those of Royalist and of Republicans. D’Arblay taught her French and introduced her to the writer Germaine de Staël.
Her father disapproved of the alliance because of Alexandre’s poverty, his Catholicism, and his ambiguous social status as an émigré, but in spite of this, they were married on 28 July 1793. The same year she produced her pamphlet Brief Reflections relative to the Emigrant French Clergy. This short work was similar to other pamphlets produced by French sympathizers in England, calling for financial support for the revolutionary cause. It is noteworthy for the way that Burney employed her rhetorical skills in the name of tolerance and human compassion. On 18 December 1794, Frances gave birth to their son Alexander.
The latter is partially a reworking of themes from The Witlings, but with the satiric elements softened, with more emphasis on reforming her characters’ negative traits. The play, first performed in December 2007 at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, Surrey, retains one of the central characters, Lady Smatter – an absent-minded but inveterate quoter of poetry, perhaps perceived as a comic rendering of a Bluestocking type of literary woman. All the other characters differ.
In 1811, Burney developed breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy without anesthetic. She wrote a first person account of this experience in her diaries, and it remains one of the most compelling early accounts of the illness and its difficult treatment. She returned to England 1812 to visit her ailing father and to avoid having young Alexander’s conscription to the French army, while still in recovery from her own illness.
Charles Burney died in 1814. In 1815, Napoleon escaped Elba. D’Arblay was then employed with the King’s guard, and he became involved in the military actions that followed. After her father’s death, Burney joined her wounded husband at Treves, and together they returned to Bath in England. Burney wrote an account of this experience and of her Paris years in her Waterloo Journal, written between 1818 and 1832. D’Arblay was rewarded with the position of lieutenant general but died shortly afterwards of cancer, in 1818.
After her husband’s death, Burney then moved to London to be nearer to her son, who was a fellow at Christ College. As homage to her father, she gathered and published, in three volumes, the Memoirs of Doctor Burney in 1832. The memoirs were written in a laudatory style, praising her father's accomplishments and character, and she cannibalized many of her own personal writings from years before in order to produce them. Always protective of her father and the family’s reputation, she deliberately destroyed evidence of facts that were painful or unflattering, and was soundly criticized by her contemporaries and later by historians for doing so. Otherwise, she lived essentially in retirement, outliving her son, who died in 1837, and her sister Charlotte Broom, who died in 1838. Burney was visited in Bath by younger members of the Burney family, who found her a fascinating storyteller with a talent for imitating the personalities that she described. She continued to write to her family often.
Frances Burney died on 6 January 1840. She was buried with her son and her husband in Walcot Cemetery, in Bath, and a gravestone was later erected in the churchyard of St Swithin's Church across the road.