Frances Burney (1782)
By Edward Francisco Burney
Born: June 13, 1752
Died: January 6, 1840
Birth and Development as a Writer
Frances Burney was born on June 13, 1752, in King's Lynn, Norfolk. She was the daughter of Charles Burney (1726-1814) and his first wife, Esther Sleepe (c.1725-1762). From the time young Fanny learned her alphabet, she was a writer, composing odes, plays, songs, farces, and poems at an early age. She burned them all at age 15, most likely under the influence of her stepmother, who didn't think it appropriate for women to write. But Frances Burney's urge to write could not be stifled. At age 16, she began the diary that would chronicle personal and public events from the early reign of George III to the dawn of the Victorian age.
Early Literary Life
Frances knew luminaries such as David Garrick, Sir Joshua Reynolds, James Boswell, and Samuel Johnson through her father, and her early diaries chronicle evenings spent in this circle at home. In 1778, when Frances was twenty-six, her first novel, Evelina, was published anonymously. It was written in secret and in a disguised hand because publishers were familiar with her handwriting through her work as an copyist for her father. With Evelina, Frances Burney created a new school of fiction in English, one in which women in society were portrayed in realistic, contemporary circumstances. The "comedy of manners" genre in which she worked paved the way for Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth, and other 19th-century writers. Evelina's mix of social comedy, realism, and wit made it an instant success and led London society to speculate on the identity of the writer, who was universally assumed to be a man. The great success of Evelina reconciled Charles Burney to his daughter's authorship. Frances was taken up by literary and high society and became the first woman to make writing novels respectable. Her second novel, Cecilia, published in 1782, earned her more fame.
Frances' first theatrical comedy, The Witlings, was, supressed by her father and by close family friend Samuel Crisp, even though Richard Sheridan had agreed to produce it. Novel writing may have been deemed somewhat respectable for women, but writing for the theatre was out of bounds for Dr Burney's daughter. Frances Burney saw one tragedy, Edwy and Elgiva, produced during her lifetime. The rest of her plays would have to wait until the late 20th century before a critical assessment could be made of them. All but two of her plays were published for the first time only in 1995.
Novel writing for Frances Burney ceased during the five years (1786-91) that she was Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte, and her diaries chronicle much detail about the royal family and court life, including George III's sanity crisis. She began a number of her tragedies during these years, but her health began to give way under the strain of court life. Eventually, in 1791, Queen Charlotte gave Frances special permission to resign her position.
After her release from court life, Frances' health improved, and she was able to visit some family friends and her sister Susan at Norbury Park. In October 1792, a group of French émigrés settled at nearby Juniper Hall. Among the newcomers was Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard d'Arblay (1754-1818), a career soldier and former aide de campe to the marquis de La Fayette. After their initial connection made at Juniper Hall, d'Arblay courted Frances at Chelsea in the spring of 1793. Dr Burney was impressed by his appearance and manner, but was skeptical of d'Arblay's comparatively liberal political opinions. Though Dr Burney's objections were worn down, he still declined to attend their wedding. On July 28, 1793, the couple was married at St Michael's Church, Mickleham with a small group of friends and family in attendance. Two days later, the ceremony was repeated at the Sardinian Chapel in Lincoln's Inn Fields, London for the Roman Catholic d'Arblay. The match proved to be a very happy one, and the two were extraordinarily devoted to each other throughout their lives. Their son, Alexander Charles Louis Pichard d'Arblay, was born on December 18, 1794.
Resumed Writing Career
After her marriage, Frances resumed her writing career. She began work on Camilla just before the birth of her son. Her husband acted as copyist, and a fair copy exists in his hand. Camilla was published by subsciption in 1796. The 36-page subscription list reads like a who's who of late 18th-century English society. Among the subscribers was a Miss J. Austen, Steventon. The profits from this literary work enabled the d'Arblays to build their own house, which they called "Camilla Cottage."
In 1802, in hopes of recovering property lost during the French Revolution, d'Arblay moved his family to France in 1802, a temporary arrangement that was to last 10 years as the Peace of Amiens ended while the family was still in France. While there, Frances made medical history by chronicling her mastectomy without anaesthesia. During this time, she wrote her fourth and final novel, The Wanderer, published in 1814 after the family returned to England. The next year, she remained near her husband, who was fighting with French Royalists against Napoleon, and refused to flee Brussels when rumours swept through that Napoleon had won at Waterloo. She stayed to help nurse the English wounded who streamed off the battlefield for weeks afterward.
After her father's death in 1814 and her husband's death in 1818, Frances Burney d'Arblay wrote no more fiction. Her literary effort until the end of her life focused on the Memoirs of Doctor Burney, published in 1832, and the editing of her own now monumental papers, which were first published as the Diary and Letters of Madame d'Arblay after her death in 1840.
On January 6, 1840, at the age of eighty-seven, Frances Burney, Madame d'Arblay, died in London. She is buried at St Swithin's, Walcot, Bath, alongside her husband and son.
Modern Scholarly Interest
Although heavily bowdlerized versions of the diaries and letters were published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it wasn't until Joyce Hemlow published her landmark biography, The History of Fanny Burney, in 1958 that the full impact of Burney's contribution to literature and letters began to be better appreciated. Dr. Hemlow's 12-volume Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney (Madame d'Arblay), which covers the years from 1791 to 1840, also made a great contribution to the contemporary recognition of Burney's canonical status. The remainder of Frances Burney's journals, complete for the first time, are currently being published in two series. The Early Journals and Letters (1768-1783) is under the general editorship of Lars Troide and the Court Journals and Letters (1786-1791) is under the general editorship of Peter Sabor. Critical appreciation of Frances Burney's novels and plays continues to grow, sparked by new interest in 18th-century women writers.
Frances Burney biography
By Valerie Patten
Made available online by the Chawton House Library and Study Centre
Frances Burney DNB entry
By Pat Rogers
Available to online subscribers to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Frances Burney biography
Made available online by the Burney Society
Frances Burney bibliography (as of 1999)
By Barbara Darby
Made available online by the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies
Fanny Burney: Jane Austen's Literary Godmother (in PDF format)
By Maggie Lane
Made available online by Jane Austen's Regency World Magazine
Period reviews, comments, and publication details of The Wanderer (1814)
Made available online by the British Fiction, 1800-1829: A Database of Production, Circulation & Reception project at Cardiff University
Texts by Frances Burney available online
Links compiled by The Burney Centre at McGill University
Chisholm, Kate. Fanny Burney: Her Life. London: Chatto & Windus, 1998.
Davenport, Hester. Faithful Handmaid: Fanny Burney at the Court of King George III.
London: Sutton, 2000.
Doody, Margaret Anne. Frances Burney: The Life in the Works. New Brunswick, New Jersey:
Rutgers University Press, 1988.
Hemlow, Joyce. The History of Fanny Burney. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958.
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