To complete what has turned out to be a trilogy of female writers admired by Jane Austen we turn to Fanny Burney.
Frances Burney was the daughter of Dr. Charles Burney, the organist and musical historian. He had moved from London to King’s Lynn for the sake of his chest and it was there that Fanny was born in 1752. Music and the arts were very important to the family. They returned to London when Frances was eight and two years later her mother died. Burney was the third of six children from her father’s first marriage and they were all close. She didn’t go to school, and didn’t learn to read and write until she was eight. Five years after the death of her mother Burney’s father married a widow he had known in King’s Lynn. The stepmother was not popular with his children and Burney never accepted her. Charles Burney was a doting father and Burney constantly sought his approval, which had been missing in her earlier life. She was his secretary when he wrote his four volume history of music.
Burney met many of the leading men in music and literature, thanks mainly to her father. Her brothers and sisters were also interested in writing, one of her sisters also becoming a novelist. As well as writing novels and plays, Burney was a prolific writer of letters and journals. These were intended for posterity rather than for the moment and these were the source of her fame for the last century. Famously she described spending the night before Waterloo in Brussels and her own mastectomy, undertaken without anaesthetic.
Evelina was her first and best novel. She wrote it in her teens and finished it in 1777. It was published in 1778. In the fashion of the time it was published anonymously. Authors tended not to admit to their works until the works were successful. Burney even disguised her handwriting, afraid that the publisher would recognise it from the work she had done writing her father’s manuscript, and sent it to the publisher by her brother. Dr Johnson was an admirer and said that some of the passages would do honour to Richardson. Walpole, Burke, Garrick and Reynolds praised it.
Burney has long been considered an amateur writer who never developed. Her first published novel is considered her best work. There was an earlier novel that she burnt at the behest of her father. Her novels dealt with the identity and character of her heroines.
In 1779 she wrote her first play The Witlings. It was a satire on the blue-stockings, a group of intellectual women who met to discuss literature and the arts. These women had enjoyed Evelina and supported Burney when she admitted to being the author. Burney’s father and other friends persuaded her against trying to have it put on. Dr Burney thought that it was insulting to people who would otherwise have helped her. It was also recognised that a gentlewoman should not have anything to do with the theatre. Women associated with the theatre were considered immoral.
From 1786 to 1791 she was the Second Mistress of the Robes to Queen Charlotte. It was a tedious job, but she needed the £200 per annum it brought, since she wasn’t sure that she would marry, having already had two failed romances. She was thirty-four when the position was offered to her. Burney wasn’t interested in clothes; she found she had little time to write; and one of the other keepers of the robes made her life so unbearable that she wanted to resign. This would have been an insult to the queen, with whom she had developed a good relationship, so she stayed until she became ill. During this time she had another failed romance, which wore her down still further. When she eventually resigned due to ill health she was given a pension of £100.
In 1793, when he was forty, she married a penniless, exiled French officer, M. d’Arblay. He was a Catholic with no means of support at all. It was a love match, but her father did not attend the wedding. Their son Alexandre was born in 1794. One of them needed to earn some money, so Burney wrote.
Burney’s play Edwy and Elvira was produced in 1795, but was a failure, closing after the first night. Her next novel, Camilla, published in 1796 was a financial success. It was published by subscription and Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth were among the subscribers.
From 1802 to 1812 the d’Arblays lived in France. They had gone there during a period of peace in the hope of restoring M. d’Arblay’s fortunes, but this was not to be. When hostilities began again Burney was a political prisoner and could neither send nor receive mail. D’Arblay took a clerical job, since he was unwilling to join an army that fought for republican ideals. Burney could not receive the money from her writing so d’Arblay eventually joined the republican army. Later he was able to join the royalists. Burney’s final novel, The Wanderer (1814), written after their return to England, was not well-received. It was considered dated.
In 1810, while still in France, Burney had a mastectomy. This was achieved without anaesthetic and she was conscious throughout the operation. One of her surgeons was Larrey, who was later a surgeon to Napoleon’s army at Waterloo and whose bravery was recognised by Wellington. The surgeons who carried out the operation were the best in France and included the obstetrician of the empress Marie-Louise. Burney later described the operation in detail in her journal and it’s not for the squeamish. Although she recovered, d’Arblay died of cancer in 1818. Burney’s last work was a life of her father, published in 1832. He had died in 1814.
Burney died in 1840, having outlived her husband, her son and her siblings.