A literary and social revolutionary, Frances “Fanny” Burney was a star at the tail end of the 18th century. She was a bestselling author, a senior employee of Queen Charlotte, independently wealthy, and the daughter of the country’s foremost musicologist. How, then, did she die lonely and forgotten, known as an apocryphal once-was for the next 150 years?
Fanny’s father was by far the most important figure throughout her long life. In fact, her first published novel, Evelina, opens with boastful devotion to one “Dr Burney”:
Oh Author of my being! – far more dear
to me than light, than nourishment, or rest,
Hygeia’s blessings, Raptures’ burning tear,
Or the life blood that mantles in my breast!
So infatuated was she with her father that she spent the late years of her life penning his biography, Memoirs of Dr Burney. When it was finally released in 1832–when Fanny was at the ripe old age of 80–the world had largely forgotten about both of them.
The third of six children, Fanny lost her mother in 1762 (when she was only 10). Essentially self-educated after that point, she and her sisters spent much of their time writing letters, sharing journals, and keeping diaries. This early habit would go on to largely define her career, as she is perhaps most well known for the exhaustive 20-volume autobiography that chronicles, without much hyperbole, her entire life.
Because she did not inherit her father’s musical talent, she was kept at home while her siblings were shipped off to Paris and Cambridge for further studies. As compensation, she was privy to all the material she would need as a future novelist. As her biographer, Kate Chisholm wrote, “The novels that Fanny was later to write are sometimes accused of being too full of dramatic incident to be credible, but within the family there were three elopements, innumerable affairs, disappearing children, and a possibly incestuous relationship.”
While her sisters married (the wrong people) at the proper ages, Fanny remained single. In this Austenian universe a woman was considered past her marriagable prime at 25. But by her mid-twenties Fanny was a blooming writer, and in 1776, at 26, she published Evelina, a work that would make her famous.
As a woman, the novel was published anonymously, without her father’s knowledge or permission, and to massive critical (if not financial) success. She sold Evelina, what would be her most successful work, for a mere 20 pounds.
The book made a fortune for everyone involved but the person who actually wrote it. But what it did was establish a new paradigm for women everywhere: that women have just one area of freedom in their lives–the ability to decide, by either saying ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ to a marriage proposal.
Her follow-up novel, Cecilia, delved even further into the complications of 18th century marriage, with its plot of an heiress who is required to find a husband who must sacrifice his surname and take hers in order to qualify for her family’s fortune. No heiress herself, Fanny had, at this point, already turned down at least one marriage.
Note: to her father, to herself, and to her colleagues, she was known as “Fanny” (and the even stranger “Fannikin” to her close friends). Much like Elizabeth Gaskell she has since been posthumously rechristened, as “Frances,” by modern feminist critics.
By 1786, when Fanny was 34, her spinsterdom was becoming something of a public embarrassment despite her literary successes. Through family connections she spent five years as the Second Keeper of the Robes for Queen Charlotte, a position she loathed and compared to a privelaged jail. She retired from office at 39, citing “health” reasons, with a pension of 100 pounds.
From this point on she concentrated on being a dramatist, writing eight plays (at least, that’s all that survived), but only one was ever performed (Edwy and Elgiva). It closed after one night.
At the age of 41 Fanny finally married, after a secret courtship, a man who could step out of her father’s enormous shadow. Strangely, he was a penniless French man named Alexandre d’Arblay. A political revolutionary who fled France for fear of his life, d’Arblay was never accepted by Burney’s family. Together they had one son, in 1794 (when Fanny was 42!).
With d’Arblay unable to find work in England, Fanny buckled under financial pressure and decided to write novels again. This time, she knew their worth. In 1796 she produced Camilla, the most successful literary venture of the decade. At a time when most authors collected just 10 pounds for a novel, Fanny commanded an unbelievable 2000 pounds for Camilla.
The book was shipped by subscription, a list which Jane Austen and Edmund Burke belonged to.
It was at this point that Fanny’s life got complicated.
With Napolean’s accession, she and d’Arblay ventured to France in 1811. It was during this time–when France was on the brink of war with her native England–that she had a mastectomy without anasthetic, at 59. Amazingly, she recorded the operation in a letter to her sister, Esther. Thanks to the internet, it has become perhaps her best-known piece of writing.
I then felt the Knife tackling against the breast bone – scraping it! – This performed, while I yet remained in utterly speechless torture, I heard the Voice of Mr Larry, – (all others guarded a dead silence) in a tone nearly tragic, desire everyone present to pronounce if anything more remained to be done; The general voice was Yes, – but the finger of Mr Dubois – which I literally felt elevated over the wound, though I saw nothing, & though he touched nothing, so indescribably sensitive was the spot – pointed to some further requisition – & again began the scraping! – and, after this, Dr Moreau thought he discerned a peccant attom – and still, & still, M. Dubois demanded attom after atom.
Three years later, Fanny’s life as a novelist effectively ended with The Wanderer. At this point, national taste had skewed to the likes of Scott and Edgeworth and Maturin. Her last publication, that aforementioned biography of her father, came out to little to no fanfare.
In the end, she outlived her husband by 22 years, and her son by three (influenza). She passed on at 88, lonely and alone, the product of a skilled French surgeon and a literary world that spurned her for being too independant.
For the next century and a half Fanny Burney passed out of all knowledge, save a few academics. It’s only now that her name and works are resurfacing, earning her the proper place as “the mother of English fiction,” as Virgina Woolf called her.
Even though her name disappeared, her presence has been felt this entire time, most notably in the works of her primary beneficiary: Jane Austen.
“And what are you reading, Miss — ?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
Why the sudden burst of affection for Fanny Burney, you may ask?
Well, for the next eleven weeks I’m going to be participating in an in-depth readalong of Burney’s Cecilia with about a dozen other readers and bloggers (hosted by the wonderful Laura from Reading in Bed). I’ll be posting about it every Monday, with each installment covering roughly 100 pages of the book.
Armed with two fresh editions from the wonderful Forgotten Books imprint, I’m excited to dive in to Burney for myself and see what all the fuss was about when it was published 234 years ago (that’s incredible).
What’s Cecilia about, again?
Cecilia is an heiress, but she can only keep her fortune if her husband will consent to take her surname. Fanny Burney’s unusual love story and deft social satire was much admired on its first publication in 1782 for its subtle interweaving of comedy, humanity, and social analysis. Controversial in its time, this eighteenth-century novel seems entirely fresh in relation to late twentieth-century concerns.
If you’re interested in what the other readalongers are saying, check out their wonderful thoughts and analysis here:
Originally from Nova Scotia, Rick lives in Edmonton, Alberta, because, well, most of Nova Scotia lives there anyway. He is neutral good.