When Frances Burney (1752–1840) first published her novel Evelina, she did so in strictest secrecy, concealing both her name and her female identity. These letters reveal the clandestine meetings, false names and disguised handwriting that she used in order to seal a deal with the publisher Thomas Lowndes (1719–1784). They also show how she rose to fame and navigated her place in the world, once her book met with approval. In her journey from a ‘nobody’ to a celebrity, Burney mirrors the ‘entrance’ and progress of her heroine Evelina.
Why did Frances Burney write anonymously?
Frances Burney was the daughter of the music historian and teacher Dr Charles Burney. She worked as a scribe on his General History of Music (1776–89) and wrote Evelina in her free time. But she worried that it was improper for a woman to publish her writing, and suspected that her father would disapprove of novels. Nevertheless, she couldn’t suppress the desire to get it printed, and she asked two men in her family to help her make it happen.
Burney copied the first two volumes using a ‘feigned hand’, in case printers recognised her writing from her father’s History. She then used her brother Charles as a go-between with publishers. He met them, disguised in an old coat, at coffee houses in London.
In the draft of a letter to Lowndes, Burney asks if he might buy a book ‘without ever seeing … the Author’. She begs him to send his answer to ‘Mr King’, the pseudonym used by her brother (f. 3r). Lowndes replies from Fleet Street on Christmas Day 1776, agreeing to look at the manuscript (f. 5r), and he finishes reading it within only four days (f. 6r). Relating the story later, Burney expressed her delight that Lowndes ‘elevated’ her to a man by addressing her as ‘Sir’.
But on 17 January 1777, Lowndes says he’s unwilling to ‘Publish an Unfinished book’ (f. 7r), and Burney responds in a disguised hand, agreeing to write a third volume (f. 8r). By 11 November 1777, Lowndes has received the final part and promises to pay ‘Twenty Guineas’ (f. 9r). He then asks for final revisions via her cousin Edward Francesco Burney, who poses as ‘Mr Grafton’ (f. 10r).
A publishing sensation
Evelina was published in January 1778, and became a sell-out sensation. On 7 July, Lowndes tells ‘Mr Grafton’ that ‘the Great World send’ to his shop ‘to Buy Evelina’ and a ‘polite Lady’ says she’s ‘treated as unfashionable for not having read it’ (f. 11r). By the end of the year, the secret of Burney’s authorship was out, and Lowndes writes to Dr Burney on 27 January 1779, confirming that Evelina will soon run into third and fourth editions (f. 12r).
Letter to William Wilberforce
Other letters in this volume show how Burney established herself in elite intellectual circles. On 27 June 1816, she writes to William Wilberforce (1759–1833), a politician and prominent anti-slavery campaigner. Having received his letter, she says it doesn’t please her as much as when she first heard about the ‘abolition of slavery’ (f. 108r‒v). Burney may be alluding to the 1807 Slave Trade Act, which made it illegal to engage in the slave trade in the British Empire. This did not free enslaved people, however. It was not until 1833 that Parliament passed an act to abolish slavery itself.
 Frances Burney relates the story in her Memoirs of Doctor Burney (London, 1832), Vol. 2, pp. 121–71.
 Memoirs of Doctor Burney, p. 128.
Some of the Original Letters of Mr. Lowndes the Bookseller to the Anonymous Author of Evelina – with 2 letters of that author
To Mr. Lowndes
Bookseller, Fleet Street.
As an author has a kind of natural claim to a connexion with a Bookseller, I hope that, in the character of the former, you will pardon me, although a stranger, for the liberty I take of requesting You to favour me with an Answer to the following queries.
Whether You will take the trouble of candidly perusing a MS. Novel sent to You without any public Name, or private recommendation?
Whether it is now too late in the Year for printing the first volume of the above MS. this season?
And whether if, after reading, you should think it worth printing, you would buy the Copy without ever seeing, or knowing, the Author?
The singularity of this address, you may easily imagine, results from a singularity of situation.
I must beg you to direct your Answer to Mr. King, To be left at the Orange Coffee House till called for.
I am, Sir, your very humble Servt
I've not the least objection to what you propose & if you favour me with sight of your Ms I'll lay aside other Business to read it & tell you my thoughts of it at 2 Press's I can soon make it appear in print for now is the time for a Novel
yr obedt Servt
Decr 25 1776
Orange Coffee House
To be left till called for
I have read your Novel and cant see any Reason why you shou'd not finish and publish it compleat I'm sure it will be your interest as well as the Booksellers, you may well add One to these, & I shall more eagerly print it. I Returnd one in a singu=lar State to a Lady on Thursday who has before favour'd me with the production of her Pen I wd rather print in July than now to Publish an Unfinished book. This I submit to your Consideration and with wishes that you may come into my Way of thinking I'll restore the MS to the Gentleman that brought it.
Yr Obt Servt
Jany 17th. 1777.
To Mr Lowndes. Jan 7. 1777
I am well contented with the openness of your proceedings, & obliged to you for your advice.
My original plan was, to publish 2 volumes now, & two more next year: I yield, however, to your Experience in these matters, & will defer the publication, till the Work is completed, – though I should have been better pleased to have felt the pulse of the public, before I had proceeded.
I will write to you again, when I am ready for the press. In the mean Time, I must beg the favour of a line, directed as before, to acquaint me how long I may delay printing the novel, without losing the proper season for its appearance. I am Sr.
Yr. humble servt. _ _
I've read this 3d Vol & think it better than 1 & 2d If you please I'll give you Twenty Guineas for the Manuscript and without loss of time put it to Pressyr obedt Servt
I take the liberty to send you a Novel, which a Gentleman your acquaintance, said you would Hand to him. I beg with Expedition, as 'tis Time it should be publishes, & 'tis requisite he should first revise it or the Reviewers may find a flaw. I am sir,
Your obedt servt
Fleet street, Jan. 7. 1778
I Bound up a set for You the first Day I had them, & hoped by some means to hear from you. The Great World send here to Buy Evelina. A polite Lady said Do, Mr Lowndes, give me Evelina, Im treated as unfash-ionable for not having read it. I think the Impression will be sold by Christmas. If, mean Time, or about that Time, you favour me with any commands, I shall be proud to observe them.
Yr obliged servt
July 2 1778
- Full title:
- BARRETT COLLECTION. Vol. VI (ff. 108). Correspondence of Frances d'Arblay.
- 1770‒1838, London
- Manuscript / Letter
- Frances Burney, Also known as Fanny Burney, Thomas Lowndes
- Usage terms
Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.
- Held by
- British Library
- Egerton MS 3695
- Article by:
- John Mullan
- Rise of the novel, Politeness, sensibility and sentimentalism
John Mullan explains how the novel took shape in the 18th century with the works of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne, and the ways in which the book industry both shaped and responded to the new genre.
- Article by:
- Jenni Murray
- Gender and sexuality
The diarist and novelist Frances Burney was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1810 and wrote an account of her ‘terrible operation’ for her sisters. Jenni Murray considers why this is one of the most courageous pieces of writing she has ever encountered.
- Article by:
- Louise Curran
- Rise of the novel, Politeness, sensibility and sentimentalism, Language and ideas
Louise Curran explores the real and fictional letters published in the 18th century, from the correspondence of Alexander Pope and Ignatius Sancho to Samuel Richardson's hugely popular epistolary novel Pamela and the works it inspired.