Frances Burney – also known as Fanny Burney – was born on 13 June 1752 in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England. Her family moved to London in 1760. Her mother, a musician, died when she was ten, and her father, the celebrated musician and scholar Charles Burney, remained an important influence throughout her life.
Publishing Evelina and Cecilia
Burney’s entry into the world of letters was elaborately strategised and much anguished over, much like the debuts into society through which she put the heroines of her most celebrated novels. After a childhood spent writing stories and plays, Burney anonymously published her first novel, Evelina, in 1778. Wary of the public eye and uncertain how her family would react to her writing for a mass audience, Burney sought to keep her authorship secret for as long as possible. But, after months of public speculation and the praise of literary figures such as Hester Thrale and Samuel Johnson, Burney owned the novel as her own. Burney documented the odd feeling of watching her private writing go out into the world in her journals:
My little book, I am told, is now at all the circulating libraries. I have an exceeding odd sensation when I consider that it is now in the power of any and every body to read what I so carefully hoarded even from my best friends, till this last month or two; and that a work which was so lately lodged, in all privacy, in my bureau, may now be seen by every butcher and baker, cobbler and tinker, throughout the three kingdoms, for the small tribute of threepence.
Burney’s father introduced her to important writers, actors and artists – David Garrick and Joshua Reynolds socialised at the Burney household – but was conservative in his estimation of what literary genres were suitable for women writers. Burney was discouraged by her father and close family friend Samuel Crisp from writing comedy and satire, particularly for the stage. Instead, she put her sharp insight into the foibles and mannerisms of society to good use in her next novel, Cecilia (1782), which sold widely and cemented Burney’s literary reputation and her status as a literary celebrity in London.
Marriage and illness
Unmarried at 34 and with two failed romances behind her, Burney reluctantly accepted the position of ‘Keeper of the Robes’ in the court of King George III and Queen Charlotte. Burney maintained extensive journals throughout her time at court, but found the position exhausting and in 1790 requested to be dismissed.
Soon after, Burney met and married a French émigré, General Alexandre D’Arblay. When D’Arblay’s estate in France was confiscated, it fell to Burney to support their new household, which soon included a son. Burney’s third novel, Camilla (1796), was published by subscription and raised enough money to purchase her and D’Arblay’s first home. The family travelled to France in 1801 when D’Arblay took a position in Bonaparte’s government. There, Burney suffered from breast cancer and underwent an excruciating mastectomy, which she documented in a letter that survives as one of the earliest first-hand accounts of the procedure. Burney outlived her husband and returned to London after his death, where she edited her father’s memoirs for publication and maintained an extensive correspondence until she died in 1840.
Wider literary career and impact
Burney’s early success with Evelina was the beginning of a long writing career that produced three more novels, eight plays and multiple volumes of journals and letters. Burney’s writing is characterised by sharply delineated characters, a nuanced understanding of the dynamics of social class and complex, multi-threaded plots that wove together many characters. Burney’s work was influenced by earlier novelists such as Samuel Richardson and foreshadowed later 19th-century writers including William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens.
Further information about the life of Frances Burney can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.