from Diary and letters of Madame D'Arblay (1846)
Fanny Burney (13 June 1752 - 6 January 1840) was an English novelist and diarist who served as second keeper of the robes to Queen Charlotte from 1786 to 1791. Her works include Evelina and Cecilia and her journal which was published after her death.
Frances Burney was born in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, on 13 June 1752, the third child of Charles Burney, a talented musician and author, and his wife Esther.
Frances, known as Fanny, was plain and short-sighted and struggled to learn to read. She was also extremely shy and had a serious manner about her, far beyond her years, which gained her the nickname “the Old Lady”.
Despite this, by the age of ten, Fanny had acquired a life-long love of writing and at the age of fourteen, she started to write a journal in the form of letters to her sister Susan and a family friend, Samuel “Daddy” Crisp.
In 1760, the family moved to Soho, London, where her father became a music teacher. Two years later, Fanny’s mother died of consumption, and in 1767, her father married again. Fanny’s stepmother, Elizabeth Allen, was a widow and long-time friend of the Burneys, but Fanny struggled to get on with her.
Fanny acted as secretary for her father who was working on a history of music. Charles Burney’s circle of friends included the lexicographer Samuel Johnson, the poet Christopher Smart, the painter Joshua Reynolds, the actor David Garrick and a brewer Henry Thrale and his wife, Hester, a diarist.
|Hester Piozzi, formerly Thrale|
from Autobiography Letters and Literary
Remains of Mrs Piozzi (Thrale) (1861)
On 29 January 1778, Fanny’s first novel, Evelina, or A Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, was published. The book was written in letter form and published anonymously and secretly with the help of her brother; not even her father knew she had written it.
Evelina was favourably received and when Fanny’s authorship became known, her father’s friend Hester Thrale demanded an introduction. Her celebrity as an author gained her entrée to literary circles and she became friends with the bluestocking hostess Elizabeth Montagu and through her, to the writer and artist Mary Delany.
|Madame Duval is furious|
from Evelina by Fanny Burney (1808 edition)
On the advice of her father and Daddy Crisp, Fanny abandoned a play, The Witlings, a satire on the literary world, which she was writing, on the grounds that it might offend. Instead she concentrated on her second novel, Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress, which was published on 12 June 1782.
|Cecilia and Mr Briggs|
from Cecilia by Fanny Burney (1825 edition)
Through Mrs Delany’s influence, Fanny was presented to the King and Queen, and this was followed by the invitation to become second keeper of the robes for Queen Charlotte. Fanny was loath to accept. She feared separation from her friends and the heavy demands of the role, but her father’s enthusiasm for her to accept this mark of Royal favour, coupled with increasingly strained relations with her step-mother, eventually persuaded her to consent.
On 17 July 1786, Fanny began five years of service to the Queen. Her journals stand witness to the monotony of her days and the difficulties of dealing with her superior, Madame Elizabeth Schwellenberg. Her stress multiplied with the onset of the King’s illness in 1788, though the tedium was alleviated by a visit to Weymouth the following summer. But the rigours of the role were taking their toll on Fanny’s health and she petitioned the Queen to be allowed to retire. She was eventually released on 7 July 1791 on half pay.
from Diary and letters of Madame D'Arblay (1846)
Still single at forty, Fanny must have doubted her chances of ever marrying. She had rejected the suit of a stiff young man named Thomas Barlow in 1775 and her court dalliance with Colonel Stephen Digby, Queen Charlotte’s vice chamberlain, had come to nothing.
But in 1793, Fanny met Alexandre d’Arblay, one of a party of French aristocrats who had fled to England to escape the revolution. The group of émigrés also included Madame de Stael and Charles Talleyrand.
Fanny fell in love with Alexandre and persuaded her family to accept their marriage, despite his Catholicism and penniless state. They were married on 28 July 1793 and a son, Alexander, was born the following year on 18 December 1794.
Fanny wrote a new novel, Camilla, or A Picture of Youth, which was published on 12 July 1796. Although it was received less warmly than her previous books, it was her biggest financial success. She sold the copyright for £1,000 and received at least as much again from a subscription. The list of subscribers included Elizabeth Montagu, Hannah More, Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen.
In 1801, Alexandre returned to France to try and reclaim his property and the following year, after peace had been declared, Fanny went to join him. They spent the next ten years living in the Paris area. In September 1811, Fanny underwent a mastectomy operation, performed by Dominique Jean Larrey, Napoleon’s surgeon, without anaesthetic.1
In 1812, Fanny returned to England with her son, and in 1814, she published her last novel, The Wanderer, or Female Difficulties. The book was not very popular but she received £1,500 for the first edition.
Fanny returned to France in November 1814 when her husband resumed his military service and witnessed the run up to Waterloo which she recorded in her journal. Alexandre was injured, forcing him to retire from the army, and the family returned to England to live in Bath in October 1815.
In October 1817, Fanny had a harrowing experience at Ilfracombe in Devon when she was cut off by the tide and nearly drowned.
Then, on 3 May 1818, Alexandre died. Fanny was grief-stricken. In the years that followed, she devoted herself to compiling her father’s memoirs which were published in 1832. Fanny’s unsatisfactory and undistinguished son died of a fever on 19 January 1837.
Fanny died in London on 6 January 1840. Her journals, which she had carefully edited to exclude unpleasant family matters that she did not want generally known, were published posthumously and give a wonderful insight into Fanny’s life and the world she lived in.
(1) Referred to as Dominique-Jean Larron in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Fanny Burney by Pat Rogers (2004).
Read about how Fanny Burney's writing influenced Jane Austen.
Sources used include:
Burney, Fanny, Diary and letters of Madame D'Arblay, edited by her niece, Charlotte Barrett (Henry Colburn, 1846, London)
Chedzoy, Alan, Seaside Sovereign - King George III at Weymouth (The Dovecote Press, 2003, Wimborne)
Hodge, Jane Aiken, Passion and Principle (John Murray,1996,London)
Rogers, Pat, Burney, Frances (1752-1840) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004, online edn, May 2010, accessed 7 June 2012)
Thrale, Hester, Autobiography Letters and Literary Remains of Mrs Piozzi (Thrale) edited by A Hayward (Longman, Green, Longman & Roberts, 1861, London)
All photographs © Andrew Knowles - www.flickr.com/photos/dragontomato