While now known through Jane Austen aficionados as one of Austen’s favorite novelists, for a while the world largely forgot Frances “Fanny” Burney. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Fanny’s social satires and comedy of manners were the books to read. Young Jane Austen subscribed to a circulating library to read Fanny’s latest novel. It influenced her enough she borrowed from said works and incorporated them in her own canon. The wealthy man’s pursuit of a social inferior, the buffoonish suitor, vulgar relatives, the name Willoughby, the phrase “Pride and Prejudice” itself—all originated with Fanny Burney.
The woman considered the Mother of the Novel, had an inauspicious beginning. As the third child of musician Charles and Elizabeth Burney, Fanny was often overlooked. Her other siblings seemed to have more promising futures and were better educated than the girl who had trouble learning her letters and how to write (modern scholars suspect Fanny was dyslexic). One of Fanny’s earliest tragedies was the loss of her beloved mother. Her father’s remarriage to a woman the Burney children disliked didn’t help matters any. Fanny turned to her sister for friendship and writing for solace. At age fifteen, she began a diary she would keep for the rest of her life. It offered social commentary on the lives of men and women of that era. Her step-mother disapproved of Fanny’s writing, deeming it unladylike. Fanny’s devotion to her craft went beyond what society considered respectable and so on the Burney property, Fanny burned her juvenilia, “The History of Caroline Evelyn,” a novel she painstakingly worked on for years. However, that was not the end of her literary endeavors. In fact, her lost novel served as a catalyst to something greater.
“Evelina,” was the product of her efforts. A continuation of her lost novel, this one focused on Caroline’s daughter, Evelina. Written in the epistolary style, as was common in those days, it relayed the story of Evelina, the illegitimate daughter of a gentleman raised by a clergyman who goes out into the polite society of London. She must contend with vulgar relatives, avoid social faux pas and rogues, while falling in love and receiving the recognition due her from her biological father.
Fanny published her novel anonymously in 1778 for a mere 20 pounds, concealing her authorship even from her father until it met with critical success. Once the public discovered her secret, she became a celebrity and welcomed amongst the literary elites of the day. It set her reputation as a serious novelist. “Cecilia” followed in 1782 and this time she received a more respectable sum of 250 pounds. This was the novel which featured the phrase, “… pride and prejudice…” and later inspired a young Jane Austen. She tried her hand at writing plays, but didn’t have the same success as with her novels.
Through the connections of a friend, Fanny received the offer of a position of “Keeper of the Robes,” in service of the Queen Charlotte of England. While she didn’t wish to be away from her family, at age thirty-four she was unmarried and believed this opportunity would not only secure her a steady livelihood—she would earn 200 pounds per annum, with time to write. Unfortunately, Fanny was mistaken. Her responsibilities consumed most of her free time, leaving her unhappy, anxious, and ill. The only writing she did in her five years of service to the crown was in her journals. A keen observer, she was a witness to the intrigues of the court, including King George III’s descent into madness. By 1790, ill and tired, Fanny left her post and returned to her father’s house. Her friendship with the royal family continued to her death, and she received a pension for her service.
The French Revolution was in full swing and French emigres flooded into England. Fanny sympathized with their plight, associated with many of them, and it wasn’t long before an understanding developed between her and General Alexandre d’Arblay. Despite her father’s disapproval of Alexandre’s means and Catholic faith, Fanny married the man she loved. A son, Alexander, soon followed in 1794 and while the d’Arblay’s enjoyed general happiness, they struggled financially. Once more, Fanny picked up her pen and wrote “Camilla.” A publisher paid her 2000 pounds for the lengthy novel. This financed their building of their home, which they called “Camilla Cottage.” Due to her marriage, the public and her readers referred to her as Madam d’Arblay.
Alexandre received a position in the French government and the young family settled in France, for what they believed would be a year. Their stay lasted over a decade due to the war between England and France. When her father fell ill, Fanny and her son returned briefly to visit with him. During the visit, Alexandre sent her the manuscript she had been working on for the past fourteen years. “The Wanderer,” narrowly escaped destruction and was published in 1814. Unlike her previous novels, this one didn’t strike a chord with her readers and didn’t receive a second printing. It was the last novel she would ever write and publish.
Fanny returned to her husband, however, on Napoleon’s escape from Elba and return to power, Alexandre sworn allegiance to the king and served under him, while Fanny escaped France. They did not reunite until Alexandre was wounded. He died in 1818 of cancer.
Fanny moved to London to be close to her son at Christ College. She continued to write, both in her diary, and on a memoir for her father. The last years of her life were difficult ones. Her son Alexander died in 1837 and she lost many of her siblings. As was common in the 19th century, Fanny edited her diaries before her death in 1840. However, what remains is a document that encompasses 72 years, capturing life from the Georgian era to the early days of the Victorian era.
Not only did Frances Burney contribute extraordinarily to literature, she has kept the door open to a world long since forgotten.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Veronica Leigh has been published in several anthologies and her work has appeared on GoWorldTravel.com and the Artist Unleashed, and she has published a couple of fictional stories. She makes her home in Indiana with her family and her furbabies. To learn more about her, visit her blog.