The Life of Fanny Burney
“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.
Fanny Burney later Madame D’Arblay (June 13, 1752-January 6, 1840) was an English novelist and diarist. She published her first novel Evelina anonymously in 1778. The revelation of its authorship brought her immediate fame. She published Cecilia in 1782 and Camilla in 1796. Her three major novels, much admired by Jane Austen, are about the entry into the world of a young, beautiful, intelligent but inexperienced girl.
The life of Fanny Burney began when she was born as Frances Burney, daughter of Dr Charles Burney, at King’s Lynn, Norfolk. Her mother, Esther (nee Sleepe) was granddaughter of a French refugee named Dubois. Fanny was the fourth child in a family of six. Of her brothers, James (1750-1821) became an admiral and sailed with Captain James Cook on his second and third voyages, and Charles Burney was a well-known classical scholar. In 1760 the family moved to London, and Dr Burney, a fashionable music master, took a house in Poland Street. Mrs Burney died in 1761, when Fanny was only nine years old. Her sisters Esther (Hetty), afterwards Mrs Charles Rousseau, and Susanna, afterwards Mrs Phillips, were sent to school in Paris, but Fanny was largely self-educated.
Early in 1766 she paid her first visit to Dr Burney’s friend Samuel Crisp at Chessington Hall in Surrey. Dr Burney had first made Crisp’s acquaintance in about 1745 at the house of Charles Cavendish Fulke Greville, and they had studied music together. Crisp’s play, Virginia, staged by David Garrick in 1754 at the request of the beautiful countess of Coventry (née Maria Gunning), had been unsuccessful, and Crisp had retired to Chessington Hall, where he frequently entertained Dr Burney and his family, to whom he was familiarly known as “daddy” Crisp. It was to her “daddy” Crisp and her sister Susan that Fanny Burney addressed large portions of her diary and many of her letters. In 1767, Dr Burney married Elizabeth Allen, widow of a King’s Lynn wine-merchant. Fanny lived in the midst of an exceptionally brilliant social circle, gathered round her father in Poland Street, and later at his new home in St Martin’s Street, Leicester Fields. Garrick was a constant visitor. Of the various “lyons” they entertained she leaves a graphic account, notably of Omai, the Otaheitan native, and of Alexis Orlov, the favourite of Catherine II of Russia. She first met Samuel Johnson at her father’s home in March 1777.
Her father’s drawing-room, where she met many of the chief musicians, actors and authors of the day, was Fanny’s only school, but he had a huge library; Macaulay stated that in the whole of Dr Burney’s library there was only one novel; Fielding’s Amelia. Fanny was acquainted with the Abbé Prévost’s Doyen de Killérine, and with Marivaux’s Vie de Marianne, besides Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa the books of Mrs Elizabeth Griffith and Mrs Frances Brooke. Her diary contains the record of her reading. Her stepmother discouraged of scribbling, so Fanny made a bonfire of her manuscripts, among them a History of Caroline Evelyn, a story containing an account of Evelina’s mother. Luckily her journal survived. The first entry in it was made on May 30, 1768, and it extended over seventy-two years. The earlier parts were savagely edited in later days, and much was obliterated. Evelina, or A Young Lady’s Entrance into the World was planned out long before it was written down. It was published by Thomas Lowndes in January 1778, but it was not until June that Dr Burney learned its authorship, when the book had been reviewed and praised everywhere. Fanny proudly told Hester Thrale the secret. Hester Thrale wrote to Dr Burney on July 22: “Mr Johnson returned home full of the Prayes of the Book I had lent him, and protesting that there were passages in it which might do honour to Richardson: we talk of it for ever, and he feels ardent after the denouement; he could not get rid of the Rogue, he said.” Miss Burney soon visited the Thrales at Streatham Place, “the most consequential day I have spent since my birth” she calls the occasion. It was the prelude to much longer visits there. Dr Johnson’s best compliments were eagerly transcribed in her diary. His affectionate friendship for “little Burney” only ceased with his death.
Evelina was a continued success. Sir Joshua Reynolds sat up all night to read it, as did Edmund Burke, who came next to Johnson in Miss Burney’s esteem. She was introduced to Elizabeth Montagu and the other bluestocking ladies, to Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and to the gay Mrs Mary Cholmondeley, the sister of Peg Woffington, whose manners, as described in the diary, explain much of Evelina. At the suggestion of Hester Thrale, and with offers of help from Arthur Murphy and encouragement from Sheridan, Fanny began to write a comedy. Crisp, realizing the limitations of her powers, tried to dissuade her, and the piece, The Witlings, was suppressed in deference to the views of “her two ‘daddies.'” Only one of her eight plays would ever be produced.
Meanwhile her friendship with Hester Thrale left her little time for writing. She went with her to Bath in 1780, and was at Streatham Place again in 1781. Her next book was written partly at Chessington and after much discussion with Mr Crisp. Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress, by the author of Evelina, was published in 5 vols. in 1782 by Messrs Payne & Cadell (who paid the author £250). Cecilia is more skilfully constructed than Evelina, it is more carefully constructed, and contains many examples of what Johnson called Miss Burney’s gift’ of “character-mongering.” Burke sent her a letter full of high praise. Some of her friends found the writing too closely modelled on Samuel Johnson’s, and Horace Walpole thought the personages spoke too uniformly in character.
On April 24, 1783, Fanny Burney’s “most judicious adviser and stimulating critic,” “daddy” Crisp, died. He was her devoted friend, as she was to him, “the dearest thing on earth.” The next year she was to lose two more friends. Hester Thrale re-married, and Samuel Johnson died. Fanny had met the celebrated Mrs Delany in 1783, and she now attached herself to her. Mrs Delany, who was living (1785) in a house near Windsor Castle presented to her by George III, was on the friendliest terms with both the King and Queen, and Fanny was honoured with more than one royal interview.
Queen Charlotte, soon afterwards, offered Miss Burney the post of second keeper of the robes, with a salary of £200 a year, which after some hesitation was accepted. Dr Burney was criticised for allowing the authoress of Evelina and Cecilia to undertake an office which meant separation from all her friends and a wearisome round of court ceremonial, but it has been argued that Fanny’s literary gifts were limited. She had written nothing for four years, and felt she had used her best material. “What my daddy Crisp says,” she wrote as early as 1779, “that it would be the best policy, but for pecuniary advantages, for me to write no more, is exactly what I have always thought since Evelina was published”. Her misgivings as to her unfitness for court life were quite justified. From Queen Charlotte she received nothing but kindness, despite her inadequacy as a waiting-maid. She had to attend the queen’s toilet, to take care of her lap-dog and her snuff-box, and to help her senior, Mrs Schwellenberg, in entertaining the king’s equerries and visitors at tea. Mrs Schwellenberg has been described as “a peevish old person of uncertain temper and impaired health, swaddled in the buckram of backstairs etiquette”, and this was the worst part of Fanny’s duties. Her diary is full of amusing court gossip, and sometimes deals with graver matters, notably in the account of Warren Hastings’ trial, and in the story of the beginning of George III’s madness, as seen by a member of his household. On one famous occasion, she was chased by him at Kew Palace, an incident that at first frightened her.
The strain told on her health, and Dr Burney prepared with her a joint memorial asking the queen’s leave to resign. She left the royal service in July 1791 with a retiring pension of £100 a year, granted from the queen’s private purse, and returned to her father’s house at Chelsea. (Dr Burney had been appointed organist at Chelsea Hospital in 1783.) In 1792 Fanny became acquainted with a group of French exiles, who had taken a house, Juniper Hall, near Mickleham, where Fanny’s sister, Mrs Phillips, lived. On July 31, 1793 she married one of the exiles, Alexandre D’Arblay, an artillery officer, who had been adjutant-general to La Fayette. They took a cottage at Bookham on the strength of Fanny’s pension. In 1793 she produced her Brief Reflections relative to the Emigrant French Clergy. Her son Alexandre was born on December 18, 1794. In 1795, her play, Edwy and Elgiva, was produced. In 1802 the family returned to France, where they remained for ten years. Fanny returned to England and published another novel, The Wanderer (1814). She remained in Britain for the rest of her life, her last work being an edition of her father’s memoirs (1832).
This article about the life of Fanny Burney incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.
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