Fanny Burney (Frances Burney) was a popular novelist of the late 18th century, with four major novels published. Her novels and plays were brought back into view and study as part of the feminist literary revival of the late 20th century.
Occupation: writer, novelist, dramatist
Dates: June 13, 1752 – January 6, 1840
Also known as: Frances Burney, Madame d’Arblay
- Mother: Esther Steepe (about 1725 – 1762), a musician
- Father: Charles Burney (1726 – 1814), musician and music historian
- Stepmother: Elizabeth Allen (about 1728 – 1796), widow of a merchant, Stephen Allen
- Siblings: Esther (b. 1749), James (b. 1750), Susan (b. 1755), Charles (b. 1757). Charlotte (b. 1761). Half-siblings: Richard (b. 1768), Sarah (b. 1772). Stepsiblings: Maria, Bessy, a brother.
- husband: Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard D’Arblay (married July 28, 1793; soldier, had been an adjutant to Lafayette)
- one child: Alexander Charles Louis Pichard, born December 18, 1794
Fanny Burney was born at King’s Lynn, Norfolk. Her father was, at that time, a church organist. She was educated at home, rather informally. When she was eight, the family moved to London, where her father became a music teacher, and moved in circles including Samuel Johnson.
When Fanny Burney was ten, she began writing. She finished a novel, which has not survived. That same year, 1762, her mother died after a long illness. Her father’s circle of friends helped the family to recover from their grief. One friend, Samuel Crisp, became close to Fanny, almost a second father. The Burney family frequently visited him in Surrey.
In 1764, Fanny’s father took two of his daughters, Esther and Susan, to Paris for their education. He did not bring Fanny, though she was between the two in age, perhaps because her nearness to her Catholic maternal grandmother led to fears that she would be converted in France. Fanny, remaining at home, taught herself French and translated a work by Bernard le Bovier Fontanelle into English. (The manuscript of this survives.)
When the Burneys had lived in Norfolk, Stephen and Elizabeth Allen had been close friends. Now that Charles Burney was widowed, and Stephen Allen had died in 1763, Charles Burney courted Elizabeth, and finally married her in 1767. She continued to live in Norfolk with her two daughters and a son for some years, with the two families visiting and becoming closer. The children got along well, but the Burney children were not fond of their new stepmother, even after she gave birth to their half-sibling Richard in 1768.
In London, Fanny’s father Charles received a musical doctorate degree from Oxford. Esther, the eldest daughter, married in 1770, a musician and cousin also named Charles Burney. Fanny’s father left on a musical tour, and Elizabeth bought a new house in London, large enough for the two families, and for the first time the households were joined.
Dr. Burney returned from his tour, and in 1771 published a book on The Present State of Music in France and Italy. The next year her brother James left on his second sea voyage, this time under James Cook. Charles Burney toured again in 1772, and again published a book on his return. Fanny worked with him on this. And Fanny, now twenty years old, welcomed another step-sister, Sarah.
In 1774 the Burney household moved again, this time to a home formerly occupied by Isaac Newton, and including his study and, in the attic, his observatory. The Burneys moved in prominent literary circles, and Fanny began attending parties at the home of Henry Thrale and his wife, Hester, a writer, after Charles Burney began teaching music to their daughter, Queeney. Hester Thrale didn’t think much of the Burneys, but was welcoming anyway to the younger woman.
Both of Fanny Burney’s stepsisters eloped with their lovers, episodes that the Burney family largely covered up. The also covered up an incident where Fanny’s brother Charles was asked to leave Cambridge for stealing books from the library, ending his hopes of becoming a clergyman. Fanny had at least one suitor whom she rejected during this period.
Fanny completed working on her father’s music history in 1775; it was published in 1776.
First Published Novel
Beginning in 1772 Fanny had begun assembling some previous scraps of writing and by 1777 had completed a novel. She kept it a secret from all but a few people. With the help of her brother Charles and a cousin, Edward Burney, she offered the work to a bookseller who accepted it. The book was published in January of 1778 as Evelina, or, A Young Lady’s Entrance Into the World.
Received very well and quickly popular, including among her father’s friends, the book was widely praised. Fanny confessed to her father her role in it, and more friends began to learn of the author’s identity.
By the end of the year, she’d been publicly exposed as the author. Fanny Burney found herself, reluctantly, a celebrity. Hester Thrale decided that she was a worthwhile friend, and soon Fanny Burney was part of the bluestocking group and was also associating with Samuel Johnson and others around the Literary Club.
Fanny Burney had kept a diary for many years, and during this period, it is full of material about events involving such notables as Johnson, Boswell, Hannah Moore and Hester Thrale. Virginia Woolf, many years later, based an essay “Dr. Burney’s Evening Party” on Fanny’s descriptions.
More Writing Projects
Fanny was persuaded by several of these new literary friends to try her hand at writing a play. She wrote The Witlings, but her father and Samuel Crisp discouraged her from publishing it.
Between 1780 and 1781, she completed a second novel, Cecilia, longer than her first. It was published in 1782 in five volumes. It was also quite popular. Many such as Edward Burke praised her writing effusively. Hester Thrale supported her through the writing of this novel, and the two remained friends.
Friends and Family: Changes
Fanny’s brother James returned from another voyage with James Cook – this the one that was fatal for Cook. A veteran of that voyage, Molesworth Phillips, married Fanny and James’ sister Susan in 1782, and their firstborn the next year was named for Fanny. Dr. Burney completed another volume in his musical history. Dr. Burney was elected to the Literary Club, a great honor, and then had a major part in the Handel commemoration.
Fanny had another suitor, though the relationship did not work out. Samuel Crisp, Fanny’s supporter and mentor, died in 1783. Samuel Johnson, who was a great supporter of Fanny’s, died in 1784.
Through a new friend, fellow writer Mary Delany, Fanny Burney met the king and queen, and was offered a position as second keeper of the robes to Queen Charlotte. A high level servant role was not particularly attractive to Fanny, but she was now in her 30s and unmarried, still not getting along well with her stepmother, and her sister Charlotte had just married and moved out. So Fanny took the position, with its income.
She worked for the Queen for five years. Her diary of the time reports rather boring days, long working hours, and Fanny’s ill health. She wrote some plays while at this position, but did not publish. Finally, members of the Literary Club helped to convince her father to help her out of her position, and she was permitted to retire for health reasons at half-pay effective in 1791.
After leaving her court position, Fanny Burney visited some friends and moved back to her father’s home. On an extended visit to friends in Surrey, she met a group of French emigres, including Madame de Staël and her lover, the comte de Narbonne, and his friend, Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard D’Arblay, refugees from the French Revolution and its aftermath.
D’Arblay and Fanny Burney began a courtship, and he visited her at her father’s home several times. Dr. Burney did not like the idea of his daughter marrying a foreigner who had no income, when her pension from her court position was so small. He finally gave permission for the two to marry, though Dr. Burney would not attend the wedding. The D’Arblays moved into their own home, and in December 1794 welcomed their first child, Alexander.
Shortly before her child’s birth, Fanny had returned to writing. She finished several plays begun during her time at court, and then a new novel, Camilla. This was published in 1796, and this time she developed a subscription scheme to retain more of the profits for herself. Many of those who supported its publication were women authors and the women from the bluestockings circle, including Elizabeth Montagu, Frances Boscawen, and Hannah Moore. A 20-year old Jane Austen was also among the subscribers. The success of this project financed a new home, Camilla Cottage, which the D’Arblays moved into in 1797.
Elizabeth Burney died in 1796. The Burneys went to Ireland, where Fanny’s sister Susan had been taken by her increasingly cruel husband, leading to her ill health. She died on returning to England. Fanny’s widowed sister Charlotte decided to remarry, but Dr. Burney withheld his permission even though the couple married. Perhaps most scandalous – and held as a well-censored family secret for many years – was that Fanny’s brother James left his wife and was living with his half-sister Sarah, presumably a sexual relationship. Sarah eventually left James and returned to live with her father.
In 1801, Fanny’s husband returned to France, where he thought it was safe to try to get his property returned to him. At first Fanny remained in England, writing several plays accepted for production but never actually produced. Then in 1802, Fanny joined her husband, taking Alex with her, and the family lived in Paris for 10 years. Near the end of her time in Paris, Fanny realized that she had breast cancer, and had a mastectomy performed without anesthetic. She survived the cancer and operation.
The family returned to England, and in 1814 Fanny published her fourth novel, The Wanderer. It did not sell as well as her previous novels had. That same year, her father died, and Fanny began planning his biography.
Fanny Burney’s Later Life
When Napoleon was defeated in 1814, D’Arblay returned to the military, and Fanny to France. An injury in the campaign leading to Waterloo forced D’Arblay’s retirement, and the family returned to England.
Alex, at Cambridge, progressed slowly, having fallen in with Charles Babbage and John Herschel and distracted from his studies by mathematics. In 1817, Fanny’s brother Charles died, and then in 1818 D’Arblay died. In 1819, her sister’s husband Charles died, and then her brother James in 1821. Her sister Esther died in 1832.
By 1832, Fanny Burney was able to publish her father’s biography and papers. She suppressed many of the family’s more embarrassing moments, but her treatment of her stepmother was criticized by her half-brother Stephen Allen, now a clergyman, as was her son Alex.
Fanny’s son Alex, whose lack of progress in the world was a matter of concern to Fanny, died suddenly in 1837 of a fever. Fanny died in 1840, and was buried with her son at Bath. Fanny left some money for her sister Sarah, who survived her.
Fanny’s niece, Charlotte Barrett, published her journals in succession, and her descriptions of daily life among some of the literati of the day were valued as historical material. But her writing was largely forgotten until revived first by Virginia Woolf in the early 20th century and later by feminist critics. Her influence on Jane Austen and others is now acknowledged. Some of her plays have been produced. Biographies have shed light on Burney’s personal and work life.
Books About Fanny Burney:
- Joyce Hemlow. The History of Fanny Burney. 1958. This is considered the definitive biography of Burney.
- Kristina Straub. Divided Fictions: Fanny Burney and the Feminine Strategy. 1987.
- Margaret Anne Doody. Frances Burney: The Life in the Works. 1988.
- Julia L. Epstein. The Iron Pen: Frances Burney and the Politics of Women’s Writing. 1989.
- Joanne Cutting-Gray. Woman as “Nobody” and the Novels of Fanny Burney. 1992.
- Claire Harman. Fanny Burney: A Biography. 2000/2001.