As efforts to expand the literary canon became more successful throughout the mid- to late twentieth century, the works of the English novelist Fanny Burney gradually emerged from a long eclipse. To the delight of those who sought to demonstrate that courageous women had long been producing important works of art, Burney was a major literary figure, a recognized predecessor to novelist Jane Austen, and an author whose works were widely admired in their own day, esteemed by no less an authority than Samuel Johnson, and, despite all the acclaim they received when they were first published, largely unknown to the modern public. Since most readers could still recite the names of Burney’s contemporary male colleagues, Fanny Burney seemed such a clear example of how the literary tradition had been distorted by male academics that she became a cause célèbre among feminist scholars. Her works were restored to the curriculum. New editions of her novels were released by popular presses. She was widely cited as a leading example of how oppression, discrimination, and blind prejudice had ruined the literary establishment.
The difficulty with this approach was, however, that, by transforming Fanny Burney into a symbol, many of the scholars who claimed to admire her work lost sight of the author herself as a three-dimensional person. Her novels were scoured for evidence that could be used to support the theories of this or that critic, not read for their own sake or for the larger picture they provided of eighteenth century life. Approaching Burney’s writings only as quarries for evidence, many scholars created an image of the author that was, in its own way, as little informative as the bland indifference Burney had received for so many years.
Claire Harman’s Fanny Burney: A Biography provides a welcome corrective to this narrow treatment of the author and her works. While Harman does not shy away from demonstrating the frustrating limitations imposed on women in eighteenth and early nineteenth century England, she also creates a more complete portrait of Burney and her life than has been possible before. Harman sees much of Burney’s inspiration as stemming from her own experiences, particularly in the events that befell Burney’s family while she was young, and to the impressions that London made on a young and rather naïve girl who had spent most of her early life in the middle-class town of Lynn Regis. What Harman creates is both a better understanding of who Burney was as an individual and a vastly improved context for appreciating the novels Burney wrote.
Harman sees Burney as a woman whose early life was sheltered until the death of her mother, Esther. Not only did Burney weep uncontrollably at her mother’s sudden death but she also underwent a change in personality. For the rest of her life, Burney was far more reserved in public than she had previously been. With Esther’s death, the greatest source of stability in Burney’s world had been shaken and, from that moment on, the author would display her unbridled humor only to her family, her closest friends, and others whom she felt she could trust. Acquaintances were sometimes surprised, after having known the reticent Burney for several years, to suddenly see hints of her fiery wit or to witness the author surrender to the impulse of the moment, engaging in a frivolous jest. This private side of Burney, although clear from the letters she wrote to her siblings and closest companions, usually remained unseen by the public who knew her only from her published works.
Harman suggests also that Esther’s death had another effect on Burney by shaping the way in which death was depicted in each of the author’s later novels. In Burney’s works, the death of a loved one is always the same life-altering occurrence for her characters that it was for the author herself. As Harman notes, it is only the most heartless characters in Burney’s novels who ever “get over” the death of someone they once cared for. Anticipating the morbid preoccupations with the “dearly departed” that were to become so prominent during the Victorian period, Burney’s portrayal of death suggested that loss was always a critical moment in the lives of her characters. Death defined these characters’...
(The entire section is 1743 words.)