Fanny Burney 1752-1840
(Born Frances Burney; later Madame d'Arblay) English novelist, dramatist, letter writer, and diarist.
For additional information about Burney's life and career, see .
Burney is remembered for her contribution to the English novel of manners, most notably with Evelina; or, A Young Lady's Entrance into the World (1778). Evelina achieved renown for its humor, simple prose, and insightful depiction of a young woman's coming of age in eighteenth-century England. While her novels have been overshadowed by the writings of Jane Austen, who perfected the novel of manners, Burney is considered a significant transitional figure who employed the methods of Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding to create a new subgenre that made possible the domestic novels of Austen, Maria Edgeworth, and countless other successors.
Burney was born in London to Esther Sleepe and Charles Burney. Her mother died when Burney was ten, and she became very attached to her father, a prominent musician and England's first musicologist. Although Burney was a shy child and received little formal education, she met a number of artists and intellectuals through her father. She read extensively and, though her father preferred that she devote herself to more serious activities than writing, she began to experiment secretly with poems, plays, and fiction. In 1767, however, apparently in response to her father's disapproval of her writing, Burney destroyed all her manuscripts. Among these early manuscripts was the novel "The History of Caroline Evelyn." When Burney began to write again several years later, the novel formed the basis of the first part of Evelina. To Burney's surprise, the success of Evelina delighted her father; ironically, Dr. Burney had read and enjoyed Evelina, which had been published anonymously, without knowing that his daughter was the author. He introduced Fanny to such prominent literary figures as Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke, who warmly welcomed her into London's literary circles and encouraged her to continue writing. However, because Dr. Burney privately pronounced her next work, a drama entitled "The Witlings," a failure, it was never produced or published. Several critics now contend that her father objected to this parody of bluestocking society for its controversial subject.
Despite Burney's popularity as an author, her family continued to be concerned about her unmarried status and future financial security. When she was offered a position as second keeper of the robes to Queen Charlotte in 1786, she accepted the prestigious post at her father's urging. However, Burney's estrangement from the society that inspired her novels made her miserable. She recorded her experience in journals and letters, published posthumously in the Diary and Letters of Madame d'Arblay (1842-46), that are today considered a telling account of the rigors and restrictions of life at court. Several tragedies that she composed during this period also bear witness to Burney's increasing unhappiness and frustration. Eventually, she became ill and Dr. Burney obtained her release from royal service. She left court in 1791, receiving a pension of one hundred pounds a year. Soon after, Burney married Alexandre d'Arblay, a penniless French exile. The marriage was evidently very happy and, in 1794, she gave birth to their son, Alexander. Burney resumed her novel-writing career in 1796 with Camilla, a satirical examination of the social restrictions of marriage. The work yielded sufficient funds to build the d'Arblays a new home, Camilla Cottage. Burney's days at Camilla Cottage were her happiest; there she wrote several unpublished comedies before traveling to France with her family in 1802. Though they intended to visit briefly, they were forced to stay until 1812 because of the outbreak of war between France and England. Upon their return to England, Burney wrote her last novel, The Wanderer (1814). In 1815, during Napolean's Hundred Days, d'Arblay aided the forces against Napolean while Burney fled to Brussels for the duration of the conflict; they returned to England later that year and settled in Bath. After d'Arblay's death in 1818, Burney moved back to London, where she began to revise her journals to add her experiences in exile during wartime. She died at the age of eighty-eight.
Burney published Evelina anonymously, aided by her brother Charles, who disguised himself when submitting the manuscript. An epistolary novel with a focus on female identity, the novel met with immediate acclaim. In Evelina, Burney created a heroine who is considered one of the most vibrant and realistic in English literature. Burney next wrote Cecilia; or, Memoirs of an Heiress (1782), in which she continued to explore the social mores of her era with wit and satire. It was also her first experiment in third-person narrative, which she employed in both her subsequent novels. While not as great a success as Evelina, Cecilia was generally well received. Critics favorably compared it with the works of Richardson, Fielding, and Laurence Sterne, but argued that it lacked the spontaneity of Evelina, a flaw also detected in Camilla; or, A Picture of Youth (1796) and The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties (1814), her last two novels. Though most commentators fault Camilla as a sensational work written purely for financial reasons, it was extremely popular. The Wanderer was the most poorly received of her novels, criticized as dated and awkwardly constructed. The novel's depiction of a nineteenth-century woman struggling to earn her own living, however, has prompted considerable critical commentary in recent years, particularly from a feminist standpoint. During the final years of her life, Burney edited her father's memoirs and correspondence, Memoirs of Dr. Burney, Arranged from His Own Manuscripts, from Family Papers, and from Personal Recollections (1832). Though she claimed to have carefully edited sections to avoid including any slanderous material, detractors have charged that Burney chose to incorporate material that illuminates her own life rather than her father's. Her Diary and Letters, published by her niece over a period of several years after Burney's death, generated so much public interest that well into the twentieth century she was remembered more as a diarist than as a novelist.
Of Burney's novels, Evelina is consistently the most admired and is considered the best evidence of her keen social observation and ear for dialect. Since the novel's publication, critics have praised its characterization, humor, and engrossing plot. Most scholars agree, too, that in her first novel Burney created her most consummately human and believable heroine. They also concur that Burney never recaptured the fresh, spontaneous prose of Evelina and that her later works suffer from a labored style. Though Cecilia and Camilla appealed to eighteenth-century readers, critics today consider both dated and stilted. Ironically, The Wanderer, which was dismissed by contemporary commentators, has recently received the greatest share of critical attention for its focus on the status and condition of women. Burney's journals and letters have elicited almost as much positive critical response as Evelina; today, they are considered both engaging depictions of her era and valuable historical documents. Though her harshest critic, her contemporary John Wilson Croker, derided the Diary as egocentric, most commentators, including Thomas Babington Macaulay, George Saintsbury, and Lytton Strachey, have assessed the work as insightful and historically accurate. In the twentieth century, however, Gamaliel Bradford argued that the Diary merely depicted Burney's obsession with the superficial in society. In recent years, such literary figures as the novelist Margaret Drabble have termed Burney a perceptive correspondent and diarist and praised her description of life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Today, Burney's stature has been eclipsed by that of her successors, most notably Austen. While most critics concur that Burney's talent as a novelist blossomed early and then faded, they also hail Evelina as a landmark work that initiated the tradition of the domestic novel and the novel of manners. It seems likely that Burney's importance in years to come will continue to derive from her spirited depiction of Evelina's maturation into womanhood.