Burney's best known novel Evelina; or, A Young Lady's Entrance into the World (1778), is an early comedy of manners that depicts the coming-of-age of a young woman subject to the whims of irresponsible men and the restrictions of English society. With Evelina and three later books, Burney greatly influenced the early development of the novel, incorporating domestic and feminine concerns, and set a successful precedent for aspiring women authors, making way for the novel to become a genre both by and for women.
Burney was born June 13, 1752 in London to Esther Sleepe and Charles Burney. Her mother died when Burney was ten, and she became 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, while her father preferred that she devote herself to activities other than writing, she secretly began to compose 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; Dr. Burney had read and enjoyed Evelina, which had been published anonymously, without knowing that his daughter was the author. He introduced his daughter 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 published or produced. 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. In 1794 she gave birth to a son, Alexander. Burney resumed her novel-writing career in 1796 with Camilla; or, A Picture of Youth, 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 productive; 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. In 1811, Burney underwent a mastectomy—performed before the invention of anesthesia—hiding her ordeal even from her husband, who was away on business. Upon the couple's return to England, Burney wrote her last novel, The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties (1814). In 1815, during Napoleon's Hundred Days, d'Arblay aided the forces against Napoleon 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 book met with immediate acclaim. In Evelina, Burney created a heroine who is considered one of the most vibrant and realistic in English literature, and the novel is the primary source of Burney's modern reputation. 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 use of 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 Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Laurence Sterne but argued that it lacked the spontaneity of Evelina, a flaw also detected in Camilla and The Wanderer. Though most commentators fault Camilla as a sensational work written purely for financial reasons, it was extremely popular. The Wanderer, criticized as dated and awkwardly constructed, was the most poorly received of her novels. The novel's depiction of a nineteenth-century woman struggling to earn her own living, however, has prompted some 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 materials, 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 after Burney's death, generated a great deal of public interest and she was remembered more as a diarist than as a novelist well into the twentieth century.
Many critics have described Burney as occupying a crucial middle position between early novelists, such as Fielding and Richardson, and later novelists, including Jane Austen, who perfected the novel of manners that Burney had innovated. She was also in the vanguard of respectable women authors: whereas the earlier aristocratic writer Mary Wortley Montagu attempted to keep most of her writings private, Burney pursued publishing as a career and consequently encountered opposition from those who believed a woman should not write, even as she enjoyed a considerable degree of celebrity and respect. The challenge of self-expression has been a continuing theme in scholarship on Burney, as both the author and her heroines struggle to establish and legitimize their own authority. Scholars have noted the theme of violence and fear in Burney's novels as a symbol or symptom of the male-dominated culture in which she lived and about which she wrote. Kristina Straub's study of Burney's "feminine strategy" as an authoress contends that even when Burney's novels were generally accepted and acclaimed, Burney herself found it difficult to negotiate her entry into the public sphere. Likewise, Samuel Choi argues that Evelina bears the marks of its author's anxiety about approaching a traditionally male form of writing. Other feminist analyses of Burney focus on the figure of the father. Scholars have often read in Evelina the quest for paternal validation, and Kay Rogers (see Further Reading) proposes that the critique of patriarchy in Cecilia is muted by Burney's worshipful attitude toward her father. Susan Greenfield finds greater ambivalence in Burney's father figures, and proposes that Evelina attempts to establish the mother as the source of creativity and authority.