Without wishing to underestimate anyone, I think you’d be hard pressed to find the general reader in 2021 who has even the remotest idea of who Fanny Burney is. Fantastically famous and well-regarded in her own time, and a favourite author of Jane Austen—indeed, influential enough that the title of Pride and Prejudice is taken directly from the final chapter of Burney’s novel Cecilia—she’s now largely read by students, professors, and nerd-types. This is unjust: her work is not only fascinating as a direct literary forebear of Austen’s, but in its own right. Her novels of young women beginning the world, heiresses forced to reckon with the culpable greed of marriage brokers, and heroines fleeing political upheaval are not only diverting for their plots; they’re also studded with minutely observed dialogue and social interactions. Burney’s shrewd ear for phrasing and tone was first honed upon the famous connections of her musical father, such as David Garrick, Hester Thrale, and Samuel Johnson; then upon Queen Charlotte, King George III, and their court, when she was a member of the Queen’s household; finally, as a married woman whose husband’s identity as a French national and a professional soldier, in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, put her family in a constant state of instability for nearly twenty years. Kate Chisholm’s marvelous biography, now rather over twenty years old itself (see bibliographical information at the end of this piece), is a wild ride through the events of Burney’s life—a very full one for a woman as shy and retiring as she was—as well as the general history of mid-eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century Europe, and a vivid introduction to Burney’s fiction and drama.
Chisholm starts with Burney’s father, a man who was to have a significant claim on her affection and loyalty throughout her life: Dr Charles Burney, an eminent musician, teacher and musicologist, whose ambitions to mix in the highest society were realized in a manner almost impossible for even the most talented to emulate. (One of Fanny’s brothers-in-law, also considered an extremely gifted musician, never attained a fraction of the acclaim, money, or access to elites, suggesting that Dr Burney’s achievements were exceptional and owed as much to his personal charms, and to good luck, as to his technical abilities.) She also had a mentor figure in the person of Samuel Crisp, a family friend to whom she repeatedly referred as “my Daddy”. Twenty-first century readers will have some questions about this, and I think rightly so; Crisp was one of the few adult men who took Fanny’s mind seriously, and with whom she could have conversations about art, literature, history and culture, but it came at the price of a level of control. Crisp’s letters show that he was unusually fond of the company of young women; it seems unlikely that his interest in Fanny was menacingly inappropriate, since they remained affectionate towards each other throughout their lives and we know Fanny to have been an almost prudish person with regards to perceived impropriety, but certainly it appears to have pleased him to have such a clever, and such a seemingly malleable, young woman in and around his house and at such close emotional proximity, so regularly. Crisp gave her some very good advice, but also some very bad: her play The Witlings was suppressed because Crisp and Dr. Burney believed it too bluntly satirical towards people who had offered Fanny specifically, and the Burney family more generally, their patronage and support, such as the literary hostess Mrs. Thrale. She may have listened to them, but she wasn’t happy about it: when Crisp’s “patronising response” (Chisholm, p. 95) to her disappointment was to suggest another topic for a more straightforward comedy, she didn’t bother to reply to the letter.
By this point she was already famous, since her first and still most widely known novel Evelina had been published in 1778. Her protagonist is a young woman trying to enter society whilst labouring under the disadvantage of being unacknowledged by her father: she knows who he is, but until he will publicly admit to her being his daughter, she is a nobody despite the upper-middle-class milieu in which she has been raised and educated by her kind guardian, Mr. Villars. The book takes the form of a series of letters, mostly from Evelina to Villars back home, as she navigates London society for the first time. It is, technically, a romantic plot, as she ends up married by the end, but what really brought the novel to critical attention and acclaim, as well as that of readers, were Fanny’s skewering powers of observation. Her ear for dialogue was exceptional and was to be her trademark as a fiction writer all her life; she depicts the conversation of vulgar City upstarts, country-bred gentlemen, young women, conniving older women on the make, foreigners and servants, with a precision that creates comedy. She rarely physically describes anyone (we never know what colour Evelina’s eyes are), but her powers of scene-setting and creation of atmosphere are immense. Her perceptiveness and memory gave her both the ability to reproduce conversations word for word and great power over fictional tone, but this initially worried her: “if you do tell Mrs Thrale [that I am the author of Evelina], —won’t she think it very strange where I can have Kept Company, to draw such a family as the Branghtons…” (quoted Chisholm, p. 57) Her identity was at first anonymous; all of her communications with her publisher took place through a brother or cousin, suitably disguised (both of the male relatives she pressed into service for her here seemed to relish the amateur theatrics of it all). She was terrified to be thought unladylike. When the secret was finally revealed (by her father), she was only persuaded of the acceptability of her public authorship by the knowledge that both Mrs. Thrale and Dr. Johnson (another family friend) regarded Evelina very highly.
Fanny occupies an intriguing place in women’s history, and particularly in the history of women writers: she was not a political radical or a feminist by any means, deferring to her father frequently and eventually marrying a French aristocratic emigré, General d’Arblay. (Their marriage seems to have been the happiest of all her siblings’; they were very much in love, and remained so throughout their lives. She was forty-one when she married him, forty-two when they had their first and only child, Alexander.) Yet her writing—she produced three other novels, Cecilia, Camilla, and The Wanderer, and many other plays, though few were ever staged and one at least that was staged was disastrously received—is consistently interested in how women can make their way in the world without patriarchal protection; in what happens to a woman who perhaps has money but no one to represent her interests, and little or no respect from her guardians; and in representing events occurring in the world without attaching an obvious moral. Her work was satirical but does not partake of the clear agenda to “improve” that defines Richardson’s and Fielding’s writing; she trusts her readers to understand the rights and wrongs of her characters, but is much more an observer than a moralist. Particularly in her early work, there are eruptions of violence (a monkey bites off a dandy’s ear) and cruelty (two lords make two elderly peasant women race each other so that they can have something to bet on) that are, even now, grotesque and shocking to read; there are encounters with sex workers at Vauxhall in one novel, frank and funny dialogues between servants, milliners, and other working women in her plays. Fanny is never easy to categorize, either as a person or as an author.
She was restored to public attention primarily through the publication of her journals and letters, which made it clear that she was present at many of the great historical moments of her time. As a child, she plays with the famous actor David Garrick, a frequent house guest thanks to her father’s musical work in the theatre. As a young woman, she matches wits with Dr Johnson, Mrs. Thrale, Mrs. Montagu, and Richardson. As an unmarried woman in her thirties, a friend introduces her to Queen Charlotte and she is appointed Second Keeper of the Robes; although miserable as a courtier and eventually released from royal service, she becomes close to the royal family, witnesses the first illness and madness of King George III, and is present in Kew Gardens for his recovery (she runs away from him, unaware that he is now well again, and he chases her through the shrubbery with his doctors). In her forties, she becomes part of a circle that includes French emigrés fleeing the Revolution, and falls in love with one, whom she marries. In her fifties, her husband is part of the army of allies that challenges Napoleon at Waterloo; she is in Brussels while the battle takes place, and her account of the confused intelligence coming from the battlefield regarding the victor is an extraordinarily immediate portrayal of that historical moment.
One of the most famous accounts from her journals describes her endurance of a seventeen-minute mastectomy; she had a cancerous lump in her right breast and was operated upon in 1811. It took her nine months to complete her account of this ordeal, and it is frankly a wonder that she managed it at all. I defy anyone, with or without breasts, to read her testimony unmoved. She was without anaesthetic apart from some wine mixed with laudanum, and refused to be held down by the surgeon’s assistant; she held her own breast for him to cut, and describes the linen handkerchief that was placed over her face for a measure of dignity and discretion. “[w]hen, Bright through the cambric, I saw the glitter of polished Steel,—I closed my Eyes,” she writes (quoted Chisholm, p. 214) She did this without her husband, forbidding her servants to fetch him from his office; in a foreign language and land (they were living in France at the time, and although she spoke the language well, it must have added another layer of fear and estrangement to proceedings); and her own maids, save one, had been sent out of the room by the surgeon and “7 Men in black” (ibid.) who were present to assist him. Her bravery, and her suffering, is unthinkable, and the fact that she left a record of the experience makes her braver still. If you read one thing by Fanny Burney, make it that account. (If you read a second thing, make it Evelina.)
Responding to such trauma by memorializing it verbally is more indicative of Fanny than anything else that can be said: she was a writer through and through, an observer and recorder. We’re lucky to have her words, and lucky to have Kate Chisholm’s biography, which gives such an exciting and entertaining yet scholarly account of her life and world. As Stella Tillyard has already said, if the best literary biographies make us want to seek out the work of their subjects, Chisholm succeeds admirably. I read Evelina over a decade ago, but will be returning to it, and seeking out her other novels too.
Fanny Burney: Her Life was published by Vintage in paperback in 1999. It is now out of print, but can be found on AbeBooks. My copy is from The Second Shelf. Burney’s novels are all in print from Penguin and/or Oxford World’s Classics, except for The Wanderer, a 1991 edition of which is also available secondhand through AbeBooks. The Second Shelf might also be able to find you a copy if you ask nicely.