Authors: Fanny Burney

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English novelist

June 13, 1752

King's Lynn, England

January 6, 1840

London, England


Frances Burney was born in King's Lynn, in the county of Norfolk, England, in 1752. The third of six children, she had an older brother, an older sister, a younger brother, and two younger sisters. Her father was the musician and musicologist Charles Burney, and her mother was Esther Sleepe, the daughter of a French refugee. Burney's mother died in 1762, when she was ten years old. Her father remarried in 1767, and she and her siblings had little rapport with their stepmother.

Fanny Burney

(Library of Congress)

Burney was largely self-educated; she was considered the “dunce” of the family because at age eight she still could not make out the letters of the alphabet, so when her older and next younger sisters were sent to Paris for school, she was left to her own devices at home. Despite her difficulty with letters, which psychoanalyst Kathryn Kris has attributed to “a form of dyslexia,” she did eventually teach herself to read. With her sisters away and her father providing limited supervision, she began working her way through her father's library, availing herself not only of the works of poetry and moral instruction that were deemed suitable for young women, but also of the romantic novels that were not.

Burney later claimed to have started writing stories as soon as she learned to read; whether or not this is true, by the time of her fifteenth birthday (the year her father remarried), she had built up a significant body of work, including a novel she called “The History of Caroline Evelyn,” aspects of which would later reappear in her first published novel, Evelina; or, The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World (1778). However, Burney was conflicted about her writing—respectable young English women of the time were not supposed to read novels, much less write them—and at age fifteen, she burned all of her writing in a bonfire in the yard. She began writing again soon after, starting the journals that she would keep throughout the rest of her life; much of her early journal writing shows evidence of experimenting with different writing styles, prompting biographer Claire Harman to suggest that the act of destruction “could thus have had more to do with a resolve to write differently rather than not write at all.” She also began working on a new manuscript, in secret.

That manuscript became Evelina, which Burney published at age twenty-six. She did so anonymously, fearing the disapprobation she would receive as a female author. The novel's picture of contemporary society was an immediate success, however, and once Burney's identity was revealed, her narrative of the advancement of a charming protagonist of obscure birth and humble surroundings to a position of social prominence obtained for her the friendship and admiration of Dr. Samuel Johnson and a place in the intellectual life of London.

Burney's second novel, Cecilia; or, Memoirs of an Heiress (1782), was salvaged from the material of a rejected drama, The Witlings, which she had written the year after Evelina was published. Cecilia enjoyed less success, but it and Evelina helped establish a new genre: the novel of manners. In 1786, Burney accepted the position of lady-in-waiting to the queen, but the honor proved distasteful to her and she retired from the court in 1791.

In 1793 Burney married Alexandre d’Arblay, a refugee from France; a son, Alexander, was born in the following year. After d’Arblay reawakened his wife’s interest in writing, Burney produced Brief Reflections Relative to the Emigrant French Clergy (1793), a politicosocial pamphlet; Edwy and Elgiva (1795), a blank verse tragedy that failed after one performance; the novel Camilla; or, A Picture of Youth (1976), the proceeds of which funded the construction of a house in Surrey, which Burney and her husband named Camilla Cottage; and a comedy, Love and Fashion (wr. 1798–99), which was scheduled to premiere at the Covent Garden Theatre in 1800 but was pulled after the death of Burney's sister Susanna.

Between 1802 and 1812, Burney and her husband lived in Paris, during which time she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. In 1814, she published The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties, which sold well but was poorly reviewed. She then followed her husband to Waterloo in 1815, where the Seventh Coalition fought and defeated Napoleon Bonaparte's army, and in Brussels tended the wounded of that battle; she left a vivid account of this experience in her diary. D’Arblay, who had been wounded in the engagement, was promoted to lieutenant general and made a count by Louis XVIII—thereby making Burney a countess—and then was permitted to retire to England, where he died in 1818. Afterward Burney occupied herself with editing the journals of her father, who had died in 1814, to produce the three-volume work Memoirs of Doctor Burney (1832). Her son died of influenza in 1837, three years before Burney's own death.

The discovery that the author of Evelina was a woman created a sensation at the time, for while Burney was by no means the first female novelist, she was the first to write successfully on a serious level. Dr. Johnson praised Evelina and reported that he could not put it down; he had whole scenes of it by heart and considered that one of the characters had never been “better drawn anywhere—in any book by any author.”

Author Works Long Fiction: Evelina; or, The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, 1778 Cecilia; or, Memoirs of an Heiress, 1782 Camilla; or, A Picture of Youth, 1796 The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties, 1814 Drama: The Witlings, wr. 1778–79, pr. 1994, pb. 1995 Hubert De Vere, wr. ca. 1790–97, pb. 1995 (in The Complete Plays of Frances Burney) The Siege of Pevensey, wr. ca. 1790–?, pb. 1995 (in The Complete Plays) Elberta, wr. ca. 1791–1815, pb. 1995 (in The Complete Plays; unfinished) Edwy and Elgiva, pr. 1795, pb. 1956 Love and Fashion, wr. 1798–99, pb. 1995 (in The Complete Plays) A Busy Day, wr. ca. 1800–1802, pb. 1984 The Woman-Hater, wr. ca. 1800–1802, pr. 2007, pb. 1995 (in The Complete Plays) The Complete Plays of Frances Burney, pb. 1995 (2 volumes; Peter Sabor, editor) The Witlings and The Woman Hater, 1997 (Peter Sabor and Geoffrey Sill, editors) Nonfiction: Brief Reflections Relative to the Emigrant French Clergy: Earnestly Submitted to the Humane Consideration of the Ladies of Great Britain, 1793 Diary and Letters of Madame d’Arblay, 1842–46 (7 volumes; Charlotte Frances Barrett, editor) Memoirs of Madame d’Arblay, 1844 (2 volumes; Helen Berkeley, editor) The Diary and Letters of Frances Burney, Madame d’Arblay, 1880 (2 volumes; Sarah Chauncey Woolsey, editor) The Early Diary of Frances Burney, 1768–1778, 1889 (2 volumes; Anne Raine Ellis, editor) Fanny Burney and Her Friends: Select Passages from Her Diary and Other Writings, 1890 (L. B. Seeley, editor) Dr. Johnson & Fanny Burney: Being the Johnsonian Passages from the Works of Mme. d’Arblay, 1911 (Chauncey Brewster Tinker, editor) The Diary of Fanny Burney, 1940 (Lewis Gibbs, editor) The Diary of Fanny Burney, 1948 (Christopher Lloyd, editor) The Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney (Madame d’Arblay), 1972–84 (12 volumes; Joyce Hemlow et al., editors) The Famous Miss Burney: The Diaries and Letters of Fanny Burney, 1976 (Barbara G. Schrank and David J. Supino, editors) The Early Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney, 1988– (5 volumes to date; Lars E. Troide and Stewart Jon Cooke, editors) Journals and Letters, 2001 (Peter Sabor and Lars E. Troide, editors) A Known Scribbler: Frances Burney on Literary Life, 2002 (Justine Crump, editor) The Court Journals and Letters of Frances Burney, 2011– (5 volumes to date; Peter Sabor et al., editors) The Additional Journals and Letters of Frances Burney, 2015 (Steward Cooke, Peter Sabor, and Elaine Bander, editors) Edited Text: Memoirs of Doctor Burney, 1832 (by Charles Burney; 3 volumes) Bibliography Bloom, Harold, editor. Fanny Burney’s Evelina. Chelsea House, 1988. A collection of illuminating critical essays on Burney’s novel, written between 1967 and 1988. Bloom’s introduction disparages the feminist tendency of recent Burney criticism, even though this volume includes essays by contributors who take primarily feminist approaches. Chisholm, Kate. Fanny Burney: Her Life, 1752–1840. Chatto & Windus, 1998. A biography drawn in part from the diaries that Burney kept from the age of sixteen, which offer detailed descriptions of life in Georgian England. Depicts Burney as a highly talented writer and places her life and work within the context of her times. Daugherty, Tracy Edgar. Narrative Techniques in the Novels of Fanny Burney. Peter Lang, 1989. Presents detailed analyses of Burney’s novels, discussing how she constructed plot, characterization, and point of view and critiquing the effectiveness of these techniques. Also reassesses Burney’s contribution to the craft of novel writing. Epstein, Julia L. The Iron Pen: Frances Burney and the Politics of Women’s Writing. U of Wisconsin P, 1989. Examines Burney’s work from a feminist perspective, focusing primarily on the violence, hostility, and danger in her writings. Includes bibliography and index. Grau, Joseph A. Fanny Burney: An Annotated Bibliography. Garland Publishing, 1981. A comprehensive annotated bibliography that provides reviews of Burney’s work as well as of books written about her. Harman, Claire. Fanny Burney: A Biography. Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. An accessible and authoritative biography that points out inconsistencies in Burney’s memoirs, providing a more accurate account of the author’s life and placing Burney within the broader context of social conditions for middle-class English women in the eighteenth century. Includes bibliographical references and index. Nicolson, Nigel. Fanny Burney: The Mother of English Fiction. Short Books, 2002. Examines Burney’s influence. Includes bibliographical references. Rogers, Katharine M. “Fanny Burney: The Private Self and the Published Self.” International Journal of Women’s Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, 1984, pp. 110–17. Examines feminist issues in relation to Burney and her work. Sabor, Peter, editor. The Cambridge Companion to Frances Burney. Cambridge UP, 2007. A collection of essays covering Burney’s life and work and presenting analyses of all four of her novels. Other topics addressed include Burney’s critical reputation, her political views, and gender issues in her work. Simons, Judy. Fanny Burney. Barnes & Noble Books, 1987. A condensed look at Burney’s life and work that opens with an introductory biographical essay that places Burney within the tradition of other women writers, such as Elizabeth Inchbald, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and Eliza Haywood. Includes a chapter on the heroines of Burney’s novels and a chapter each on Evelina, Cecilia, Camilla, and The Wanderer. Straub, Kristina. Divided Fictions: Fanny Burney and Feminine Strategy. UP of Kentucky, 1987. Discussion of Burney’s work is grounded in eighteenth century cultural history. Devotes three chapters to Evelina, one to Cecilia, and one to both Camilla and The Wanderer. Includes the chapter “The Receptive Reader and Other Necessary Fictions,” which makes intriguing points about Burney’s reaction to the publicity of being a novelist and part of the literary circles of her day. Thaddeus, Janice Farrar. Frances Burney: A Literary Life. St. Martin’s Press, 2000. A scholarly account of Burney’s life and career that provides information valuable to an expanded understanding of the novelist. Includes discussion of her four novels as well as a genealogical table, notes, and index. Zonitch, Barbara. Familiar Violence: Gender and Social Upheaval in the Novels of Frances Burney. U of Delaware P, 1997. Presents analyses of Burney’s four novels following an introduction that explains Burney’s place within eighteenth-century English society.

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