Fanny Burney was a faint literary figure to me until I began doing research for my novel A Humble Companion. The position she held for a short time in the household of King George III and Queen Charlotte, as Second Keeper of the Robes, made it likely that she would appear in my story. I therefore tried to dig beneath her novels to find out what kind of woman she was. Whether or not I succeeded who can say? All I know is I’ve come to admire her enormously.
We know quite a lot about her childhood because of her famous father. Charles Burney was a well-connected musicologist and composer, a busy, and exacting man. Her mother died when she was ten years old and her father remarried. Fanny was the middle child, regarded as a bit slow and so left to educate herself as best she could. She had the run of her father’s library and seems to have used her time rather well. She also, like so many lonely, marginalised children discovered that weapon of sweet revenge: humour.
She began to write satire.
It’s hard for us to imagine the difficulties a female writer faced in the 18th century. It was hardly considered a respectable profession. Fanny submitted Evelina and had it published without asking her father’s permission. She only told him she was its author after he’d conceded it was pretty good. Samuel Johnson thought so too and encouraged Mrs Thrale to take her up. So Fanny’s career as a novelist was launched, but it was far from plain sailing. She earned very little and so, in her mid-30s and still unmarried, when she was offered £200 a year to work for the Queen she felt obliged to accept. This put an end to her novel-writing for a while, but fortunately for us she still kept her delicious diary. I consulted it often when I was writing about the royal household.
The rest of her life was a mixture of happiness and misfortune. She eventually, and against her father’s wishes, married a penniless Frenchman, Alexandre d’Arblay, an exile from the Revolution. Defying her father was another display of her strength of character, and not her last. She had a son, wrote another novel which earned her enough to buy a small house, and then went to France to help her husband try to regain some of his family’s forfeited assets. They were there in 1801 when war broke out again, cut off from England until the end of hostilities. It was in France that she underwent and chronicled her famous account of a mastectomy performed without the benefit of real anaesthesia. If you read nothing else of hers, read that.
Fanny Burney survived to be a grand old lady of 88, still a gifted mimic of the famous people she’d known. She outlived her husband, her son and her sisters. I love her wit, so gentle, with occasional devastating skewering. Jane Austen was influenced by her and so was William Thackeray, and what greater tribute could there be than that?
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