Fanny Burney: Writer of Her Times

Fanny Burney: Writer of Her Times

Fanny Burney was the female writer before and during Jane Austen’s life. Both in popularity and literary regard, she stood astride the Regency era as the Colossus stood astride the harbor of Rhodes. She published her first novel, Evelina, when Jane Austen was three years old, hit her publishing peak as Jane was beginning her serious writing, and continued to live and work for another two decades after Austen’s death.

To ensure the proper level of respect, some editors insist that we call her “Frances” rather than “Fanny,” the name she used all her life. Evidently, no one will take her seriously as Fanny but Frances will garner immediate intellectual respect. You’d think her complex writing style, modeled on Dr. Johnson, would be enough for anyone to take Burney seriously. But we digress. …

Austen called Burney, who married a French officer to become Madame D’Arblay, “the very best of the English novelists.” In tracking Jane’s surviving correspondence, we can see her tracking Burney’s career. At the age of twenty, Jane subscribed to the purchase of Burney’s third novel, Camilla.

Two months after its publication in July 1796, Austen references Camilla in three successive letters, including the comment that an acquaintance named Miss Fletcher had two positive traits, “she likes Camilla & drinks no cream in her Tea.” Camilla is mentioned in the discussion of novels in Northanger Abbey. Jane’s annotated copy of Camilla is now in the Library of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

More interesting is a possible indirect but personal connection between the Austens and the D’Arblays. A relative, who likely encouraged the Austens to subscribe to Burney’s novel, was Mrs. Cassandra Cooke. She was first cousin to, and a contemporary of, Jane’s mother. The Cookes lived across the road from Burney and her husband for four years and nearby for several more.

Though the two authors never met, Jocelyn Harris writes in an article that Mrs. Cooke was probably a “direct source of information” about Burney to Austen. In her book Satire, Celebrity, and Politics in Jane Austen, Harris also finds a number of connections between scenes and characters in Austen’s fiction and Burney’s novels and life. Harris proposes that Mrs. Cooke may have been the source for the biographical anecdotes about Burney.

In addition to her novels, Burney wrote plays, most of which went unproduced, and was active at court. From 1786 to 1791 she was “Second Keeper of the Robes” to Queen Charlotte, and she dedicated Camilla to her. During the Napoleonic wars she was trapped for a decade in France. Though her husband was a military man and patriotic Frenchman, the couple detested the violence of the French Revolution and the dictator that followed. She was able to slip out of France when her son was a teenager to keep him from being conscripted into Napoleon’s army.

When Napoleon returned from exile in Elba to reclaim his throne, this time her husband fought against him on the side of the allies and was wounded in battle, before Waterloo ended Napoleon’s career a final time. After the war, the D’Arblays settled in Bath near relatives. Many French emigres had settled there during the war.

Two hundred years later, Burney’s position as Literary Superstar and that of Jane the Obscure has reversed. Burney is still read, and The Burney Society exists to promote her life and works. Yet most of the interest today relates to her diaries and journals, which show us the private thoughts of a sensitive, articulate woman about her long and eventful life. They record what it was like for an intelligent, vivacious, politically aware woman of the age. The also record her personal travails, including her description of undergoing a mastectomy in France—without anesthesia.

Burney began her diaries as a teenager. In an early entry, she tells of an earnest but not very pleasant fellow who fell for her on their first meeting. She asks her family how to get him to leave her alone. They instead encourage another visit. Burney writes in her diary something right out of (write out of?) Austen: that she “had rather a thousand Times die an old maid, than be married, except from affection.”

Today, few would put Burney in the same class as Austen as a novelist. Many Burney characters are extreme, her plots at times involve wild coincidences, and her language is enormously complex. What follows is a simple but representative example in the difference of style. The first is Austen’s dedication to the Prince Regent at the beginning of Emma. The next is Burney’s dedication to Queen Charlotte at the beginning of Camilla.

Austen’s, printed in capital letters and in large type to fill the page:

“To his Royal Highness the Prince Regent, this work is, by his Royal Highness’s permission, most respectfully dedicated, by his Royal Highness’s dutiful and obedient humble servant.”

Burney’s, set in type a little larger than normal, addresses the queen directly:

“THAT Goodness inspires a confidence, which, by divesting respect of terror, excites attachment to Greatness, the presentation of this little Work, to Your Majesty must truly, however humbly, evince; and though a public manifestation of duty and regard from an obscure Individual may betray a proud ambition, it is, I trust, but a venial—I am sure it is a natural one. In those to whom Your Majesty is known but by exaltation of Rank, it may raise, perhaps, some surprise, that scenes, characters, and incidents, which have reference only to common life, should be brought into so august a presence; but the inhabitant of a retired cottage, who there receives the benign permission which at Your Majesty’s feet casts this humble offering, bears in mind recollections which must live there while ‘memory holds its seat,’ of a benevolence withheld from no condition, and delighting in all ways to speed the progress of Morality, through whatever channel it could flow, to whatever port it might steer. I blush at the inference I seem here to leave open of annexing undue importance to a production of apparently so light a kind yet if my hope, my view—however fallacious they may eventually prove, extended not beyond whiling away an idle hour, should I dare seek such patronage?”

Austen was no fan of the Prince Regent, and her publisher probably prodded her into a sufficiently proper flourish. Yet even doubled, her dedication would barely run 50 words. Burney’s dedication runs 216 words—and the excerpt does not include all of it.

This gushing pipe of words is not just an instance of royal flattery. The entire 900-page novel strains under the load of such verbiage. Burney’s first and most successful novel, Evelina, written in the epistolary style, was a contrast. The letters by Evelina are as sharp and funny as anything Elizabeth Bennet ever said. Everyone else, however, writes in a ponderous style that came to dominate Burney’s third-person novels. Wanting to be taken seriously, Burney followed the “serious” style that “real literature” of the eighteenth century required. She was a writer of her time.

The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, which traces love from a charming courtship through the richness and complexity of marriage and concludes with a test of the heroine’s courage and moral convictions, is now complete and available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.

10 Responses to Fanny Burney: Writer of Her Times

  1. I really enjoyed this post! Since I usually read scientific journals, very interesting to learn about JA’s contemporary and an author she admired. Thanks for sharing. Stay well.

  2. I was just looking into Fanny Burney – are you looking over my shoulder?! I looked to see which of her books I have. I have read one, but can’t remember which, and I certainly know more so re-reading them is in my list. I have an audiobook, but need to read them so I can re-read, think, reread, lookup the word, find the beginning of the phrase, and get into 18th century writing mood.

    • Teresa, if you’re looking to get into Burney step by step, Evelina is a good place to start, as I’ve said in other responses. The journals are fascinating and well written. There’s a single thick single volume or bigger sets. Camilla and Cecilia are tough sledding. You do have to get into that 18th century style. I just finished Scott’s Heart of Midlothian, which is later, 1818, but he also has a strong dash of the old school.

  3. Cindie, as I said to Teresa, Evelina is worth a read. It’s reasonably short, and Evelina is charming. Burney’s diaries show she can write formally but intelligibly if she just writes. It’s when she gets Serious that she starts to flail.

  4. Glad I wasn’t the only one nodding off!!! By the end of it I hadn’t a clue what she was saying!! Don’t think I’ll be tempted to read anything she wrote any time soon. I’ll stick to Austen. Great post!

  5. You’ll have to forgive me I nodded off during the… what did you call it… gushing pipe of words. Whew! You may have to hand out maps if you intend to quote her again. I was lost within a few words and wandered about within the verbiage wondering what the heck she was saying. If someone wrote something like that to me, I wouldn’t know whether to hug them or slug them. Yep, I am a common person… say what you mean, and mean what you say. LOL! This was fun making the comparison. Thanks for the enlightenment… I think. Blessings and stay safe and healthy.

    • J.W., I have elsewhere made several more comparisons between Burney and Dr. Johnson, whom she emulated in complexity. Austen helped simplify the language, which is one reason we still read her. You keep safe too!

  6. Interesting post! There is a contrast between her and Jane Austen. It probably took a while to read Burney’s writing if it was all that wordy!

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