We haven’t had a birthday in a while, so happy birthday, Frances (Fanny) Burney! Fanny, a novelist, diarist, and playwright was born in Lynn Regis (now King’s Lynn) on 13 June 1752 to a musical historian and his wife, Esther. Fanny was the third of six children and was self-educated, though her sisters, both of whom were favored by their father, were given expensive educations in Paris. She started writing at the age of 10, a mere two years after managing to teach herself the alphabet.
By the end of her career, Fanny had written four novels, eight plays, one biography, and a staggering 20 volumes worth of journals and letters. Her first novel, Evelina, was published anonymously in 1778 and brought her immediate fame once the authoress was revealed. She followed it up with Cecilia in 1782, Camilla in 1796, and The Wanderer in 1814. Her novels tended to deal with the English upper classes and also delved into the politics of female identity at the time. Only one of her plays was performed (unsuccessfully—it closed after the first night), mostly due to her father’s objections. Her diaries, which were not published during her lifetime, provide an intimate and accurate glimpse of eighteenth-century life.
Burney’s writing was highly respected during her lifetime: famous literary figures including Dr. Samuel Johnson and David Garrick admired her, and Jane Austen is said to have loved Burney’s books and lifted the title Pride and Prejudice from Cecilia. Her first-person account of the Battle of Waterloo is believed to have aided William Makepeace Thackeray when he was writing Vanity Fair.
Fanny’s success as a novelist brought her more than just accolades and cash (she was paid 250 pounds for Cecilia, a considerable sum in the 18th century); it also brought her into the royal court. Through her friendship with Mary Granville Delaney, a woman known in both royal and literary circles, Fanny was invited to the court of King George III and Queen Charlotte, where she was offered the post of Second Keeper of the Robes. Fanny was reluctant to leave her family and take up any employment that might take away from her writing time, but she finally accepted in 1786 and wound up developing a warm relationship with Charlotte and her daughters. She documented her life at court in her journals, recounting anecdotes as well as significant political events. Fanny wasn’t very happy at court, however, and when her health began to fail in 1790 she asked her father to help her get out of her position. He did so, but she managed to maintain a friendship with the royal family right up until her death.
When the French Revolution began in 1789, Fanny became acquainted with a group of French exiles who fled to England. She was particularly drawn to General Alexander D’Arblay, who taught her French and introduced her to the work of Germaine de Stael. Fanny married D’Arblay in 1793, finally becoming a wife at the relatively late age of 41. A little more than a year later, she gave birth to their son, Alexander.
Fanny moved to France with her family in 1801, after her husband was offered service in Napoleon’s government. They remained there for 10 years. In 1810, Burney began experiencing pain in her breast, and her husband arranged, through his many connections, for her to be treated by the leading physicians in France. She underwent a mastectomy a year later, under the command of the best doctor in the country. Being her, she recounted the operation in detail (since she was conscious through most of it) and sent the account to her sister. It remains one of the most famous early accounts of a mastectomy. She survived the operation and returned to England in 1812 to be with her ailing father, who died in 1814.
Burney and her husband retired to Bath, where D’Arblay died of cancer in 1818. After that, Fanny moved to London to be nearer her son, who was a fellow at Christ’s College. She published her father’s memoirs in 1832, sanitizing them by eliminating any facts that were painful or unflattering to him, a move that still draws criticism today.
Fanny died in 1840 and was buried with her son (who died in 1837) and her husband in Bath. Her extensive journals were published posthumously, and her works are still read and studied to this day.