Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Fanny Burney, Survivor

by Lauren Gilbert

Fanny Burney was a famous author, a reluctant celebrity in her time, and an inspiration to other authors, including Jane Austen, who subscribed to Camilla.  She is known for her four novels, but she also wrote plays (only one of which was performed in her lifetime).  However, we are not going to discuss her novels or writings specifically. Before anything else, Fanny Burney was a survivor.  She had an amazing life, which she chronicled in her journals and letters.  

While her fame as a novelist opened many doors for her, I suspect that Fanny Burney would have had a eventful life even if she had never published at all.  Her journals and letters reveal intelligence, a talent for observation and a gift for expression.  In her novels, her heroines made mistakes and suffered consequences; her skilled observation of her time and society gave her characters and their dialogues a liveliness and reality that paved the way for later authors.  She used her writing skill to illuminate perceived wrongs.  However, it is in Fanny Burney’s journals and letters that we find her spirit and her indomitable passion for writing, which sustained her through the remarkable ups, downs and turns that her life took.

Fanny Burney’s father was Dr. Charles Burney, a prominent musician and writer.  He performed with theatre orchestras and in other venues, and was also employed by the composer George Frederick Handel.  His music was his introduction to the highest level of society.  Her mother was Esther Sleepe, who was of French extraction and a Roman Catholic, and considered kind, gentle and intelligent by those who knew her.  She was the daughter of a musician and a talented musician herself.

Charles and Esther were both well-read, musical, fond of poetry, interested in philosophy, and were extremely happy together by all accounts.  The date of their marriage was apparently deliberately muddled, as it seems their eldest child Esther (known as Hetty) was born before their marriage was solemnized.  Esther and Charles produced six living children, of whom Fanny was the fourth. 

Born June 13, 1752, Fanny was small (about 5’2” as an adult), very shy and sensitive, with poor eyesight.  Fanny was very quiet and considered backward, as she did not know her letters or how to read until after she was eight years old.  Her limitations fostered her talents for listening and observation, and a very sharp memory.

By contrast with Hetty, who was out-going and something of a musical prodigy performing before audiences by age ten, Fanny had a more serious nature and disliked being in the limelight.  She was very close to her mother, possibly because of her shyness and other difficulties.  This made it extremely difficult for Fanny when her mother died Sept. 27, 1762, after becoming ill following childbirth (her ninth pregnancy).  The violence of Fanny’s grief was a concern to her family, as she would not be comforted.  Fanny started writing not long after her mother’s death.   This was the first big tragedy of Fanny’s life.
In October of 1767, her father eloped with Elizabeth Allen, a beautiful, intelligent and educated widow with three children of her own.  Her sister had been a friend of Esther’s and was loved by Dr. Burney’s children.  Unfortunately, Elizabeth was not.  Fanny and her brothers and sisters did not like Elizabeth (she doesn’t seem to have been particularly popular with her own children).  She seems to have been intrusive, managing and short-tempered.  

During these years, Fanny did her writing in secret.  At age 15, she destroyed her journals and other writings, supposedly in an effort to keep her stepmother from seeing them, and vowed to stop writing for fear of committing an impropriety.  In March 1768, however, about nine months after destroying her earlier work, she started another journal to record her thoughts and observations, which she continued one way or another for over 70 years, still in secret. 

Fanny was aware that she was expected to marry.  She was ambivalent.  On one hand, she was very romantic, and had her share of “crushes”.  On the other hand, as she matured she recognized the danger to women in their dependence on man, saw problems women experienced with faithless men and, of course, had experienced her mother’s death as the result of childbirth.  She resented the restrictions imposed by etiquette on women, in particular the waste of time in paying calls and worrying about dress.  Interestingly, neither her father nor her stepmother showed significant concern with Fanny’s, or their other daughters’, welfare in society as marriageable young ladies.   In fact, Dr. Burney seemed in no hurry to have his daughters marry.

In addition to her journal, Fanny also wrote a novel.  This novel was Evalina.  It was published anonymously and in secret when she was twenty-five years old, with the assistance of her brother.  It was immediately successful and acclaimed.  Even her father read and admired it.  When her identity was made known, celebrity followed.  She also earned some money.  

Her father’s society connections had already resulted in her acquaintance with influential people.  These connections and her sudden fame resulted in her acquaintance and friendship with Dr. Samuel Johnson, Hester Thrale and the Bluestockings, including Mary Delaney.  She was very uncomfortable with her fame.  Once her father and his friend Samuel Crisp realized she was the author of a successful novel, they were more than willing to offer advice.  (Her father was also very concerned to keep Fanny at hand to assist him with his own projects; she acted as his secretary on his massive work on the history of music.)    

Starting in 1778 or 1779, Fanny wrote a play, The Witlings, which was a comic satire on Society.  Despite her confidence and pride in it, and interest shown in it, both Dr. Burney and Mr. Crisp put pressure on Fanny not to pursue it as they were concerned that influential people such as Mrs. Thrale would recognize themselves and be offended.  

It appears that Dr. Burney was as much concerned about possible fall-out for himself as problems for Fanny.  At any rate, reluctantly, Fanny gave in to their pressure and did not pursue publication or performance of this play, abandoning it in 1780.  They then began pressing her for another novel.  The result was her second novel Cecilia which was published in 1782.  Available data indicates that Fanny was not as happy with Cecilia as she had been with  Evalina, that she felt rushed and pushed.  Cecilia was not as well received as Evalina, but did reasonably well.

Mrs. Thrale took Fanny up and made an effort to help her in society, although her own letters seem to indicate a certain level of exasperation with Fanny’s apparent lack of interest and gratitude.  Fanny did build a friendship with Mary Delaney, one of the Bluestockings and a friend of Queen Charlotte and King George III.  This friendship resulted in Fanny’s presentation at court and ultimately an invitation to serve as second mistress of the robes for the queen in 1786.  Fanny did not want to do this.  However, her father and Mr. Crisp were both eager for her to go, seeing the prospect of multiple advantages.  

She was extremely bored, as much of her time was spent waiting for the queen.  The long hours and restrictions affected her health, and personality issues with another of the Queen’s ladies, Elizabeth Schwellenberg, combined to make her very unhappy with the position.  She served in this position for five years before she convinced her father that it was necessary for her to resign and before she could bring herself to resign.  The Queen awarded her a pension of 100 pounds a year (half of her salary).

During a visit to Surrey, Fanny became acquainted with French emigres living there, one of whom was General Alexandre D’Arblay, who had served with Lafayette.  She married him July 28, 1793, in spite of his penniless state and her father’s disapproval.  (Dr. Burney refused to attend the ceremony, even though he ultimately became very fond of Alexandre).  They had one child, a son named Alexandre born Dec. 18,1794.  Their finances were very strained; the publication of Camilla in 1796 saved the day and allowed them to build a cottage.  

In spite of their financial struggles, they seemed to have been very happy together. Fanny’s pension and her earnings from her books provided their support.  Alexandre dreamed of recovering his estate and status in France.  Fanny continued writing, completing three comic plays between 1797-1801.

In 1800, Fanny lost her younger sister Susanna (known as Susan in the family).  Susanna’s death hit Fanny extremely hard; they had shared everything and were considered as close as twins.  In many ways, Susanna’s death was as difficult and painful for Fanny as was her mother’s death.  She was unable to speak her sister’s name after her death.

In 1801, General D’Arblay was offered a position in Napoleon’s France.  Seeing this as a way to start the process to recover his estate and status, Alexandre accepted.  Fanny and their son joined him in France in 1802.  This period coincided with the Peace of Amiens, which ended in May of 1803.  

Fanny lived in France for ten years, much of the time as an English woman in enemy territory.  Although she wrote to her family when she could, she discouraged letters from them, to discourage any accusations of spying for England.  This must have been an incredibly lonely and trying time.  On top of everything else, her pension from the Queen stopped because she was no longer in England.  

In 1810, she was diagnosed with a cancer of the breast, which led to a mastectomy by Napoleon’s chief surgeon Dr. Dominique Jean Larrey in Sept of 1811.  This was performed without anaesthesia, and she wrote a detailed account of the surgery in a journal letter to her sister, Hetty.  After ordering the preparation of bandages, lint for packing and other necessities for her surgery, she had to expose her body to the knife not knowing until that moment that the whole breast was to be removed.  Her graphic description of this ordeal is incredibly powerful.  The wonder is that she survived and made a full recovery. During her years in France, she worked on her fourth novel, The Wanderer.

In 1812, Fanny brought her son Alexandre to England with her.  She was terrified that he would be conscripted into Napoleon’s Army and was desperate to see her father.  She and her son went aboard with passports stamped for Newfoundland or some coast of America, and were almost halted by the French customs and subsequently almost becalmed.  

Fanny brought the manuscript of The Wanderer with her and, by the time she landed, was so relieved to be ashore she picked up a pebble to commemorate her landfall.  Her brother Charles did not recognize her, as age and her experiences had altered her appearance.  Her father was aged, and had lost much of his hearing, becoming something of a recluse.  She caught up with her family’s news, and in 1814, just before her father’s death, The Wanderer was published.  This was the least successful and most criticized of her four books, garnering some very critical reviews.

In November of 1814, in spite of her reluctance, Fanny returned to France in a small open boat in stormy weather.  She had to be carried off the boat due to dehydration upon landing.  In the process of her arrival, her husband Alexandre was injured when he was struck by a horse and cart, from which it  took him several days to recover enough to go on to Paris.  Both were ill during the winter.  

When Napoleon escaped from Elba in March 1815, neither Fanny nor her husband expected him to return to Paris.  Their only preparations were to make sure Fanny had a properly stamped passport and he was armed.  When Napoleon was outside of Paris,  General D’Arblay mounted his horse and rode off shouting “Vive le Roi!”  Apparently, it had not occurred to Fanny until then that he might actually join the fighting.  

She received a letter from him telling her to leave Paris, and she left for Belgium in the middle of the night., arriving in Tournai on March 23, 1815.  She and her husband were briefly reunited in April, when he found her in Brussels.  He went on to Treves.  They knew battle was coming, just not when.  When the Battle of Waterloo finally began, Fanny did not know where General D’Arblay was or what was happening.  She was especially anxious, as her husband had signed an oath of loyalty to King Louis XVIII; if Napoleon won, this would be fatal.  Rumours had Napoleon, then Wellington, then Napoleon winning.  After hours of anxiety, hearing first-hand accounts of the carnage, she finally learned of the British victory. 

In the meantime, General D’Arblay was stuck in Treves, awaiting orders which never came.  Fanny sent him Wellington’s Proclamation issued June 22.  He was injured when kicked in the leg by a horse, and the wound became infected.  As a result of inept treatment without anaesthesia, he slipped into a coma.  Finally hearing of his situation, Fanny decided to go to him but had a series of misadventures (missed diligence, passport issues in Prussian-controlled territory, getting lost, and suffering major anxiety) before finally being united with him on July 24, 1815.  

It took an additional month of convalescence before he was able to make the journey to Paris.  He was extremely depressed, not only because of his injury, but because of his country’s humiliation, and his realization that he was never going to recoup his family’s fortune and estates in France.  They finally returned to England, landing Oct. 17, 1815, reuniting with their son and settling in Bath.

By April of 1816, Alexandre was planning to return to France, in hopes of settling his business matters.  Their son was attending Cambridge, and his success was a source of anxiety as his and his parents’ futures depended on his success.  He was on scholarship, but not happy with the course of study required; at the same time, he was caught up in his social life.  

General D’Arblay further strained the situation by trying to arrange a marriage for their son with a French girl, in spite of Fanny’s objections.  He had returned to Paris in the hope of salvaging something and met a family he and Fanny had known in 1802, whose daughter seemed a likely match for Alexandre.  The difficulties of their separation during this time were exacerbated by this disagreement and other misunderstandings.  The general returned to England a few weeks later, having had to abandon his dream of recovering his estates and of settling his son’s future in France.  

In 1817, in spite of his own ill health and issues with his son (who did pass his examination), General D’Arblay returned to France. Depressed, he had a portrait of himself done, so that his son would not forget him, and worried about his son and the lack of an inheritance for him.  His health further deteriorated.  Later in the fall, he finally returned to England with nothing accomplished.  Fanny and their son noticed the deterioration in his health.  Finally in early 1818, in great pain, he was diagnosed with rectal cancer and was told it was too late for surgery.  Alexandre did succeed in getting his degree, but the General’s health continued to deteriorate.  He finally passed away May 3, 1818. 

After her husband’s death, Fanny would not go out for some months, except to go to church on Sundays.  Fanny left Bath and settled in London with her maid and her dog.  (Her son returned to Cambridge.)  She spent time with family, and started working on her father’s papers.  She planned to sort and edit them, to publish a memoir with correspondence.  Dr. Burney had left 12 notebooks of memoir material.  

Unfortunately, after three years, Fanny had little to show for it; her father’s notebooks were of little help, and she felt that much of the material would actually tarnish his memory.  She ended up writing her own account of his life, leaving out anything that was controversial, embarrassing or otherwise less than flattering.  The resultant work was published in Nov. of 1832.  She was criticized for her ruthless editing of his materials. 

Concerns for her son proceeded to dominate her life at this time.  Alexandre had travelled but achieved little; he had been ordained in 1818, but was uninterested in teaching or being a cleric.  He would disappear for weeks or months at a time.  He was undisciplined and apparently unable to focus on a specific goal.  He accepted a living, but disappeared periodically, leaving no one to handle the services.  He was a serious worry to Fanny, who was concerned for his health and his future.  

In May of 1835, Alex became engaged to Mary Ann Smith, whom Fanny liked very much.  However, lack of money prevented their marriage.  He could not figure out how to resolve the issue and was unable to make a decision or take any action.  They remained engaged but never married.  In 1836, he moved from place to place, never sticking to anything.  He caught a chill which developed into influenza, and died at Fanny’s home on January 19, 1837. 

At this point, Fanny was 85 years old and had only one close family member still living, her sister Charlotte.  She was plagued with money problems.  Fanny was very deaf and almost blind (she had cataracts).    Alex’s fiancée Mary Ann continued to watch out for Fanny.  Her sister died Sept 12 1838, leaving Fanny alone.  She had communion brought to her every week and had regular visitors.  She divided up her papers, giving her personal papers to her sister Charlotte’s daughter, Charlotte Barrett, and her father’s papers to her brother Charles’ son, Charles Parr Burney.  She signed her final will on March 6 1839.  Her health was so poor that she spent much time in bed.  She finally died January 6, 1840, and was buried beside her husband and son.

Fanny Burney D’Arblay lived a long life, surviving a serious of losses and blows, any combination of which could have brought her to a stand-still.  She survived a major surgery without anaesthetic and recovered fully, not suffering an infection or a recurrence of the cancer.  She lived in France during the Napoleonic wars.  She travelled between England and France in spite of weather and political turmoil.  She outlived her nearest and dearest, including her husband and only child.  A shy person, Fanny learned to cope with her celebrity status; a sensitive person, she learned to accept some searing criticism of her work. There is no doubt that she had great courage, strength and determination.  Her journals and letters show that, in spite of everything, she never lost her interest in people and events around her. 

Chisholm, Kate.  FANNY BURNEY: Her Life 1752-1840.  Random House (e-book).
On-line Materials:
New Jacksonian Blog.  “Breast Cancer in 1811: Fanny Burney’s Account of Her Mastectomy.” Introduction by Michael Kaplan.  Posted 12/2/10.
D’Ezio, Marianna. “Transcending National Identity: Paris and London in Fanny Burney’s Novels.”  2010.
The Burney Centre at McGill University.  “Frances (Fanny) Burney (married name D’Arblay).” No author shown, undated.
Norfolk Women in History.  “Fanny Burney 1752-1840.”

Portrait: Wikimedia Commons. 
Evalina Vol. 2: Wikimedia Commons.

Lauren Gilbert is the author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel.  She lives in Florida with her husband, and is working on another novel which is coming out soon.  You can visit her website HERE.


  1. What an amazing life this woman lived. It reads like a novel. Thanks for this interesting post.

  2. She is an inspiration, one of my heroines.

  3. Interesting post. Amazing woman.


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