In the robust world of the Age of Johnson, where novel writing was not considered a suitable occupation for a lady, Fanny Burney succeeded like no other woman. Small in stature, shy, and entirely selfeducated, she had neither family money nor social status. Yet she carved out a respectable place for herself in society with her popular novels and secured her place in history with her richly detailed diary, first published a few years after her death. Critics today tend to view her as Jane Austen’s predecessor and not exactly her literary equal, but Burney’s novels outsold Austen’s in their day, and Burney herself had a much more worldly and varied life. She counted Samuel Johnson and other members of his influential Literary Club among her friends. She also knew the king and queen of England personally, once chatted with the French king Louis XVIII, and even got a glimpse of Napoleon himself.
Out of Her Father’s Shadow
She was born Frances Burney, the middle child in a large, close family. Both of her parents were musicians, and her father had a doctorate in music from Oxford. After the death of her mother, she devoted herself to her father’s career, acting as his secretary and helping him write his ambitious history of music. Dr. Burney’s growing reputation first brought her into contact with leading artists and intellectuals. With the spotlight on her father, Burney wrote for herself in secret and published all four of her novels anonymously. Even her father didn’t know she was writing until after the runaway success of her first novel, Evelina (1778).
The popularity of Fanny Burney’s novels didn’t make her rich, but it did enhance her social standing. She became a fixture in literary circles and gained an appointment at the court of George III. In 1793, she met a group of liberal French émigrés, among them a handsome officer named D’Arblay (därPblAQ) who won her heart. The couple had only a modest income, but the marriage was a happy one and produced a son. D’Arblay supported his wife’s career by serving as her secretary, sometimes even copying manuscript pages for her. Burney lived 87 years, an unusually long life for the time. She survived cancer, exile in France during the Napoleonic Wars, and the deaths of both her husband and her son.