“I thought—sir—it would look very well in print!”

So said Frances Burney to King George III in 1785. It seems an appropriate time to take a break from reviewing YA and MG books, bookbinding, and writing to do another series of classic literature. Jane Austen was the first and last, and that will not do. I have been craving a book that I can bury myself into, that I’ve read enough times that it’s like an old blanket, warm, safe, and familiar. This is where Frances Burney comes in. I’ve mentioned my fascination and love for her and her novels and plays before, but it’s time I share that with you!

Dr. Charles Burney

Born 13 June 1752 to Dr. Charles Burney (a well-known music historian) and Esther Sleepe Burney, she was the third of six children. Her mother died when she was ten years old, coincidentally at the same time Burney started writing. She called her writings “scribblings,” perhaps as a means of down-playing her future profession and passion. After all, women writers were still not accepted, not as they are now, or even as much as they were fifty years later when Jane Austen penned her novels. In what I consider to be a lamentable move, Burney burned her first novel, The History of Caroline Evelyn, when she was fifteen. Her first published novel, Evelina, was a sequel to that lost work. This action is a great testament to the period she lived in, and to understand burning your earliest works because it is wrong for you to write seems far from possible. In the dedication to her last novel, The Wanderer, she addresses her father:

So early was I impressed myself with ideas that fastened degradation to this class of composition, that at the age of adolescence, I struggled against the propensity which, even in childhood, even from the moment I could hold a pen, had impelled me into its toils; and on my fifteenth birth-day, I made so resolute a conquest over an inclination at which I blushed, and that I had always kept secret, that I committed to the flames whatever, up to that moment, I had committed to paper. And so enormous was the pile, that I thought it prudent to consume it in the garden.

Luckily for us, she continued writing, producing four novels, a couple of non-fiction pieces, and eight plays. I should also mention that while she wrote these plays, they were not all produced because her father and Samuel Crisp, a man she referred to as “daddy,” joined together to prevent it. One reason being, they were afraid her play The Witlings would offend real people. As far as I can tell, only one play was produced and that was Edwy and Elgiva.

Alexandre d’Arblay

Burney married Alexandre d’Arblay, a French artillery officer, on 28 July 1793. She was 41 years old, but she found someone who fit her perfectly in temperament. Her father didn’t approve of the match because d’Arblay was poor, but that didn’t bother Burney; she had enough money from selling her novels. As Margaret Anne Doody contends in Frances Burney: The Life in the Works (the best biography of Burney I have ever read), “[. . .] it was very good for the new Mme. D’Arblay to be in a position where she was not to be passive and where she counted for so much. In this relationship, she was treated as an equal. [. . .] She waited a long while, but when she married, she did it well.” They had one child, Alexander, born 18 December 1794.

The most fascinating story I could tell you about Burney should wait until I do a whole post on breast cancer, but I will say that she had a mastectomy in 1811 with only a cordial of wine to act as “anesthesia.” It’s such a fascinating story, and one that she detailed in a letter to her sister a year after. Thankfully, many of her letters survive along with several journals. Burney was prolific in her journal writing, chronicling her life, including the years she spent at court as Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte, a post she was reticent to accept as it would take her away from writing. I have many more things to say about her, but I’ll hold off. If you’d like to read up on her, I suggest Doody’s Frances Burney: The Life in the Works, but there are several resources online, like this from The Burney Centre at McGill University.


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