Biography of Frances Burney (1752-1840)
Frances Burney, born on June 13th, 1752, was one of the most accomplished and critically acclaimed British writers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. She was a diarist, a novelist, and a playwright. Her work is often credited as an inspiration to Jane Austen and William Makepeace Thackeray, among others.
Burney was born in Lynn Regis, England. Her father, Charles Burney, was a musical historian. Her mother was the Catholic daughter of a French refugee; she died when Burney was ten years old. Her father then moved the family to London in 1760, where he exposed them to an intelligent and vibrant social circle. While there, her father's remarriage became a source of tension in the family. While Burney's elder sisters were sent to Paris for their education, Burney remained in London, where she read a copious amount of books from the family library, largely educating herself in the process. Her own literary endeavors began at an early age, thanks to the encouragement of family friend Samuel Crisp, who requested to read her journal entries about her family and London life.
Burney's diary served as a repository both for personal observations and for correspondence with family and friends. Her entries detail the books she read, the many artists who visited the Burney home, and her letters to her sister Susanna. During her teenage years, Burney felt pressure to give up her writing, and even burnt a manuscript that she had written in secrecy. She remained diligent in diary-writing, however, and made use of the burned manuscript incident in her first novel, Evelina. Later in her life, she edited or destroyed many of her diary entries as she grappled with questions of impropriety in her writing.
Burney published Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World in 1778. She chose to do so anonymously, as it was not considered appropriate for a woman to insert herself in the public sphere through literature. It was initially rejected by the publisher Robert Dodsley, before finally being accepted by Thomas Lowndes. Burney was careful to disguise her handwriting to avoid bringing attention upon her family. The novel proved extremely successful, however, garnering critical acclaim from illustrious men such as Edmund Burke and Dr. Johnson. Burney's father did discover she was the book's author, but professed admiration for the positive attention it received.
Burney received further attention from Hester Thrale, a well-known patroness of the arts, who invited the author to visit her home in Streatham. Burney became very popular with the important figures who frequented Thrale's home, and even became a correspondent of Dr. Johnson until 1783.
Her second work was a dramatic play entitled The Witlings, which she wrote in 1779. It was not published during her lifetime, however. Her second major published work was [Cecilia] (1782). It was highly praised for exhibiting a more mature tone than [Evelina] did, though it rankled some critics with its intrusive narration.
In 1775, Burney turned down a marriage proposal from Thomas Barlow. During the early 1780's, she spent time in fashionable literary circles. In 1785, she even traveled to the court of King George III and Queen Charlotte, where she accepted the position under the Queen as the "Second Keeper of the Robes." While at their court, she continued to write, both personal journals and responses to major political events. However, due to ill health, a dislike for the post, and the limited writing time it allowed, she resigned and was allowed to return to her father's house in Chelsea.
In 1793, she married General Alexandre D'Arblay, an artillery officer who served as an adjutant-general to the Marquis de Lafayette. Burney's father disapproved of the match due to D'Arblay's Catholicism, poverty, and status as an émigré. During this time, Burney produced the pamphlet Brief Reflections relative to the Emigrant French Clergy, which advocated financial support from the English crown for the French Revolution. D'Arblay and Burney had a son in 1794.
In 1796, Burney published Camilla, which brought some financial stability; they were able to build a house in Westhumble. From 1791 through 1801, Burney wrote other comedies, none of which were published in her lifetime. In 1801, the family moved to Paris so that D'Arblay could serve in Bonaparte's government.
In 1810, Burney consented to a mastectomy because of pain in her breast (which is suspected to have been breast cancer). She described the procedure in excruciating detail to her sister Esther. After her father died in 1814, she and her husband moved to Bath, England. Her fourth novel, The Wanderer: Or Female Difficulties, was published in 1818. It was not as critically or financially successful as her earlier novels.
Frances Burney died on January 6th, 1840. She is buried in Walcot cemetery in Bath.
Burney's novels were very popular in her own lifetime, but suffered under hostile critics and biographers until the 20th century. Today, she is studied and praised both for her insights into 18th century life and for having found success as a woman in a male-dominated literary world.