Just the other day, I happened to come across a disparaging comment about Fanny Burney (these are the kinds of circles I frequent, alas), and it’s stuck with me. The writer of the comment had no use for poor Fanny, remarking that the world would have been better all around if she’d never put pen to paper but had instead, as the commentator charmingly continued, busied herself at home with her chores.
The comment stuck with me in part because it could easily have been written in 1776. When Frances Burney, daughter of the noted author and musicologist Charles Burney, was born in 1752 in Norfolk, the idea that a woman could be a successful novelist was still almost entirely beyond the pale in the world of letters. And if there was going to be a trailblazer, young Frances certainly didn’t seem like a probable candidate. Not only was she shy and soft-spoken, but as was the custom at the time, she received virtually nothing in the way of an education.
But she had the run of her father’s library, and she was that most alluring of all things, a precocious autodidact. And somewhere along that private development, a storytelling fire was kindled inside her; she began to write. In a pattern that would later become familiar with female writers (right up until – and right after – Virginia Woolf imperiously calling for such women to have a little money and a room of their own), young Frances stole her composition time whenever she could, crafting a big, complex, and utterly fantastic novel in the nooks and crannies of her everyday life.
That novel eventually became Evelina, which was published anonymously in 1778. As Judy Simons writes, its humble origins gave no hint of its future:
So Fanny Burney had written Evelina furtively in her bedroom, in the afternoons when her domestic tasks were completed and in the early hours of the morning when no-one could accuse her of neglecting other responsibilities. She had begun the book while still in her teens and in collusion with her brothers and sisters had arranged for it to be printed as a prank, never thinking for a moment that its readership would extend beyond a few giggling schoolgirls in a circulating library.
Of course that didn’t happen; Evelina became a runaway bestseller and the talk of the town. It was followed in 1782 by what I consider Burney’s masterpiece, the irrepressible 900-page Cecilia, the first novel in thirty years to match the range, wit, and brilliance of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. It’s amazing to me how jam-packed this big novel is; it so ripples with shot and incident and sparkles with its author’s sardonic insight into human nature. Every paragraph is a joy:
Mr. Monckton, who was the younger son of a noble family, was a man of parts, information and sagacity; to great native strength of mind he added a penetrating knowledge of the world, and to faculties the most skilful of investigating the character of every other, a dissimulation the most profound in concealing his own. In the bloom of his youth, impatient for wealth and ambitious of power, he had tied himself to a rich dowager of quality, whose age, though sixty-seven, was but among the smaller species of her evil properties, her disposition being far more repulsive than her wrinkles. An inequality of years so considerable had led him to expect that the fortune he had thus acquired would speedily be released from the burthen to which it was at present incumbered; but his expectations proved as vain as they were mercenary, and his lady was not more the dupe of his protestations than he was himself of his own purposes.
She became second keeper of the robes to Queen Charlotte and entered thoroughly into the Court life. This was a plum advancement, and Queen Charlotte and King George III were quick to perceive the wonderful sharp humor and perception of this young woman in their midst. Technically, Fanny answered to a certain Mrs. Schwellenberg, a controlling little termagant with a territorial streak a mile wide. And throughout the experience, Burney kept a journal that’s every bit as energetic and quirky as her novels. She spares a sly smile for the Court’s punctilious etiquette:
In the first place, you must not cough. If you find a cough tickling in your throat, you must arrest it from making any sound; if you find yourself choking with the forbearance, you must choke – but not cough.
In the second place, you must not sneeze. If you have a vehement cold, you must take no notice of it; if your nose membranes feel a great irritation, you must hold your breath; if a sneeze still insists upon making its way, you must oppose it, by keeping your teeth grinding together; if the violence of the repulse breaks some blood-vessel, you must break the blood-vessel – but not sneeze.
And when she finally steels herself to leave the royal service, she tries to circumvent the dreaded Schwellenberg and break the bad news directly to the Queen in 1790 – to no avail:
The next morning, Friday, when again I was alone with the Queen, she named the subject, and told me she would rather I should give the paper to the Schwellenberg, who had been lamenting to her my want of confidence in her, and saying I confided and told everything to the Queen.
I now desired an audience with Mrs. Schwellenberg. With what trembling agitation did I deliver her my paper, requesting her to have the goodness to lay it at the feet of the Queen before her Majesty left town!
Mrs. Schwellenberg took it and promised me her services, but desired to know its contents. I begged vainly to be excused speaking them. She persisted, and I then was compelled to own they contained my resignation.
How aghast she looked! How inflamed with wrath! How petrified with astonishment! It was a truly dreadful moment for me.
She wrote two other novels, 1796’s Camilla and 1814’s The Wanderer, each brilliant in its own way, and all four novels were eagerly consumed by the widest possible reading public, from those originally-envisioned giggling schoolgirls to Edward Gibbon, who bragged to his friends about how avidly he read her. She was likewise read and admired by Jane Austen, the concept of whose career she made possible in the first place.
It would be vain to protest that Jane Austen’s fame eclipses that of Fanny Burney, since with the possible exception of William Shakespeare, Jane Austen’s fame eclipses that of everybody else. But what has always mystified me is the fact that virtually everybody’s fame eclipses that of Fanny Burney. Oxford World’s Classics, bless their bookish hearts, has produced some elegantly-done recent paperback reprints, but I’ve scarcely met a well-read person in my life who’s even read one Fanny Burney novel (I’ve long since stopped even asking about her journals). Most readers I meet have never even heard this author’s name, no matter how easily they can name the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, and George Eliot.
And yet her books are wonderful! I, for one, am immensely relieved she didn’t pack up her writing things and get back to her housework.