Burney, Frances (Fanny)

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Burney, Frances (Fanny) (1752-1840). English Writer.

Born in Norfolk on June 13, 1752, Fanny Burney became one of the greatest female novelists, diarists, and dramatists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Burney’s parents were Dr. Charles Burney, the accomplished music historian, and Esther Burney. Frances Burney was very close to her parents and her siblings, and her strong devotion to her father underscored Frances’s need for family love, guidance, and approval. At her father’s insistence, she refrained from staging her plays, with only one being performed in her lifetime, and curtailed her promising playwriting career.

Frances’s siblings did not share her rapport with her father. Her brothers Charles and James were abandoned and ostracized from the family by the senior Charles after they committed crimes in their youth. The fragmented family unit, the displacement of the child by the father, mirrors the plot in Frances Burney’s most famous novel, Evelina (1778), which portrays a young ingenue who is vulnerable because of her lack of family and emotional guidance. In fact, the novel represents a journey in which Evelina, near the conclusion, finds her father, Sir John Belmont, and illegitimate brother, Mr. Macartney, thus also finding her social identity. Although told that she has no place in respectable society because she fails to derive from a noble family, Evelina discovers her true noble heritage as Burney’s novel ends. The novel’s preoccupation with the social class and family heritage of an innocent but seemingly abandoned and friendless protagonist plays a major role in fiction of the Enlightenment, including Fielding, Henry’s Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, titular characters who seem poor and abandoned but who, at the novels’conclusions, are determined to be of noble birth. Burney’s other novels include Cecilia (1782) and Camilla (1796).

Although Burney was an accomplished novelist and dramatist, she was also a diarist, penning the successful Diary and Letters (1842-46), published posthumously in six volumes. The publication was notable partly because of its treatment of Burney’s encounters with famous people of the period, such as King George III, Queen Charlotte (for whom she served as the deputy keeper of the robes) and Dr. Johnson, Samuel. Paradoxically, Burney’s reputation as a novelist suffered as result of the success of her diaries, as well by the comparisons of her with Austen, Jane, whom she influenced and perhaps even inspired. Although the two writers were contemporaries of one another, their novels differ markedly. Her works contain violence, incest, and aggressive males who attempt to kidnap and sexually assault women, behavior hardly seen in an Austen novel. Burney’s novels manifest her astute observations regarding social class, love and courtship, the exploitation of women, manners, and family. One of the most influential female writers of the time, her works skillfully portray the role and the plight of women in the patriarchal culture of her day.

Further Reading:

Margaret Anne Doody, Frances Burney: The Life in the Works, 1988.

Julia Epstein, The Iron Pen: Frances Burney and the Politics of Women’s Writing, 1989.

Eric Sterling

Auburn Montgomery University