Fanny Burney, also known as Madame d’Arblay, was a novelist of the eighteenth century who explored the role of women in her society, setting an example for future novelists like Jane Austen. Her impact can be better understood by examining her life, the nature of the society she lived in and the role of women in that society, and by examining her works and the influence they had in her time and beyond.
Born in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, on June 13, 1752, Frances Burney was the third of six children by organist Dr. Charles Burney’s first wife, Esther Steepe (Shattock 78). Burney’s mother died two years after the family moved to London in 1760, and when she was fourteen Dr. Burney remarried to a wealthy widow, Elizabeth Allen (Simons 4). Burney disliked her stepmother, and took comfort in her father’s friend Samuel Crisp, whom she affectionately referred to as “Daddy Crisp.”
The Burney children were all talented in musical entertainment, a constant part of family life. Dr. Burney was an organist and musical historian, who did musical odd jobs to support his family, like leading rehearsals for Handel’s oratorio (Bernstein 33). Burney was considered odd since she was pathologically shy and didn’t like performing in public. Burney had no formal education, but she read a lot.
At the age of ten she began writing, but at fifteen, after her grandmother told her that writing was a frivolous pursuit, she burnt all her manuscripts, including elegies, plays, stories, and farces (Shattock 78). This is not surprising, as novels were equated with degradation, since most novels were exotic romances or were filled with abduction, incest, and gory deaths (Simons 18). “It was assumed that novel writing required little ability and was the result of an overactive imagination fantasizing on improper subjects” (Simons 19). In spite of this, Burney began journal writing that year (1768), which she continued until the end of her life.
Though a young woman without a husband was patronized, ignored, and forced to rely on her parents’ income, Burney wanted to remain single to preserve her liberty of mind (Simons 5). She refused an offer of marriage at age 22 from Mr. Barlow, an eligible suitor, despite encouragement from friends and family. Burney was “conscious of a tension between the pressures of the conventional world and her own impulses to independence, and she refused to accept many of the social attitudes that were assumed to be automatic for a woman of her class” (Simons 5).
In 1773, Burney helped her father transcribe his General History of Music, but she also worked on her first novel in secret, writing at night by candlelight (Simons 8). Evelina: the history of a young lady’s entrance into the world, as it was called, was submitted by her brother, Charles, disguised as “Mr. King,” for publication by Thomas Lowndes in 1778, when Burney was 26 (Bernstein 32). The book became an instant hit, and when it was known that shy Fanny Burney was the true author, Burney found herself forced to overcome shyness and face fame. Her father’s friends, members of the Bluestocking Circle of intellectuals, included Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and Sir Joshua Reynolds, who all loved the book (Shattock 78). Mrs. Hester Thrale, a fashionable hostess, became a good friend of Burney’s, and introduced her into the circle of the literary elite (Simons 8).
In 1779, Burney wrote a play, The Witlings, a satiric comedy that attacked the pretensions of scholarly women. After only one performance, Mr. Crisp and her father demanded she withdraw it from the stage. They thought it would destroy her image of womanly modesty and gentleness (Simons 9).
Burney then began work on her second novel, Cecilia, or memoirs of an heiress, a five-volume work that was equally well received upon publication in 1782. Writing Cecilia, however, had “become not a secret indulgence but a chore which had to measure up to the exacting standards of a critical audience” (Simons 10). Her writing however, went through a period of suspension when she became employed at court.
Burney met King George III and Queen Charlotte through an 83-year-old friend, Mary Delaney (Bernstein 36). When the queen offered her the position of Second Keeper of the Robes, Burney accepted, despite some misgivings. Her father was from an aristocratic family, and the thought of his daughter being in such close proximity to royalty thrilled him (Bernstein 36). He also saw the connection as possibly leading to royal favors for himself. So, mostly to please her father, Burney moved to London to serve the queen.
The position of Second Keeper of the Robes was a glorified lady’s maid; Burney helped the queen dress and undress. The job paid £200 per annum, but there were no vacations, and Burney was on duty from seven in the morning until well after midnight (Simons 11). The other unfortunate part of the job was the First Keeper of the Robes Burney worked with, Juliana Schwellenberg, an erratic, mean-spirited and demanding German woman (Bernstein 36). When Burney requested to leave her position in 1791 due to failing health, the queen did not grant her permission for over a year. Thus, Burney was employed at court for five unhappy years, though she did witness some interesting events while there, such as George III’s bouts of madness, and the trial of Warren Hastings, the General Governor of India, who was impeached for corruption (Simons 11).
After leaving the royal court, Burney was introduced to General Alexandre d’Arblay, a French refugee who had been an adjutant to General Lafayette, while visiting her sister in Surrey (Shattock 78). General d’Arblay had the ability to adapt to new circumstances, had enthusiasm for life, spark and wit in the face of potential hopelessness, and military distinction, all of which made him irresistible to Burney (Simons 13).
They were married in 1793, and had a son, Alex, a year later, when Burney was 42. The couple was forced to live on Burney’s pension from the queen of £100 per annum, so Burney began writing again to support them. In 1796, Camilla, or a picture of youth, was published, and although not as well liked as her earlier works, the book proved the most financially profitable for Burney, who was able to build a house in Surrey on the proceeds (“Burney, Fanny,” Encyclopedia Britannica). In 1801, d’Arblay returned to France to recover his property and re-establish his position (Simons 13). He was given a ministry post and later joined the French Royalist Guard. When the Napoleonic Wars resumed in 1802, Burney and her family were forced to remain in France for ten years (Simons 13). After her husband fought in the Battle of Waterloo and the Wars ended, the d’Arblay’s returned to England and settled at Bath (“Burney, Fanny,” Encyclopedia Britannica). D’Arblay died in 1818, while Burney’s son was attending Cambridge.
After Camilla, Burney wrote several comedies for the stage, including Love and Fashion, The Woman Hater, and A Busy Day (Simons 10). She wrote her best work when outside pressures were removed, but she remained self-analytical and obsessed with notions of duty (Simons 10). She published her last novel, The Wanderer, in 1814, which did not have as much success as her earlier works (Simons 15). In 1832, at nearly the age of 80, Burney completed her last project, a memoir of her father’s miscellaneous documents, a task she said she trusted no one else to do (Simons 16). Burney continued writing journals until her death of illness in 1840.
In order to understand the significance of Burney’s writings, it is necessary to examine the nature of the society she lived in, and the role of women in that society. During the period in which Burney wrote her four novels, England was experiencing a volatile economic and political transformation that would profoundly and permanently affect its social institutions. This transformation involved a fundamental change, from a social system based on patrilineal ideology, to one focused on the domestic sphere, i.e. a shift from a status to a class society (Zonitch 24).
The traditional, aristocratic society was patriarchal, a system founded on property laws that legitimized descent through the father (Zonitch 19). Males had a great deal of communal power, and played a major role in politics and the justice system. Continuing a family’s power required a system of inheritance that ensured women or outsiders wouldn’t be able to gain control of family property. Name hyphenation, name changing, and surrogate heirship were all measures taken to keep this system working (Zonitch 19). Women were useful for bearing heirs and giving dowries of land, but if they were single or past childbearing age they were totally dependent and seen as a drain on family resources (Zonitch 20). Single women found it difficult to achieve financial independence, since the only employment available to them was working as a governess, milliner, or seamstress. Generally, though, the idea of women working at all went against the cultural idea of women as passive, retiring, and genteel (Zonitch 20).
The patriarchal system was also a repressive and coercive social structure for the women who married: the husband had total control of his wife’s property upon marriage, the wife could not obtain credit, sign a contract, sue or be sued (Zonitch 16). In addition, the husband was the sole legal parent, and could take away his children at will. His wife could not legally leave him, and divorce was virtually impossible without parliamentary intervention (Zonitch 16). Sir William Blackstone wrote in Commentaries on the Laws of England, “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law…the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage” (Zonitch 16). However, marriage also guaranteed her absolute protection by her husband (Zonitch 17). The patriarchal system, then, justified inequality by protecting the most vulnerable: women, children, and the impoverished. As Susan Staves noted, the patriarchal marriage entailed “a reciprocal exchange of the husband’s support and protection for the wife’s services and chastity” (Zonitch 17). This patriarchal system was the main source of public order and private morality until the rise of the modern state and welfare and disciplinary services.
By the turn of the eighteenth century, this traditional aristocratic ideology was facing a crisis, as progress in manufacturing, commercial, and capitalist interests caused a conflict between the landed gentry and the newer moneyed elite. Financial income and occupational identity (class criteria) were increasingly important. The gentry feared the collapse of the traditional social order if gentlemen were indistinguishable from wealthy upstarts (Zonitch 29). Eventually, the transition from status to class entailed the replacement of paternalism and the landed estate by the values of a market system (Zonitch 25).
The newly prosperous middle classes wanted to show their wealth by emphasizing the fact that women could still stay home and live a leisurely life. Marriage was considered the only respectable female occupation. Instead of aristocratic patrimony, the country estate displayed the female qualities of self-regulation and charity. Yet the volunteer projects women helped with- tending to the poor, giving smallpox inoculations, and advocating educational reform- were reminiscent of paternalistic virtues (Zonitch 27).
The woman’s role was to be supportive and domestic, to exhibit tenderness, compassion, sympathy, and a feeling heart (Simons 2). It was the wife’s responsibility to provide order and happiness in the new domestic family. This emphasis on domestic life restricted women to the private sphere of the home. To create a pleasant home life, women were expected to practice self-regulation emotionally, physically, and monetarily, and by their example of virtue, to reform their husbands of unchaste sexual desires or the vices of capitalism (Zonitch 29). “In their behavior, women were to remind men of the best virtues of their paternalistic history” (Zonitch 28). This led to the society of manners, which was consistent with the reformation in codes of honor and morality in the domestic ideology.
This reformation was brought about by questioning the traditional code of male violence, which allowed activities such as gambling and dueling (Zonitch 28). This violence symbolically recalled an aristocratic society where privilege and inherited status were dominant principles. Progressive thinkers at the end of the 18th century began to see aristocratic values like these as corrupt and degenerate. The new emphasis on manners embodied a moral code of proper behavior for both men and women.
It was in this time of social conflict between the patriarchal and domestic systems that Fanny Burney wrote her novels. In her own time, Burney
“was praised for depicting the life and manners of a world in which overwrought heroines, lacking experience, found their innocence threatened. Though thwarted by social entanglements, her proper heroines endured their female difficulties and were rewarded with marriage” (Cutting-Gray 3).
Revisionists, however, have taken the view that Burney’s heroines, rather than learning prudence, challenged the propriety of their society, and tried to create a more self-assertive identity (Cutting-Gray 3). “Feminism has enabled us to see the novels as a testimony to the way women have been poorly served by a male-dominated culture” (Cutting-Gray 3).
Rather than rewriting the history of gender oppression, though, Burney’s works enacted ways of living with gender differences. Burney wondered if the social changes taking place would offer greater empowerment for women, or would extend their subjugation in a male-centered culture (Zonitch 15). She sought to address this issue by imagining alternative social replacements for aristocratic protection in the modern world, which would help women adopt a new identity to survive in a radically transformed society (Zonitch 32). Some of these replacements included a reformed and feminized aristocracy, bourgeois patriarchy, a self-supporting community of women, and a code of manners (Zonitch 32).
“Burney explores individual identity; but identity conceived in social terms; character and plot determine each other in the sense that such novels typically portray the effort of the individual to find their place in a society where place and identity are matters of worth, not birth…[achieving] their eventual location in a precarious secular order”
In her four novels, Burney dealt with the issue of female identity and how a woman was to survive in a man’s world. Each of her novels centers on an adolescent heroine who progresses through stages in her efforts to gain social recognition (Simons 25). “Without society, Fanny Burney’s women have no identity; society is the all-powerful authority which can make or break their futures” (Simons 28). All her heroines are alone: they journey from their father’s home, with its familiar and supportive values, into unknown territory. “Even as she resists the patriarchal sense of identity, Burney continues to write narratives about female nobodies and shows us how both to dismantle and renovate Woman” (Craddock 571). As Burney struggled with the concept of a new female identity, according to Zonitch, she “draws connections between these two social orders [domestic and patriarchal], exposing how bourgeois society only seems to extend the abuses of the system it seeks to replace” (25).
Her three best books, Evelina, Cecilia, and Camilla, chart the development of their young, inexperienced but intelligent heroines as they enter society and record the various levels of that society with “a sharply satirical eye and an ear for dialogue” (Shattock 79). As Simons wrote, “Burney portrays her upper-class English communities as if they are alien tribes, with strange rituals which have to be learned by the initiate before full acceptance can take place” (28).
Her first novel, Evelina, consists entirely of letters, written from a young girl in London to an elderly gentleman, Reverend Villars, in the country. A poor seventeen-year-old orphan, Evelina is taken to London for a season with her school friend’s family, the Mirvans. Her beauty attracts numerous suitors, who want to know her background and fortune. Evelina is unsure of herself in society, and is subject to errors of management and judgment. The book employs a wide range of characters, from aristocrats to prostitutes. In the end, Evelina falls in love with one of the lords, and then suffers by being removed from the elite social circle into which she was allowed for a season. In the story Burney toyed with one of her ideas for social replacements for patriarchal protection. In Evelina aristocratic patriarchy is represented by Lord Orville, Evelina’s lover, who has the air of the new aristocracy: he is traditionally paternalistic, but also modernized and feminized (Zonitch 17). The book was highly praised, especially for its use of dialogue. “If there is such a thing as having a photographic memory for conversation, Burney had it…[but] she reordered her observations so that they made a great narrative” (Bernstein 33).
Her second work, Cecilia, focused on a different aspect of the changing nature of Burney’s society, the financial insecurity of single women. Cecilia Beverley, an orphaned heiress, goes to London after her uncle dies, and is introduced to several prospective suitors. She chooses Mortimer Delvile, an aristocrat, and marries him in secret. However, she is abandoned by Delvile and loses control of her money and eventually her sanity. Cecilia suffers the loss of her estate due to patrilineal repair, i.e. because she could only gain her inheritance by finding a husband willing to take her surname as his own (Cutting-Gray 5). The most reasonable character in the novel, Cecilia tries to do the right thing based on her reason, but appears to others as irrational and mad. In the end she fulfills their misunderstandings, and goes insane. In the novel Burney “explores how financial vulnerability leads to sexual vulnerability as both aristocrats and working tradesmen can easily manipulate women because of their debts, fiscal naiveté and economic disempowerment” (Zonitch 26). It is also from this novel (specifically the line, “the whole of this unfortunate business…has been the result of pride and prejudice”) that Jane Austen took the title to one of her best known works, Pride and Prejudice.
In Camilla, a woman is encouraged to live up to her identity as the “female of melting sensibility.” Even though her capriciousness is praised by her family, when she flirts or acts coy with men she is harshly judged for acting according to her whimsical nature (Cutting-Gray 5). “Crises occur for the heroine because the world requires of her innocence, selflessness, and silence while simultaneously requiring that she respond decisively to concrete situations” (Cutting-Gray 4). Camilla’s search for a new social identity leads to madness and self-destruction. “Burney often disrupts the seemingly polite and civilized surface of this genre [the novel of manners] in order to highlight the chaotic and violent world that surrounded…the polished homes of the gentry” (Zonitch 32). Camilla contains many episodes of sickness, fainting, hysteria, etc., which have often been taken as weaknesses in Burney’s writing. Craddock, however, offers a different explanation, arguing that these sicknesses are actually experiments in finding a voice for women, and in revealing the social cause of their voicelessness (571).
In her final novel, The Wanderer, Burney takes this need for a voice to an extreme. Set during the turbulent French Revolution, The Wanderer concerns a young woman who refuses to reveal her purposes and her real name to a rigid society. Her heroine, called Incognita, “appears helpless and passive when persecuted by men, yet pushes the rational discourse of a disintegrating patriarchy to the brink of hysteria” (Cutting-Gray 6). She doesn’t have any legal constraint to keep her name, (Juliet Granville), a secret, but she chooses to do so, according to Cutting-Gray’s analysis, in order to elude the name imposed on her by the old social order and the absolute freedom proposed by the new order (7). She is a resistant individualist. She insists that her real name, her status, belongs to her husband, a French official, whom she was forced to marry. Through all four of her novels, Burney continued to search for the a solution to the conflict women of her time were facing.
Fanny Burney was an important novelist of the late eighteenth century. Her journals recorded many of the key events of the period, such as the madness of King George III and the Battle of Waterloo. Her novels, as well as her plays, recognized a conflict in her society over the proper role of women. As society shifted from an aristocratic patriarchy to a class-based, domestic system, Burney sought a new identity for women trying to survive in a male-dominated world. Her personal life reflected her desire for independence, as she resisted marrying at a young age, and supported her family through her writing. In her works, she explored her ideas, often employing single women struggling financially and socially as her heroines. Her career is a reflection of the pressures she felt as a woman in her day: she enjoyed writing as a means of giving her thoughts free reign, yet she had to limit herself to what she thought others, like her father, required (Simons 15). Burney’s works remain influential as a critique of her times, and what a woman’s place in society should be. Simons explains the controversial nature of Burney’s novels:
“In her quiet way she was always prepared to defy those conventions that interfered with her primary allegiances, and her outward orthodoxy concealed a revolutionary spirit which always emerged in her novels however much she attempted to muffle it”
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