Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Frances “Fanny” Burney (1752–1840)

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Frances “Fanny” Burney (1752–1840)

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Frances Burney, also known as “Fanny,” and later, “Madame d’Arblay,” was born on the 13th of June 1752, in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England[1]. Her father was Dr Charles Burney (1726–1814), renowned musician and music historian[2]. Her mother was his first wife, Esther Sleepe Burney (1725–1762).[3]

She was the third of her mother’s six children, with elder siblings Esther (Hetty, 1749–1832) and James (1750–1821) and younger siblings Susanna Elizabeth (1755–1800), Charles (1757–1817) and Charlotte Ann (1761–1838). She also had several half- and stepsiblings from her father’s second marriage to Elizabeth Allen. There was much tension and strife between the Burney girls and their stepmother, but Fanny maintained a pleasant relationship with her much younger half-sister, Sarah Harriet (1772–1844).

James Burney was an admiral who sailed with Captain James Cook on the final voyages and became a naval author in his later life[4]; the younger Charles Burney was a classical scholar and a schoolmaster[5]; and Susanna was a letter and journal writer. The Burney family was full of artistic talent, and they grew up surrounded by their father’s friends and contemporaries, all prominent figures in English literary and academic circles of the time. They also all wrote numerous diaries, journals, and letters amongst themselves, sharing as much of their individual lives as they could, thus giving a diverse range of experiences from 18th and 19th century daily life and national politics.[6]

Frances Burney was self-educated and began writing from a young age, although from a developmental perspective, she was far behind her siblings as “at eight years old she did not know her letters.”[7] It has been suggested that she had dyslexia[8], and that her difficulty with reading and writing was what led her father to favour her sisters’ educations over hers (he took Hetty and Susanna to Paris shortly after their mother’s death to arrange prestigious education for them, while Fanny was left in England with her younger brother and newborn sister).

In 1786 she accepted a position in the court of Queen Charlotte as Keeper of the Robes (wherein the queen’s wardrobe was her responsibility, as well as the oversight of the ladies-in-waiting). During this period, her novel-writing ceased, but she maintained her diaries and letters to her sister (even though she was warned not to reveal courtly secrets), and they remain some of the most detailed accounts of courtly life, additionally documenting King George III’s illness. She became close with the queen and princesses and kept up those relationships even after leaving her post in 1790.[9]

She did not marry until she was forty-one. She met General Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard d'Arblay (1754-1818) while he was staying at Juniper Hall in 1792 and quickly struck up a relationship with him, much to her father’s disapproval. They married twice, at St Michael's Church, Mickleham, on July 28, 1793, and again two days later at the Sardinian Chapel in Lincoln's Inn Fields, London.[3] They had one son, Alexander Charles Louis Pichard d'Arblay (1794- 1837), who would grow up to be a minister of Ely Chapel, London.

A family trip to Paris in 1802 that happened to coincide with the breakout of the Napoleonic Wars left the d’Arblays stranded in Paris for over a decade. While there, Fanny drafted her final novel, as well as many diaries and letters, staying in touch with her siblings despite the many miles between them. She returned with her husband and son in 1815, following the Battle of Waterloo.

Fanny outlived most of her immediate family, although she was much loved by the younger Burney generations due to her skill as a storyteller. She died on January 6th, 1840, and is buried at St Swithin's, Walcot, Bath, with her husband and son.[1]


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Fanny was a diarist, novelist, and playwright. Evelina: or the History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World was her first novel, published anonymously in 1778 when she was twenty-six, and it took England by storm.[10] It was one of the first of its kind—a ‘comedy of manners’ bildungsroman with a female protagonist, it paved the way for the likes of Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth. It brought her fame, fortune, and a place of her own in the literary circles she first met through her father. Her second and third novels, Cecilia and Camilla, garnered similar positivity and wealth, but her fourth, The Wanderer, was not as well received.[3]

Her plays, too, did not get the recognition that her novels did. The Witlings was dismissed by her father and their close family friend, Samuel Crisp; Edwy and Elgiva was performed for a single night, unprepared and unpractised, to widespread disparagement by the theatre world; and her other plays never saw the light of day, or public opinion.[11]

Her diaries and letters have been praised as some of the most detailed accounts of life in England in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially courtly life, as she recounted her experiences as Keeper of the Robes.

  • Evelina: or A Young Lady's Entrance into the World (1778)
  • The Witlings (1779)
  • Cecilia: or Memoirs of an Heiress (1782)
  • Edwy and Elgiva (1788-1795)
  • Hubert de Vere (1790-1797)
  • The Siege of Pevensey (1790-1791)
  • Elberta (1791-)
  • Brief Reflections Relative to the Emigrant French Clergy (1793)
  • Camilla: or A Picture of Youth (1796)
  • Love and Fashion (1798-1800)
  • A Busy Day (c. 1801-1802)
  • The Woman-Hater (c. 1801-1802)
  • The Wanderer: or Female Difficulties (1814)

Online versions of her writings are available here.


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Alongside her trailblazing novels and the rich time capsules of her letters and diaries, Fanny also provides one of the first and most well-preserved accounts of a mastectomy. While stranded in Paris during the Napoleonic Wars, she discovered a tumour believed to be breast cancer, and had to undergo surgery without anaesthesia to treat it. She tells the whole arduous tale in a letter to her sister Esther (available here), from her initial suspicions and fears to the several different physicians and surgeons she and her doctor consulted, to the multiple delays on the operation, to the actual operation itself. It reflects modern fears of breast cancer and the treatment thereof and provides insight into the medical practices of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is a much-discussed account in the patient narrative field of medical academia.[12]


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  1. a b Luebering, J.E. “Frances Burney.” Britannica, 2 Sep. 2022, www.britannica.com/biography/Fanny-Burney.
  2. Luebering, J.E. “Charles Burney.” Britannica, 24 Aug. 2022, www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-Burney.
  3. a b c “Frances (Fanny) Burney d'Arblay (1752-1840).” McGill, Burney Centre, www.mcgill.ca/burneycentre/resources/frances-fanny-burney-darblay-1752-1840. Accessed 19 Sep. 2022.
  4. “James Burney.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Burney. Accessed 19 Sep. 2022.
  5. “Charles Burney (schoolmaster).” Wikipedia,  en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Burney_(schoolmaster). Accessed 19 Sep. 2022.
  6. Chisholm, Kate. “The Burney family.” The Cambridge Companion to Frances Burney, edited by Peter Sabor, Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  7. “Madame d'Arblay, By Lord Macaulay.” The Diary and Letters of Madame d’Arblay, By Frances Burney. www.gutenberg.org/files/5826/5826-h/5826-h.htm. Accessed 19 Sep. 2022.
  8. Epstein, Julia. The Iron Pen: Frances Burney and the Politics of Women's Writing. University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.
  9. “Fanny Burney: The Keeper of the Robes.” The Digital Recipe Books Project, 14 May 2019, drbp.hypotheses.org/890.
  10. Spencer, Jane. “Evelina and Cecilia.” The Cambridge Companion to Frances Burney, edited by Peter Sabor, Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  11. Ghoshal Wallace, Tara. “Burney as dramatist.” The Cambridge Companion to Frances Burney, edited by Peter Sabor, Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  12. Wiltshire, John. Frances Burney and the Doctors: Patient Narratives Then and Now. Cambridge University Press, 2019, pp. 110-28.

“Frances Burney (1752-1840).” Pressbooks, ohiostate.pressbooks.pub/engl2201/chapter/frances-burneys-account-of-her-mastectomy/. Accessed 20 Sep. 22.

“Online Books by Fanny Burney.” The Online Books Page, onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/book//lookupname?key=Burney%2C%20Fanny%2C%201752%2D1840. Accessed 19 Sep. 2022.

Further Reading

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Epstein, Julia. The Iron Pen: Frances Burney and the Politics of Women's Writing. University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

Hemlow, Joyce. The History of Fanny Burney. Oxford Clarendon Press, 1958.

Hill, Constance. Juniper Hall: A Rendezvous of Certain Illustrious Personages During the French Revolution Including Alexandre d'Arblay And Fanny Burney. London & New York: John Lane - The Bodley Head, 1904.

Hill, Constance. Fanny Burney at the Court of Queen Charlotte. London & New York: John Lane - The Bodley Head, 1912.

Sabor, Peter, editor. The Cambridge Companion to Frances Burney. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Wiltshire, John. Frances Burney and the Doctors: Patient Narratives Then and Now. Cambridge University Press, 2019.