Book: Fanny Burney

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Fanny Burney: A Biography

Author: Claire Harman
Publisher: Knopf

Claire Harman’s full-scale biography of Fanny Burney, the first literary woman novelist and a true child of eighteenth-century England and the Enlightenment, is rich with insights and pleasures as it brings us into the extraordinary life (1752-1840) of the woman Virginia Woolf called ìthe mother of English fiction.

We are present at Mrs. Thrale’s dinner party when the twenty-six-year-old Fanny has the incomparable thrill of hearing Dr. Johnson himself admiringly acknowledge her authorship of Evelina, her first novel, anonymously published for fear of upsetting her adored father, and now the talk of the town. We see her growing up, daughter of the charming and gifted musician and teacher Dr. Charles Burney, who was the very embodiment of a new class: talented, energized, self-educated, self-made, self-conscious, socially ambitious and easily endearing himself to aristocratic patrons.

We see Fanny partly enjoying, partly rejecting the celebrity engendered by Evelina, and four years later by Cecilia (“If you will be an author and a wit,” says Mrs. Thrale, “you must take the consequences”). And we see her mingling with the most famous men and women of the time, not only Dr. Johnson but Joshua Reynolds, Sheridan, David Garrick, Mrs. Siddons, Horace Walpole and, later, Chateaubriand and Madame de StaÎl.

For five years, during the time of George III’s madness, Fanny Burney held a position in the Royal Household as Second Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte. For her father, Fanny’s going to court was like going to heaven, but for Fanny it was more an incarceration. Her journals, published posthumously in 1842, gave her some solace. She saw herself as an eavesdropper. Dr. Johnson wryly called her “a spy.” Her marriage at forty-one to a penniless Catholic exile, Alexandre d’Arblay, resulted in trans-Channel crossings that left her stranded for almost a decade in Napoleon’s France, and then, after a dramatic flight from Paris, trapped in Brussels on the eve of Waterloo.

Claire Harman’s biography of Fanny Burney is as lively as it is meticulously researched and authoritative. It gives us the woman, her world and the early-blooming artist whose acute grasp of social nuance, gift for satire, drama and skillful play among large casts of characters won her comparison with the best of Smollett, Richardson and Fielding, the admiration of Jane Austen and Lord Byron and a secure place in the pantheon of the English novel.


Claire Harman, author of the prizewinning biography Sylvia Townsend Warner, turns her attention to another English novelist, this one an 18th-century pioneer. Fanny Burney (1752-1840) caused a sensation with the 1778 publication of her epistolary romance Evelina. Aptly subtitled The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, the book offered England’s burgeoning middle-class reading public a story that was both exciting and “decent,” in contrast to the raucous tone of works by Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollet. Unlike her male predecessors, Burney knew how women thought and felt, and her novel’s freshest moments honestly and amusingly show inexperienced Evelina making a fool of herself—though of course she’s rewarded with a happy ending. (Unsurprisingly, young Jane Austen was a big fan.)

Burney herself, who didn’t marry until she was 41, had a sharp eye for the vagaries of men other than her adored father, a noted music historian whose worshipful biography is her least interesting work. Harman offers a shrewd blend of social history and psychological analysis to explicate the complicated Burney family dynamic and its impact on Fanny. Her father was a self-made man who proudly joined the circle of rising middle-class merchants and intellectuals shaking up English culture, including Samuel Johnson and his patrons Henry and Hester Thrale. They would also be friends to Fanny, who had a much less sheltered upbringing than most 18th-century young ladies yet was always anxious to appear unshakably proper. To that end, she polished up the truth in her diaries and letters, and Harman’s careful disentangling of fact from wishful thinking and manipulation in those documents is a model of the biographer’s craft. Her smooth account of Burney’s life captures a complex, conflicted woman and makes vivid for modern readers a key moment in the development of the novel. —Wendy Smith

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