Birthday: June 13, 1752
Died At Age: 87
Sun Sign: Gemini
Also Known As: Madame d’Arblay, Madame D'Arblay
Born in: King's Lynn
Famous as: Novelist
father: Charles Burney
siblings: Charles Burney, James Burney, Sarah Harriet Burney
Died on: January 6, 1840
place of death: London
Frances Burney was an English novelist, diarist and playwright best known for her novel ‘Evelina’. One of the most popular novelists of the late 18th century, she is credited to have played an instrumental role in the development of the novel of manners. All of her novels explore the lives of English aristocrats, based on her keen observations of how the society of her era operated. As one of the six children of the music historian, composer and musician, Dr. Charles Burney, she was considered the least promising among the siblings. Losing her mother at a young age was a blow that affected her emotionally throughout life. As a young girl she sought solace in reading and soon began to write as well. However, the English society of her era was not supportive of female writers and thus she published her first novel ‘Evelina’ anonymously. The book became very popular and it led to the revelation of her authorship. She wrote three other novels which also became very popular. Following her death, her meticulously written diaries were discovered and published posthumously to much critical acclaim. Her writings are still valued for her outlook on the social lives and struggles of women of her time and her candid portrayal of the 18th century English society.
Childhood & Early Life
Frances Burney was born on 13 June 1752, in Lynn Regis, England, to Dr. Charles Burney and Esther Sleepe Burney, as one of their six children. Her father was a famed music historian, composer and musician. Her mother, a warm and intelligent woman, was the daughter of a French refugee named Dubois.
Her father favored her sisters Esther and Susanna over her. He sent Esther and Susanna to be educated in Paris while Frances was left home. She educated herself by reading voraciously from the family collection and started writing when she was around ten.
The death of her mother in 1762 was a big blow to the young girl and she sought solace in the comfort of books. Frances found some much needed support from a family friend Samuel Crisp who encouraged her to write.
Her father remarried in 1767; his new wife was Elizabeth Allen, the wealthy widow of a wine merchant. This marriage produced three more children. The relationship between Frances and her step-mother was tense and unhappy.
Due to the presence of her step-mother, Frances felt pressurized to give up writing. In frustration, she even burnt her first manuscript, ‘The History of Caroline Evelyn’, which she had written in secret. However, she continued writing her diaries.
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In 1778, her first novel ‘Evelina: Or The History of A Young Lady's Entrance into the World’ was anonymously published by Thomas Lowndes who found the story interesting after reading its first volume. It was published without her father’s knowledge.
The novel went on to be a critical success, and received praise from many prominent individuals including the statesman Edmund Burke and literary critic Dr Johnson. Her realistic yet comical portrayal of the London society earned her many fans. Eventually her identity as the author was revealed and she was accepted warmly by the public as a budding woman writer.
Encouraged by the reception of her debut novel, Frances Burney began working on a dramatic comedy called ‘The Witlings’, satirizing a wide segment of the London society. However, her father and the family friend Samuel Crisp thought it would offend some of the public, so she chose not to publish it at that time.
In 1782, she published ‘Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress’ which was also well received. The publishers printed 2000 copies of the first edition which were quickly sold out and the novel was reprinted at least twice within a year. The novel cast a lasting influence on Jane Austen who was much inspired by Burney’s writing.
Her success as a novelist made her very popular and in 1785, Queen Charlotte offered her the post of "Keeper of the Robes", with a salary of £200 per annum. Even though Burney was initially reluctant to accept the offer, she eventually did so in 1786.
Even though Frances Burney developed good relations with the queen and the princesses, the position was exhausting and left her with no time to write. She continued writing her journals but was unable to focus on writing novels. She grew increasingly frustrated with the job and resigned in 1791.
Over the ensuing years she got married and had a child. In 1796, she published ‘Camilla, or a Picture of Youth’, a story of frustrated love and impoverishment. Her family was struggling financially at that time and the earnings from the book helped to stabilize their situation.
She began working on her last novel, ‘The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties’ in the 1790s. It took her several years to complete and was finally published in 1814. The novel was about a woman’s struggle to support herself while hiding her identity.
Frances Burney’s best known work is the novel ‘Evelina or the History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World’ which revolves around the life of an unacknowledged, but legitimate daughter of a dissipated English aristocrat. A witty satire of a wealthy young girl’s life in 18th century England, the novel is described as a "landmark in the development of the novel of manners" by ‘Encyclopedia Britannica’.
Personal Life & Legacy
Frances Burney was courted by many men during her youth though none of the courtships led to marriage. During the French Revolution, she met a group of French exiles and fell in love with General Alexandre D'Arblay, a hero of the Revolution. The couple married on 28 July 1793 and had one son.
Her husband was offered service with the government of Napoleon Bonaparte in France in 1801 and the next year she joined him with their son. Even though they were meant to stay in France for just one year, their stay got extended due to the renewal of the Napoleonic Wars. The family returned to England in the mid 1810s.
Frances Burney outlived both her husband and her son, and died on 6 January 1840.