Title: Fanny Burney: Her Life
Author: Kate Chisholm
Kate Chisholm decided, in this biography, to eschew the formalities of calling the subject Frances Burney or Madame D’Arblay, her title after she married an aristocratic French emigre, and instead used the name that she was called by her family, Fanny. I liked this approach, one where the reader is allowed to feel a certain closeness to the subject. While reading this biography, I felt as if I could really get to know Fanny, the novelist whose line in Cecilia likely inspired Jane Austen to change the title of First Impressions to Pride and Prejudice.
Fanny Burney lived a remarkable life beyond her work as a novelist. Through the connections of her music historian father, she became acquainted with a who’s who of 18th-century society, including David Garrick, Samuel Johnson, and Hester Thrale. For several unhappy and unproductive years, she was the second keeper of the robes to Queen Charlotte and witnessed King George III’s struggles with mental illness. She went through the horror of having a mastectomy without anesthesia. She was in Brussels during the Battle of Waterloo, and Thackeray drew upon her account of it in her diaries when he was writing Vanity Fair.
Chisholm describes Fanny as a shy child, one who at times seemed slow to learn, but whose powers of observation and intelligence are apparent in her diaries. She began by writing to “Nobody” and eventually progressed to novels. Worried about her step-mother’s reaction to her writing, she burned her early efforts, including one manuscript, but could not stop herself from writing another. She maintained a sense of secrecy about her writing and asked relatives to pick up letters on her behalf from potential publishers.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t savvy regarding business matters and sold the copyright of her first, wildly popular novel for less than it was worth. When she finally told her father about the novel, he used her fame to leverage his position in society, introducing her to influential people who wanted to meet the writer of Evelina. However, he set a boundary to what Fanny could write about, convincing her to scrap a play that satirized Bluestockings because he was worried about offending important people.
Although in some ways she could be persuaded by her father, she defied his wishes by marrying a French emigre named Alexandre D’Arblay. That she had finally found, at the age of 41, the man who so completely complemented her, who in all aspects seemed to be her match, was fascinating to read about. They seemed to possess a unique understanding of each other, and Fanny went so far as to ask that he be kept at work and not be told her mastectomy was taking place until the operation was over and she was out of danger. That she deeply cared for him is apparent, and the reader can only wish that they had met sooner and had spent more time together.
I really enjoyed this biography, which also gave criticism of Fanny’s works and their continued importance in modern literary scholarship. Although she is not as famous today as other writers of her time, such as Jane Austen, Fanny’s novels present a clear picture of what it was like to be a young woman during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. She knew what etiquette and manners had to be displayed in society, and could describe with equal ease walking through Vauxhall Gardens, meeting a domino at a masquerade party, or facing the dilemma of marrying for love or money while hoping for both.