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Burney [married name D'Arblay], Frances [Fanny]free

  • Pat Rogers

Frances Burney (1752–1840)

by Edward Francisco Burney, c. 1784–5

Burney [married name D'Arblay], Frances [Fanny] (1752–1840), writer, was born at King's Lynn, Norfolk, on 13 June 1752, and baptized in the chapel of St Nicholas on 7 July. She was the third child of Charles Burney (1726–1814), musician and author, and his wife, Esther Sleepe (1723–1762), musician, who may have been the daughter of Richard Sleepe, leader of the lord mayor's band, and his wife, Frances. The Sleepe family were of French origin and lived in the parish of St Mary-le-Bow. Charles and Esther were married in London on 25 July 1749. A daughter, Esther, was born in May 1749 prior to the marriage, and a son, James Burney (1750–1821), followed in June 1750. The family moved to King's Lynn where Charles Burney became organist of St Margaret's Church in the autumn of 1751. Later children who survived from this marriage were Susan, born in 1755 [see Phillips, Susanna]; Charles Burney (1757–1817); and Charlotte, born in 1761. It was a close-knit family and Frances Burney's siblings were to be important to her throughout her life.

Within the household Frances Burney was always known as Fanny, except when she acquired the nickname ‘the Old Lady’ about the age of eleven because of her grave demeanour. Small and slender, she had also to cope from childhood with short sight, which may have helped to make her shy in company as an adult. Surprisingly, she was, according to her father, 'wholly unnoticed in the nursery for any talent or quickness of parts'; educated at home, she did not know her letters at eight years old, and was teased by her brother James on this account (Memoirs of Dr Charles Burney, 141–2). However, her mother's example began to induce a taste for reading, and she claims to have learned partly by overhearing her sister Esther as she recited passages from Pope 'many years before I read them myself' (Hemlow, History of Fanny Burney, 8). By the time she was ten she had acquired her lifelong addiction to writing, and she composed a novel entitled 'The History of Caroline Evelyn', which is lost. The story was probably burnt on her fifteenth birthday, when in an attempt 'to combat this writing passion' she consigned to a bonfire her collected works up to this time, including 'Elegies, Odes, Plays, Songs, Stories, Farces—nay Tragedies and Epic Poems' (Memoirs, 2.124–5). It has been suggested that this was at the insistence of her father or her future stepmother.


Frances underwent two major childhood experiences in quick succession. The first was a move from King's Lynn back to London about October 1760, when her father took up a career as a music teacher. The family took up residence in Poland Street, a road leading southwards from Oxford Street into modern Soho. Her father soon acquired a number of pupils of rank and distinction; his personal acquaintances already included Samuel Johnson and David Garrick, who were to remain close family friends. Frances settled happily into life in the capital, which was her principal home for the next quarter of a century.

The second event was the death of her mother on 29 September 1762, after a lingering consumption which 'baffled all medical skill from the beginning' and had been only briefly alleviated by a visit to Bristol Hotwells (Memoirs, 1.143). The painful last hours of Esther Burney, attended by Dr William Hunter, made a huge impact on Frances, who clung to the memory of her mother ever afterwards. Her father and the other children were initially prostrated, and they rallied only with the help of friends such as Garrick and the cultivated bachelor Samuel Crisp, another lasting presence in the life of Frances. Crisp lived in an isolated and old-fashioned house at Chessington in Surrey, where the Burneys were frequent visitors. They called it 'Liberty Hall'. The strong family ties were temporarily broken in June 1764, as Charles Burney senior took two of his daughters, Esther and Susan, to be educated in Paris. Frances was left behind, allegedly because Susan's weak lungs would benefit more from a warmer climate, but also because there was felt to be a danger she might fall under the influence of some 'zealot' who would convert her to Catholicism (she was close to her maternal grandmother who was Roman Catholic). At home Frances appeared to have taught herself French and was able to undertake a version of Bernard le Bovier Fontenelle's Entretien sur la pluralité des mondes, 'murdered into English by Frances Burney' (MS in Berg, New York Public Library; Hemlow, History of Fanny Burney, 16).

On 2 October 1767 Charles Burney married Elizabeth Allen (1728–1796), formerly a celebrated beauty of King's Lynn, who had been married to Stephen Allen (1724–1763), a prosperous merchant; the youngest of the Allens' three children was the future novelist Elizabeth Meeke. The Allens were among the closest friends of the Burneys during their time in Norfolk. After Elizabeth lost her husband in 1763 she was ardently courted in the following years by Charles. Strangely, the new Mrs Burney kept her home in King's Lynn for at least two more years, together with her two daughters and one son. There were regular visits by each side of the family to the other, and the two sets of children got on well: the teenage Maria Allen was especially fond of Frances, who was her junior by one year. It is about this time that Frances Burney's first extant diary begins (the opening entry is dated 27 March 1768). As a teenager Frances habitually sent letter-journals to Crisp, and to Susan who would sew them into notebooks. In these Frances experimented with different literary styles. It also emerges from the diaries that the Burney children gradually became estranged from their stepmother, whom they regarded as moodily neurotic and insecure. This was despite the fact that the family welcomed the arrival of a baby son Richard, born to Elizabeth and Charles in King's Lynn in November 1768.

The year 1770 brought a series of significant events in the household. In September the eldest sister, Esther, married her cousin Charles Rousseau Burney (1747–1819), a harpsichordist and like his uncle a music teacher. Indeed it was he who took over the pupils when Frances's father (by now the recipient of a DMus degree from Oxford) left on the first of his celebrated musical tours. In the meantime Elizabeth Burney had bought a new family house: it stood on the south side of Queen Square, Bloomsbury, an impressive early Georgian development which was still open to the north and commanded an uninterrupted view of Hampstead and Highgate. On reaching her new home in November, Frances found it 'a charming House' with 'a delightful Prospect' (Early Journals, 1.141). One factor behind the move was the desire to unite the Burney and Allen families: Elizabeth was finally able to give up her home in King's Lynn and brought her children to the larger residence in Queen Square.

The next few years were comparatively uneventful. Frances enjoyed the success which greeted the account of Dr Burney's tour when her father published The Present State of Music in France and Italy (1771). In the same year she welcomed back her brother James, a midshipman, from a voyage to the Far East, and in July 1772 she felt a glow of pride when he embarked on the Resolution, commanded by James Cook. This was the start of Cook's second expedition; James was shortly promoted second lieutenant of the sister ship Adventure, on which he returned safely in 1774. He had befriended the Tahitian Omai, who was brought back to England as a living specimen of the noble savage. Omai was lionized at a variety of social gatherings; and Frances was pleased to see her brother mixing in such company, when he was marked out as speaking 'more Otaheite than any of the ship's Crew' (Early Journals, 2.41). Frances remained shy in company, but she inevitably came into contact with a wider world as her father's reputation grew. His second tour, undertaken between July and November 1772, resulted in the publication in the following year of a second narrative, which was again well received. Frances had acted as his amanuensis on this project, and was now busily involved with the full-scale history of music which Dr Burney planned. The main domestic episode was the birth in August 1772 of a stepsister for Frances, Sarah Harriet Burney (1772–1844), who subsequently also gained fame for her novels. As an infant she seemed to Frances 'one of the most innocent, artless, queer little things you ever saw' (ibid., 1.163).

Family and social life

The Burneys moved again in October 1774, and once more Elizabeth Burney seems to have handled the arrangements while her husband and stepdaughter rusticated at Crisp's home in Surrey. This time they were to occupy a house of historic interest, built in the 1690s for Sir Isaac Newton, and standing on the east side of St Martin's Street, near Leicester Square. At the attic level, above the three main storeys, could be found Newton's observatory, which was shown to all visitors, as Frances put it, 'as our principal Lyon' (Early Journals, 2.52). She shared a bedroom on the second floor with her sister Susan; on the first floor was a small study used by Newton, which Dr Burney took over for his literary work, together with the large library, where the family entertained and held musical parties. Among the visitors was Omai, still a glamorous society figure when he came to St Martin's Street in December 1774; Frances was impressed by the Tahitian's civility when she sat next to him at dinner. Soon afterwards Frances went to the house of Sir Joshua Reynolds, who lived barely 50 yards from the Burneys in Leicester Fields, and admired the 'ease and elegance' of his paintings. She often heard performances by eminent musicians, as when the young keyboard virtuoso Muzio Clementi demonstrated a new compound harpsichord. He was 'a very good player', Frances observed, 'Indeed, Mr [Charles Rousseau] Burney excepted, I do not recollect ever hearing a better' (ibid., 2.67–8). The young woman's growing acquaintance with an array of distinguished men and women did not lead her to underrate the talents of her own family.

For Frances, the most significant new contact came when her father was introduced to the brewer Henry Thrale at a dinner given by Joshua Reynolds in 1776. By the end of the year Dr Burney had met the memoirist Hester Thrale (later Piozzi), visited the couple's home at Streatham, and begun to give weekly music lessons there to their eldest daughter Queeney. Frances became a habituée of this circle after the Thrales attended a morning party at St Martin's Street in March 1777; another guest on this occasion was Samuel Johnson, who now began to figure more largely in the life of the Burney family. Frances and the elderly man of letters soon became attached to one another, while she was impressed by the polished and self-confident Hester Thrale. For her part, Hester considered the Burneys 'a very low Race of Mortals' (Hemlow, History of Fanny Burney, 109), but she gradually took to Frances and for the next few years the two women retained an outwardly warm friendship.

Domestically, a quiet period followed the move to St Martin's Street. Frances resisted without much difficulty the attentions of a young man named Thomas Barlow, who fell in love with her in May 1775, although she thought it worth consulting ‘Daddy’ Crisp. Her suitor was stiff and inept in company, even if inoffensive otherwise, and he was quickly rejected. Relations with her stepmother remained a source of strain for Frances, and within the household there were other troubles, something which always caused the family to close ranks and devise stratagems for secrecy. Both Elizabeth Burney's daughters by her first marriage had eloped to the continent: the elder, Maria, had married her lover, Martin Rishton, in 1772, while the younger, Bessy, ran off with an adventurer named Samuel Meeke before marrying him in Belgium in October 1777. Initially Frances found Maria's escapades 'romantic', but she came to regard Bessy's conduct as shameless and shocking, and she played her part in editing out these events from family history in later life. It was also in October 1777 that a more extensive cover-up was required in the case of Charles junior, who had transferred from Charterhouse to Cambridge. Not long after taking up his place at Caius College, Frances's brother was caught stealing books from the university library and sent down by the authorities. He may have been actuated by 'a MAD RAGE for possessing a library' (Journals, 10.795), as Frances told the offender's son forty years later (the Burney machine had operated so efficiently that this son only learned what had happened when his father died in 1817). In later years Charles did indeed amass a splendid collection of books and newspapers, much of it preserved in the British Library. However, it seems likely that young Charles had quickly run up debts in Cambridge by gambling and high living, with the result that he sold the stolen items to London booksellers to recoup money. Elaborate schemes were put in place to hush up the matter, as well as to find an alternative route for Charles now that his intended career in the church was blocked. Frances tried to give him good advice, which he good-humouredly accepted, but she destroyed all references to the episode in her journals.


In the light of this, it is not surprising that the novel Evelina which made 'Miss Burney' into a celebrated name emerged in circumstances of extreme secrecy. Virtually nobody outside the most intimate members of her family knew that she was engaged in any form of serious writing. It is not certain exactly when Frances embarked on her first mature work of fiction. Evelina was composed partly of 'disjointed scraps and fragments' she had assembled in 1772, as a sequel to 'The History of Caroline Evelyn'. Most of the writing was probably carried out in 1776, when a number of family absences gave her unaccustomed leisure. Moreover, her extensive unpaid labour on behalf of her father could ease up, since the first volume of Dr Burney's History of Music had been completed at the end of 1775 and published on 31 January 1776. At last Frances had a respite from her usual tasks, finding herself 'at large and at liberty!' through most of the summer (Early Journals, 2.208). Probably she never again enjoyed quite such a freedom from distractions to pursue her writing career. Further progress was made on the later sections of the novel during a long visit to Samuel Crisp at Chessington early in 1777. Substantial revision was carried out on the early drafts, and a fair copy made in a disguised hand, to prolong the mystification. Even the approach to a publisher was made in a preposterously clandestine manner, using a non-existent ‘Mr King’ as intermediary. After an unsuccessful application to James Dodsley, Frances and her young confidants (who included her siblings and her cousin Edward Francesco Burney (1760–1848), later the well-known artist and illustrator) decided to approach the Fleet Street bookseller Thomas Lowndes. About Christmas 1776 her brother Charles carried the first instalments of the novel to Lowndes 'in the dark of the evening', muffled up in an old greatcoat and hat, 'to give him a somewhat antique as well as vulgar disguise' (Memoirs, 2.129). On 11 November 1777 Lowndes agreed to publish the work and offered 20 guineas, duly accepted by Frances. Evelina, or, A Young Lady's Entrance into the World made its appearance about 29 January 1778. Since Frances had served as her father's amanuensis she may have feared that her writing would be recognized. Certainly her father had no idea of the book's authorship when it appeared, despite hints from his daughter that she had a literary work in hand; and her anonymity survived much longer in the wider world, as unlikely guesses were made as to the identity of the author.

The book soon achieved considerable popularity and received favourable notices in the London Review and Monthly Review. Its fame naturally spread in the circles frequented by Dr Burney and his children; by the middle of summer the novel had reached the attention of Reynolds, Edmund Burke, and even Johnson, as Frances's father learned when visiting the Thrales at Streatham. He had only recently been let into the secret of the book's authorship by Susan, and he passed the evidently astonishing news to his wife. Further information came from Hester Thrale, to the effect that Johnson was full of praise after borrowing a copy of Evelina; the great critic later asserted that the book contained effects beyond the reach of either Henry Fielding or Samuel Richardson. Mrs Thrale also reported that Reynolds 'had been fed while reading the little work, from refusing to quit it at table! and that Edmund Burke had sat up a whole night to finish it!!!' (Memoirs, 2.148). The identity of the author was eventually exposed in a satire by George Huddesford (published late in the year), when 'dear little Burney' was named as the writer, much to her distress. For many months the novel remained a favourite talking point in society, as further editions appeared, the second on 26 October 1778 and two more by the end of 1779, bringing the combined print run to well over 2000 copies. Booksellers in London and the fashionable spas were unable to keep up with the demand.

Even those who professed themselves unwilling to read fiction in general found in Evelina social truth, along with humour, entertainment, realistic characterization, and an expressive style. The novel was cast in the form of letters, allowing extensive treatment of the leading public resorts and places of amusement in London and Bristol—familiar locations which must have helped the book become so popular. The plot enacted the archetypal Cinderella-like story of a pseudo-orphan who was ultimately revealed as an heiress. There was pathos along with broad humour at the expense of vulgar nouveaux riches. Hester Thrale noted most of these features, as well as 'an infinite deal of fun in it', and when she discovered that Frances was the author demanded that her father should bring her on a visit (Hemlow, History of Fanny Burney, 105). Late in July 1778 the blushing author was duly presented at Streatham, on what she described with no intention of hyperbole as 'the most Consequential Day I have spent since my Birth' (Early Journals, 3.66). By the end of the year Mrs Thrale had begun to correspond regularly with Frances, having overcome her snobbish dislike of what she now called 'the Burneian system'. Thus, by means of Evelina, Frances achieved widespread celebrity as a writer, especially among the upper echelons of society. She also gained entrée personally to the leading intellectual circles of the day, which included the bluestocking group headed by women such as Elizabeth Montagu and Hannah More, as well as the illustrious figures who surrounded Johnson in the Literary Club.

During the next few years Frances spent many hours in this distinguished company. The pages of her diary which relate these meetings have long been classics, on account of the intrinsic historic interest of the material as well as the skill with which it is deployed in the journal. Quite often the narrative can be checked against parallel reports of the same events, by Hester Thrale, James Boswell, Hannah More, and others; the recital by Frances loses nothing by comparison, in terms of accuracy or of vigour in presentation. She often shows Johnson in a more intimate vein at Streatham than his usual appearance in the pages of Boswell. (Frances met the biographer in this period, but never overcame a dislike of his pushy ways.) A characteristic set piece from about 1778 describes the occasion when Dr Burney invited a mixed gathering to St Martin's Street, including Johnson and the Thrales. A musical entertainment was provided by the Italian singer Gabriel Piozzi; in her account Frances brilliantly evokes the scene as Mrs Thrale mocked the man who was to be her future husband behind his back (this was the basis of 'Dr Burney's Evening Party', a famous essay by Virginia Woolf). By this time Frances had another rival in the person of her sister Susan, who wrote an almost equally vivid description of an episode in 1780 when Johnson and the Thrales visited Crisp and Frances at Chessington.

Other literary projects were now under way. Frances was told by several people, including Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Reynolds, and Arthur Murphy, that the powers of writing dialogue she had displayed in her novel ought to be put to dramatic use. Johnson even made the joking suggestion that she should produce a work entitled 'Streatham: a Farce', and it was Hester Thrale who was most persistent in urging Frances to write a comedy. Accordingly about August 1778 she began a play entitled The Witlings, satirizing the literary world and especially the précieuses ridicules who were to be found on the fringes of the bluestocking group. By the following May this work was completed. However, the timid Dr Burney feared that one of the leading characters, Lady Smatter, would be identified with Mrs Montagu (others have detected certain lineaments of Elizabeth Burney). Together with the equally old-maidish views of Samuel Crisp, her father's discouragement was enough to deter Frances. Writing from Chessington on 29 August 1779 he recommended that she turn her attention to some other branch of writing, so as to avoid the dangers of stage productions; his views were seconded by Crisp in a letter to his 'dear Fannikin'. Soon afterwards, in response to the arguments of her true father and her beloved ‘Daddy’, Frances abandoned her plan, and wished a sad farewell to 'the poor Witlings—for ever, and for ever, and for ever' (Early Journals, 3.345). Most modern commentators believe that The Witlings would have been able to succeed on the stage, especially if Sheridan had been given the opportunity to present it at Drury Lane.

Some time in 1780 Frances began serious work on her second novel, this time with the active encouragement of Samuel Crisp. By early 1781 she had completed a draft of the first volume of Cecilia, a much longer work than Evelina. Progress was more than once delayed by illness, and the writing caused Frances more anxiety than before: revision and copying went on after the first part had been set in type. Cecilia, or, Memoirs of an Heiress was published in five volumes on 12 June 1782 in an edition of 2000 copies, which quickly sold out. The publishers, Thomas Payne and Thomas Cadell, had paid her £250 for the rights; even though this contract may have been negotiated by Johnson, it was a favourable one for the booksellers, since the first edition enjoyed a quick sale. Cecilia was highly popular in circulating libraries, whose readers seemed to relish its broad canvas, and its often unflattering picture of life in high society. The book contained passages of drama—even melodrama—as well as pathos and humour, but it was Cecilia's guardians, the snobbish Mr Delville and his proud wife, who brought a note of moral ambiguity and who excited the most interest and admiration.

One of the early devotees of the novel was Edmund Burke, whom Frances met for the first time at a dinner party given by Reynolds about the same time as Cecilia came out. Other guests included Edward Gibbon, who made a much less pleasing impression on Frances. Burke complimented the author on her writing, and declared that this was now 'the age for women'. For Johnson, the 'grand merit' of Cecilia lay 'in the general Power of the whole' (Hemlow, History of Fanny Burney, 151). Throughout the process of composition Hester Thrale had been a strong supporter, and the two women remained on friendly terms despite the death of Henry Thrale in 1781, which led to the dissolution of the old Streatham set. At home, Frances had greeted her brother James back from his service on Cook's last, fatal voyage; she then welcomed another hero of this expedition into the family, in the person of Molesworth Phillips (1755–1832), a lieutenant in the marines, who married Susan Burney on 10 January 1782. Frances was with her sister for the birth of a daughter named in her honour during the following October.

The year 1782 also saw the publication of the second volume of Dr Burney's History of Music, which delighted Frances partly because she now had more of her father's company than she had enjoyed for a long time. In the early 1780s Frances was half-heartedly pursued by the clergyman George Cambridge but the relationship petered out. Her friendship with Hester Thrale also suffered. Hester Thrale's second marriage to Gabriel Piozzi drove a wedge between Frances and her old friend, as it estranged almost all the bluestockings and former members of the Streatham set. Frances made little secret of her distaste for the match, and when it took place in July 1784 the break was irrevocable. Hester thought that Frances had secretly abetted her daughter Queeney in scheming against Piozzi, and rightly judged that the socially insecure Burney clan were embarrassed by the prospect of a misalliance. The two women did not meet again until 1815, when Frances called on the widowed Mrs Piozzi in Bath; Hester claimed to have perfectly forgiven 'l'aimable traitresse', but it was too late to resume cordial relations. Equally upset by the marriage was Samuel Johnson, whose death in December 1784 removed one of Frances's most beloved and supportive friends. A year previously, Frances had gone down to Chessington to provide last offices for Samuel Crisp, who died on 26 April 1783.

Drudgery at court

In the middle of the 1780s, however, Frances seemed in a comfortable situation. The success of her novels had brought her renown and some modest financial success. Now enjoying the acquaintance of Elizabeth Montagu, she also became intimate with the writer and artist Mary Delany, who had known Jonathan Swift and other great figures from the early part of the century. Family affairs prospered. On 17 February 1784 Dr Burney was elected to Johnson's Literary Club, an honour he valued beyond any other for the rest of his life; Frances was equally proud of his elevation into the ranks of the nation's most distinguished intellectual figures. Four months later came the Handel commemoration, one of the major musical events of the century in England, and again Frances derived deep satisfaction from the prominent role which her father took in the proceedings.

Through her contacts with Mary Delany, a court favourite at Windsor, Frances was presented to the king and queen, and soon afterwards received an offer to serve as second keeper of the robes to Queen Charlotte. The salary of £200 per year, along with provision of a footman and a maid, was far from stingy, but Frances recoiled from the prospect: as she wrote to her sister Esther in June 1786, 'The separation from all my friends and connections is so cruel to me—the attendance, dress, confinement, are to be so unremitting' (Hemlow, History of Fanny Burney, 196). Her father, flattered by this mark of royal favour, urged her to accept. She may have agreed partly to escape from her increasingly strained relations with her stepmother. The home in St Martin's Street no longer served as a refuge of the nuclear family, especially after Charlotte married Clement Francis (c.1744–1792), an East India Company surgeon, in February 1786. Dr Burney was himself poised to move house, when he took up a post as organist at Chelsea Hospital. Other support systems had failed, with the dissolution of the Streatham circle and the loss of Crisp and Johnson in quick succession. Frances understood well enough the prison she would be entering at court, and she lamented the end of many dreams for her future. But she was an unmarried woman approaching her mid-thirties, and her choices were severely limited. Eventually on 17 July 1786 she set out for the Queen's Lodge at Windsor Castle, and by her own account almost staggered into her new apartments, pale and sick with apprehension. Even her father perceived her distress, in spite of his instinct to support what he saw as social advancement for the family.

The next five years contained little but refined servitude. Frances was compelled to work long hours, to attend her royal mistress through uneventful days and nights, and to live a life of dull routine, menial activity, and rigid protocol. Her journals chronicle this dismal succession of uneventful days at Windsor and Kew, in the company of a narrow circle of unexciting people. She had to defer to her immediate superior, Madame Elizabeth Schwellenberg, whom she found the 'exactest fellow' of her stepmother, 'gloomy, dark, suspicious, rude, reproachful' (Hemlow, History of Fanny Burney, 36). This uneventful tenor of living was finally shattered by the onset of the king's first serious attack of mental illness in 1788. The episode prompted some striking passages in the diary, exhibiting George III in a variety of comic and pathetic guises, including pursuing Frances around Kew Gardens, but it made Frances's duties even more stressful. After the king recovered in 1789, she was able to accompany the royal party on a trip to south-west England, but all too soon she had to return to Windsor, her heart sinking as she entered the apartments of Madame Schwellenberg. She wrote a number of tragic dramas while at Windsor, but by this time her health was giving way under the strain, and members of the Literary Club led by William Windham organized a conspiracy to allow her to escape from her captive role. As Boswell told Frances after intercepting her at Windsor, the matter had been 'puissantly discussed' at the club (Memoirs, 3.116). Pressure continued to be put on Dr Burney by a group including Burke and Reynolds, and eventually Frances was allowed to draft a petition to the queen, asking permission to resign her post on grounds of ill health. It took another six months before she was permitted to retire on half-pay, so that she could leave office on 7 July 1791.


Frances Burney's health now improved rapidly. After entering once more into the intellectual society she had missed so much, she embarked on a holiday to the south-west in the company of the bluestocking Anna Ord. On her return to London, where she took up residence with her father at Chelsea Hospital, she visited the Lock family at Mickleham in Surrey. Frances had known Frederica Lock (1750–1832) and her husband, William (1732–1810), for several years, but it was only now that she was able to keep regular contact with the couple, who lived opulently in a newly built mansion at Norbury Park. On the edge of the estate near the River Mole stood a cottage where Susan Phillips had been living since 1784: Susan enjoyed the society of the cultivated Locks, and even named her son (born in 1785) Norbury in their honour. It was Susan who reported to her sister in October 1792 the arrival of 'a little colony of unfortunate … French noblesse in our neighbourhood' (Hemlow, History of Fanny Burney, 226). This event transformed Frances's life.

The émigrés settled at Juniper Hall, across the valley from the Lock estate. A little later they were joined by Charles Maurice Talleyrand and the writer Germaine de Staël, but initially the party included the comte de Narbonne, at this time de Staël's lover, along with his friend Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard D'Arblay (1754–1818), a career soldier and former adjutant to the marquis de Lafayette. Frances was interested to learn of the doings of this émigré group, though she found them unexpectedly liberal in political outlook. As aristocrats they had naturally fallen foul of the Jacobins, but they were constitutional reformers rather than royalist ultras. By this date the Burney circle had been persuaded by Edmund Burke of the iniquities surrounding the French Revolution and Charles Burney had renounced his former whiggish and even radical views. As the terror progressed in Paris, the situation of the refugees became more exposed, and they drew more closely to their sympathetic neighbours, the Lock and Phillips families. Frances met the group for the first time in January 1793, at the time of the execution of Louis XVI, and she naturally found them in a confused and disheartened state. Even D'Arblay, with his fine figure and handsome face, had changed overnight into a black and mournful spectre. While the sly Talleyrand repelled Frances, she was at first favourably impressed by Mme de Staël, who had made warm overtures of friendship. She seemed to Frances 'one of the first women I have ever met with for abilities and extraordinary intellects' (Journals, 2.10). Before long, however, Frances became uncertain about establishing intimacy with someone who was not only a freethinker but also a free liver, noted for her promiscuity. Cautiously she retreated and distanced herself from de Staël, partly it may be to make a clear distinction between this extreme personage and the respectable d'Arblay, with whom she was now conducting a decorous romance.

D'Arblay visited Frances at Chelsea several times in the spring of 1793, and even Dr Burney was charmed by his appearance and manner, despite his comparatively advanced political opinions. Frances began the process of softening up her father, who was dismayed by the prospect that she might marry a penniless foreigner, as her pension of £100 represented almost the whole of the couple's joint income and could be withheld at any time. And he did not wish to lose his daughter, such was his habitual reliance on her. Mrs Burney stayed out of the matter. In the end resistance was worn down, but her father declined to attend the wedding. When this took place at St Michael's Church, Mickleham, on 28 July 1793, the entire party consisted of the couple, James (who gave the bride away), the Locks, and the Phillips. D'Arblay was Roman Catholic and two days later the ceremony was repeated in the Sardinian Chapel in Lincoln's Inn Fields, London (this was another feature which dismayed the elder Burneys). As has been pointed out by Joyce Hemlow, it took immense courage for a woman of forty-one, with few resources of her own, to defy prejudice and opposition in this way. The match proved extremely happy: Frances had previously encountered admirers who were unsuitable, like the hapless Thomas Barlow, or irresolute, like George Cambridge. Now she had found a mature man, who had experienced an adventurous past, and who possessed an outlook broader than that of the weak-kneed socialites who had courted Frances previously. Cultivated, widely travelled, and experienced, D'Arblay must have impressed her with his military prowess and his refined bearing.

The newly married couple settled at Phoenice, a farmhouse near Bookham to the west of Norbury Park. In November 1793 they moved into an adjoining property known as The Hermitage. The D'Arblays read and wrote together: Frances sewed while her husband gardened or studied English. A happy start to the marriage was confirmed when their son, Alexander Charles Louis Pichard, was born on 18 December 1794. After years of tending nieces and nephews, Frances had her own child for the rest of the family to admire. It brought the brothers and sisters closer together again, although Charlotte had been left a widow with three young children when her husband Clement died suddenly in 1792. Susan, too, although a close neighbour, was suffering hardship as her husband grew increasingly capricious and unpredictable.

In time Frances resumed her writing career. Edwy and Elgiva, one of the tragic dramas she had composed during her service at Windsor, was the first, and as it turned out the only one, of her plays to be performed in her lifetime. Based on the tenth-century conflict between a king of the west Saxons and the contentious abbot of Glastonbury, Dunstan, the play's mood is sometimes gloomy and Gothic, and sometimes sweetly plangent. It was her brother Charles who had taken the initiative in mounting the play at Drury Lane after consulting John Philip Kemble and Sheridan. It was performed only once, on 21 March 1795, and even an impressive cast headed by Kemble and his sister Sarah Siddons could not save the day as the audience gave vent to their disapproval. Frances herself asked for the play to be withdrawn. Few commentators have judged this hostile verdict unfair, although the tepid reception for this play owes most to a lingering distaste for verse tragedy in its full histrionic panoply.

Soon after this set-back, Frances achieved her most spectacular success in commercial terms. She began what she called her 'grand ouvrage', a new novel entitled Camilla, just before the birth of her son. Progress was surprisingly quick in view of the many distractions in her life: this time she had the assistance of her husband as amanuensis, in a reversal of previous Burney roles, and a fair copy survives in his hand, running to over 1300 pages. Even with substantial revision, the manuscript took little over a year to complete. Camilla, or, A Picture of Youth was published on 28 June 1796 by Payne (whose daughter Sarah was now married to James Burney), but on this occasion the Burneys had resolved to reap the profits for the family. An elaborate subscription campaign was mounted, with the help of leading figures in society including Frances Boscawen, Frances Crewe, and Frederica Lock. Three hundred subscribers at a guinea and a half for the three volumes included great national potentates and church dignitaries, with many multiple sets listed (fifteen for Burke, and ten for Elizabeth Montagu). The bluestockings were present in numbers, along with surviving members of the Johnson circle like Bennet Langton; even Hester Thrale, by now thoroughly removed from Frances, entered her name. Other women writers among the subscribers were Anne Radcliffe, Hannah More, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen, then an unknown twenty-year-old, who thus publicly announced her discipleship to Frances for the first time. Though the novel was greeted less warmly than its predecessors, the author was paid £1000 for the copyright and gained at least as much again from the subscription. The sale was even more rapid than it had been for Cecilia, with almost all the 4000 copies disposed of by November 1796. The work acquired further éclat from its dedication to the queen.

Students of the novel have discovered more autobiographical references in Camilla than in previous works. Among those who allegedly appear in the text are individuals from the Norbury Park group (especially Mrs Lock), visitors to St Martin's Street, and even (heavily disguised) members of the Burney family itself. One clear reference is to Mary Ann Port (1771–1830), a relative of Mary Delany who lived with the old lady until her death in 1788; Frances was a confidante who had learned of Mary Ann's unhappy affair with the dashing heir of Norbury, William Lock (1767–1847), later well known as an artist. The main story concerns the education of the heroine as she encounters a wide range of more or less plausible role models and love objects. While satire and comedy have not disappeared, Camilla as a whole is more overtly moralistic than the earlier books, and its language has acquired some of the latinate pomp which marks the author's later work. It has consequently never been her most popular novel, although recent critics have commended its rich portrayal of female difficulties in an age which also saw the appearance of books on this theme by writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays.

Home and abroad

The profits from this literary work enabled the D'Arblays to build their own house on a site that William Lock had set aside on his estate. They occupied Camilla Cottage, as it was called, in November 1797, and Frances must have looked forward to a period of quiet prosperity. Events were to dictate otherwise. The first blow came when Susan was carried off from Mickleham to Ireland by her undependable husband Molesworth Phillips, to the great distress of Frances. The marine resigned his commission, contracted debts all round, and pursued women; Susan's health began to suffer under this strain. Then, on 20 October 1796, Elizabeth Burney died after severe lung haemorrhage; Frances had never found her stepmother easy, but she pitied her father's grief as he was again widowed. The old man remained true to his colours when he refused permission for Charlotte to make a second marriage with Ralph Broome (1742–1805), a man of middle age who appeared from the Burney perspective to be wild and immature. The marriage ultimately took place in February 1798, but despite attempts by Frances to reach a settlement on money and other difficulties, Dr Burney refused the couple his blessing. It was the repetition of a pattern with which Frances was all too familiar.

As the century neared its close, problems continued to crowd in on the Burneys. The cruelty of Molesworth Phillips prompted the family to rescue Susan and bring her home, but Charles's journey to meet her was in vain: Susan's fragile health could not withstand the strain of travel, and she died on 6 January 1800, a few days after landing in England near Chester. To Frances Susan was the closest of her sisters, and she never forgave Phillips for his conduct; the shadow of this catastrophic turn of events haunted her for the rest of her life. The depth of this grief can be seen in the Memoirs of her father, published long afterwards. Another tumultuous development left no trace, however, and indeed its existence was censored so effectively that the truth became fully apparent only in recent years. In 1798 Frances was forced along with Dr Burney to accept a startling revelation: her brother James, who had left his wife, was now living with his half-sister Sarah. It has been suggested that the liaison was probably sexual, although it had to be conducted in squalid retirement. For the next few years Frances attempted to convince herself that her brother's behaviour was 'dark—dark!' but not, she hoped, 'black!' (Journals, 4.216). In 1807 Sarah eventually returned to Dr Burney's house, but by that time Frances was living abroad.

At the same time the affairs of Monsieur D'Arblay were giving almost equal concern. After the rise of Napoleon he had travelled to Holland with the aim of settling his affairs in France. In 1801 he returned to his native land and became deeply embroiled in efforts to retrieve his former property. At first Frances remained at home with little Alex, and she managed to get Covent Garden Theatre to accept a comedy entitled Love and Fashion, but again Dr Burney was unenthusiastic and the play was never put on. Another comedy, The Woman-Hater, was written about 1800–02; it may have been intended for Drury Lane, but it suffered the same fate as other plays by Frances, as it had to wait until recent years before reaching print. This is also true of A Busy Day, generally considered her most impressive achievement as a writer for the stage. This play too may have been composed about 1801, when Frances was waiting for news of D'Arblay on his Parisian quest.

Later years

In April 1802 the peace of Amiens enabled Frances to join her husband. When hostilities resumed a year later, the couple and their son were effectively trapped in France. D'Arblay was eventually awarded a small pension and took up a minor official post. The family spent the next ten years living in and around Paris. In September 1811 Frances had a cancer diagnosed in her right breast and underwent a painful mastectomy, performed by Dominique-Jean Larrey, military surgeon to Napoleon. In her correspondence she left a much consulted and graphic account of this operation, carried out with no anaesthetic. A year later she was allowed to return to England with Alexander, who was now seventeen, and soon to begin studies at Cambridge. In March 1814 she published her last novel, The Wanderer, or, Female Difficulties, which drew on her own experiences as well as those of family members in describing the adventures of a penniless spinster buffeted from pillar to post. The book was eagerly awaited, and Frances received £1500 for the first edition of 3000 copies, with further sums for subsequent editions. Unfortunately the sales did not exhaust even a second edition, and the work quickly fell into obscurity. Frances nursed her father in his last illness. Dr Burney died on 12 April 1814, a week before his eighty-eighth birthday, and Frances began to assemble the manuscripts she needed for a planned biography.

Frances returned to Paris after the fall of Napoleon in November 1814, when her husband regained his position in the army. D'Arblay took an active military role during Peel's 'hundred days', and Frances rejoined him in Brussels in time to witness events leading up to Waterloo (it is likely that William Makepeace Thackeray made some use of her journal entries in Vanity Fair). Her husband received an injury during the campaign which forced him to retire from the army. In October 1815 the couple returned to England for good, apart from occasional visits to France by M. D'Arblay, who had been promoted to general but was denied his half-pay. They settled in Bath. Frances grew increasingly frustrated by her son's failure to advance his career at Cambridge, although his dissipations took no stronger form than an obsession with mathematics and chess, activities in which he was joined by the computer pioneer Charles Babbage and the astronomer John Herschel.

The next few months were distressing. In October 1817 Frances joined her son for a reading party at Ilfracombe; caught on the rocks by the tide, she spent several hours alone and almost drowned. On 28 December 1817 her brother Charles succumbed to a stroke, and then on 3 May 1818 her husband died after a long and painful illness which may have been cancer of the colon. Grief-stricken at first, Frances slowly gained strength with the support of her sisters, and showing true Burney resilience she moved back to London and managed to survive further afflictions. These included the loss of her brother-in-law Charles Rousseau in 1819, followed by the sudden death of James, who had ended up as an admiral, in November 1821. Frances was deeply disappointed by the continued irresolution of her son Alex, even after strings had been pulled to gain him ordination and a curacy at Camden Town. Much of her time was devoted to assembling the Memoirs of her father, ultimately published in three volumes in 1832. Although the project involved much tactical rewriting of history, and constitutes in some measure an apologia for the author's own conduct, it remains an absorbing compilation of first-hand recollections. Not all the relatives were pleased by this act of family piety; Frances had to face complaints from her long-lived half-brother, the Revd Stephen Allen, that she had been unfair to the second Mrs Burney.

The last years followed a familiar downward curve, even though Frances retained her faculties to an advanced age. She naturally had to face bereavements, notably when the death of Esther occurred on 17 February 1832, quickly followed by that of her devout and multi-talented niece Marianne Francis. Last came that of Charlotte on 12 September 1838. These events brought to an end a lifelong history of shared intimacies, but they were easier for Frances to bear than the loss of her son Alex, whose enigmatic and unfulfilled career, marked by bouts of ill health and depression, was cut short by a sudden fever on 19 January 1837. Frances herself died in London at her home, 29 Lower Grosvenor Street, on 6 January 1840. She was buried alongside her son at St Swithin's, Walcot, Bath, on 15 January. Among the older generation of Burneys, only Sarah outlasted her half-sister, living for another four years. Frances bequeathed Sarah, with whom she had a complicated but close relationship, £200 per year. Her niece Fanny Phillips (later Raper) survived until 1850, and true to the Burney tradition she left extensive manuscripts including a short character sketch of her aunt, written after the latter's death, stressing her warm heart and generous nature.

Frances Burney became better known to the world in stages as successive portions of her journals were published after her death. The first instalment, brought out by her niece Charlotte Barrett in 1842–6, elicited a famous essay by Thomas Macaulay in the Edinburgh Review. For the next century she lived in the eyes of posterity mainly through these vivid portrayals of the life of late Georgian England and post-revolutionary France. In the first half of the twentieth century Virginia Woolf resuscitated Burney's reputation as a novelist by calling her the mother of English fiction. Burney was identified as one of the first successful female novelists and recent decades have witnessed growing esteem for her contribution to the development of the novel, especially in the creation of a genre in which women were portrayed in realistic social settings, which significantly influenced Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen. While Evelina remains Burney's most widely read work of fiction much more attention has been paid to the later works, especially to The Wanderer with its darker mood and bitter insights into the experience of women, particularly the heroine struggling to attain independence and identity. Her plays have been lifted out of obscurity. A scholarly edition of A Busy Day appeared in 1984, and a successful performance was mounted in 1993 above a pub in Bristol. It moved to the Old Vic in Bristol and then to London's West End. The Witlings has also been recently published, performed, and greeted as a considerable addition to the repertoire of eighteenth-century comedy. Joyce Hemlow's The History of Fanny Burney (1958) was the major biography for forty years. The 1980s and 1990s saw increased interest in Burney particularly as part of feminist scholarship, and two significant biographies have been published by Kate Chisholm and Claire Harman. The journals have been re-edited to illuminate previously suppressed aspects of the Burneys' story. As a writer and a human being, Frances was deeply conditioned by her place in a complex family plot, and it is now easier to appreciate the intricate means by which these materials were used to nurture her own art.

A memorial window to Frances at Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey was unveiled by her great-great-great-great-nephew Charles Burney at a service on 13 June 2002.


  • The journals and letters of Fanny Burney (Madame D'Arblay), ed. J. Hemlow and others, 12 vols. (1972–84)
  • The early journals and letters of Fanny Burney, ed. L. E. Troide, 3 vols. (1988–94)
  • F. Burney, Memoirs of Dr Burney: arranged from his own manuscripts, from family papers, and from personal recollections, 3 vols. (1832)
  • J. Hemlow, The history of Fanny Burney (1958)
  • Diary and letters of Madame D'Arblay, ed. [C. Barrett], 7 vols. (1842–6)
  • J. Hemlow, J. M. Burgess, and A. Douglas, eds., A catalogue of the Burney family correspondence (1971)
  • Memoirs of Dr Charles Burney, 1726–1769, ed. S. Klima, G. Bowers, and K. S. Grant (1988)
  • The complete plays of Frances Burney, ed. P. Sabor, 2 vols. (1995)
  • M. Doody, Frances Burney: the life in the works (1988)
  • C. Hill, The house in St Martin's Street (1907)
  • The letters of Dr Charles Burney, ed. A. Ribeiro, 1 (1991)
  • R. Lonsdale, Dr Charles Burney: a literary biography (1965)
  • P. Scholes, The great Dr Burney, 2 vols. (1948)
  • Thraliana: the diary of Mrs. Hester Lynch Thrale (later Mrs. Piozzi), 1776–1809, ed. K. C. Balderston, 2nd edn, 2 vols. (1951)
  • J. L. Clifford, Hester Lynch Piozzi (Mrs Turale), 2nd edn. (1961)
  • The Piozzi letters, ed. E. A. Bloom and L. D. Bloom, 5 vols. to date (1989–)
  • The letters of Sarah Harriet Burney, ed. L. Clark (1997)
  • C. Harman, Fanny Burney: a biography (2000)


  • BL, corresp. and family papers, Egerton MSS 3690–3708
  • BL, corresp. and literary MSS, M/440, 445, 460, 462, 484, 490–1600 [microfilm copies]
  • JRL, travel journals and papers
  • Morgan L., corresp. and papers
  • priv. coll.
  • Yale U., Beinecke L., corresp. and papers; part of a diary
  • Armagh Public Library, Susan Burney papers
  • Bodl. Oxf., Malone MSS
  • JRL, Thrale MSS, letters to Hester Piozzi
  • NYPL, Berg collection, diary


  • E. F. Burney, portrait, 1782–1785, Parham Park, West Sussex
  • J. Bogle, portrait, 1783, priv. coll.
  • E. F. Burney, oils, 1784–1785, NPG [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

see will, 6 March 1839, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1922, sig. 88