Today is the birthday of English novelist and diarist Frances (Fanny) Burney (books by this author) (1752). She was born in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, the daughter of a music historian. She didn’t learn to read and write until she was 10 years old, but once she did learn, she wasted no time in putting her skills to work writing plays, poems, and songs. Her mother died when she was 15, and her father remarried that same year; her stepmother didn’t think writing was a suitable hobby for young ladies, and Fanny burned all of her early work.
When she was 16, she began keeping a diary, a practice she maintained for more than 70 years. She was a keen observer of society and manners, and her journals recount visits by such luminaries as Dr. Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, David Garrick, and Sir Joshua Reynolds — all friends of her father. She also described the Battle of Waterloo, the madness of King George III, and her own mastectomy, performed without any anesthesia beyond a single glass of wine.
Her first published novel, Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (1778), was a comedy of manners, informed in large part by her own observations and experience as a young woman in society. She published it anonymously and disguised her handwriting, afraid that publishers would recognize her hand from her work as her father’s literary assistant. The novel was a great success, and she followed it with a second — Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress (1782) — which would inspire Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813). Burney succeeded in making novel-writing an acceptable enterprise for women, and she paved the way for many 19th-century social satires.
Burney went to the court of King George III and Queen Charlotte in 1786, and she served as “Second Keeper of the Robes” for five years. She was unhappy in her post, since she was too busy to write novels, though she kept up with her diaries. When she was released from service, she married French expatriate general Alexandre d’Arblay, and proceeds from her third novel, Camilla, or a Picture of Youth (1796), paid for a house for the newlyweds. In 1802, they took their young son to France for a brief stay that ended up lasting 10 years, due to a renewal of the Napoleonic Wars. She recorded it all in her diaries, and her account of the Battle of Waterloo may have provided Thackeray with material for Vanity Fair.
She wrote one more novel, The Wanderer (1814), and several plays, only one of which was staged in her lifetime. And near the end of her life, she dedicated herself to publishing her father’s memoirs and to organizing her sizable collection of diaries and personal papers. She died in 1840, at the age of 88.