In 1918, Virginia Woolf described our next historical literary pioneer as the Mother of English Fiction.
For fear of bringing disgrace to her family her early works were written in secret and she was reluctant to reveal her identity. Yet, her satirical novels and plays about eighteenth-century society were thought to be the literary precursor to prominent authors who came after her, including Jane Austen and William Makepeace Thackeray.
13 June, 1752 – 6 January, 1840
Frances Burney was born in King’s Lynn, England.
She was also known as Fanny Burney and after marriage as Madame d’Arblay. Her father was the musical historian Dr. Charles Burney and her mother was Mrs. Esther Sleepe Burney.
Frances Burney was a novelist, diarist, and playwright. In total, she wrote four novels, eight plays, one biography, and twenty volumes of journals and letters.
The third of six children, she was self-educated, and began writing what she called her “scribblings” at the age of ten.
In 1778, at the age of 26, she published her first novel Evelina anonymously. When its authorship was revealed, it brought her almost immediate fame, due to its unique narrative and comic strengths. She followed with Cecilia in 1782, Camilla in 1796, and The Wanderer in 1814.
All of Burney’s novels explore the lives of English aristocrats, and satirize their social pretensions and personal foibles, with an eye to larger questions such as the politics of female identity.
Frances Burney’s early career was deeply affected by her relationship with her father, and by the critical attentions of their family friend Samuel Crisp. Both men encouraged her writing, but also employed their influence in a critical fashion, dissuading her from publishing or performing her dramatic comedies because they felt that to work in the genre was inappropriate for a lady.
With one exception, Burney never succeeded in having her plays performed, largely due to objections from her father. The exception was Edwy and Elgiva, which unfortunately was not well received by the public and closed after the first night’s performance.
Many feminist critics view her as an author whose natural talent for satire was stifled by the social pressures exerted on female authors of the age. In spite of setbacks however, Burney persisted in writing. When her comedies received criticism, she returned to novel writing, and later tried her hand at tragedies. She supported both herself and her family with the proceeds of her later novels Camilla and The Wanderer.
While some early historians derided the “feminine sensibility” of her writing, her fiction is now widely acknowledged for its critical wit and for its deliberate exploration of the lives of women.
She married in 1793 at forty-two, to a French exile, General Alexandre D’Arblay. Their only son, Alexander, was born in 1794. After a lengthy writing career, and travels that took her to France for over ten years, she settled in Bath, England, where she died on 6 January 1840.
Although her novels were hugely popular during her lifetime, following her death Burney’s reputation as a writer suffered at the hands of biographers and critics who felt that the extensive diaries, published posthumously in 1841, offered a more interesting and accurate portrait of eighteenth century life. Today, however, critics are returning to her novels and plays with a renewed interest in her perspective on the social lives and struggles of women in a predominantly male-oriented culture. Scholars continue to value Burney’s diaries as well, for their candid depictions of eighteenth-century English society.
Throughout her career as a writer, her wit and talent for satirical caricatures were widely acknowledged: literary figures such as Dr. Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Hester Thrale, and David Garrick were among her admirers. Her early novels were read and enjoyed by Jane Austen, whose own title Pride and Prejudice derives from the final pages of Cecilia. William Makepeace Thackeray is reported to have drawn on the first person account of the Battle of Waterloo, recorded in her diaries, while writing Vanity Fair.
Moving now to the art of photography and the life of an inspirational British photographer (and shrewd businesswoman) who was given her first camera at the age of 48 as a present. Cameron whose work was strongly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite painters – Millais, Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Watts is recognised today as being decades ahead of her time.
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