The Birth of Fanny Burney

Richard Cavendish charts the life of the novelist, diarist and playwright Frances Burney who was born on June 13th, 1752.

One of the sharpest observers of her time, which stretched from Dr Johnson’s day to that of Dickens, was born in lodgings in Chapel Street in the Norfolk town of Kings Lynn, the third of six children of Charles Burney and his wife Esther. Christened Frances, she was known as Fanny or Fannikin in the family.

Charles Burney had retreated to Lynn for his health the year before, in his mid-twenties, after his promising career as a musician in London had been cut short by illness. He took a post as organist at a Lynn church, St Margaret’s, and bitterly lamented his exile from the capital to this provincial backwater and a congregation of musical ignoramuses, until he was taken up by the Walpoles of nearby Houghton Hall, which made him feel much better. He came from a humble background and needed all the influence he could get.

The family soon moved into a grander house in the High Street. The Burney children were a high-spirited, talented lot who developed a code-language of their own, mysterious to outsiders. Someone would always be practising the harpsichord or the violin and there was much reading aloud, dressing-up and play-acting. Fanny seemed to be the stupid one. Short-sighted and shy, she spoke little and blushed readily. Years later her father recalled that she ‘was wholly unnoticed in the nursery for any talents or quickness of study: indeed at eight years old she did not know her letters.’

Esther Burney read Shakespeare, Pope and Dryden to the children and Fanny could reel off chunks of them from memory. She was specially close to her next sister, Susan, born in 1755. Susan learned to read first, but Fanny, as she later told a friend, though ‘sluggish to learn’, was ‘always observant’. She was in fact a late developer and though she never went to school, once she did learn her letters she educated herself effectively at home from books. She taught herself French and Italian and she started on a lifetime’s compulsive writing, pouring out a flood of juvenile poems, songs, plays and stories.

The family had meanwhile moved back to London in 1760. Charles made a living by teaching and writing books on music. Fanny’s mother died in 1762 and five years later her father remarried a widow from King’s Lynn named Elizabeth Allen with two daughters and a son of her own. Two more children followed.

At fifteen, Fanny was still exceedingly bashful, but in private she was an excellent mimic and a gifted observer of people’s foibles. At this point in her life she made a giant bonfire in the yard of every thing she had ever written, including a novel called The History of Caroline Evelyn while the protesting Susan stood by in tears.

The urge to write was overwhelming, however, and in March 1768 Fanny began to keep a diary. She would keep it for more than seventy years. It was addressed to ‘Miss Nobody’, to whom she would reveal ‘every thought, every wish of my Heart’. She wrote long journal-style letters to Susan and to Samuel ‘Daddy’ Crisp, an elderly, cultivated bachelor friend of her father’s who loved Fannikin and encouraged her. Fanny sharpened her pen on portraits of the famous and remarkable characters who attended concerts at the family’s house in St Martin’s Street, from Omai, the South Seas chieftain, to Prince Orlov, the rumoured assassin of Tsar Peter III. They included Garrick, Sheridan, Burke and Dr Johnson, who took a great liking to Fanny and all the Burneys.

Meanwhile, Fanny was scribbling notes about her fictitious heroine Caroline Evelyn’s daughter. In 1778, when she was twenty-five, they coalesced in Fanny’s sensationally successful first novel, Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance Into the World. Fanny later wrote more novels and spent five uneasy years at George III’s court as second keeper of the robes. In 1793 she married a French military officer, Alexandre d’Arblay. They had a son, Alex, and she spent ten years reluctantly in the Paris of Napoleon. She was widowed in 1818 and Alex died in 1837. Fanny herself died in London in 1840 at the age of eighty-seven, leaving a legacy of witty, sharp-eyed journals and correspondence.