Frances d'Arblay - Encyclopedia

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FRANCES D'ARBLAY (1752-184c), English novelist and diarist, better known as Fanny Burney, daughter of Dr Charles Burney, was born at King's Lynn, Norfolk, on the 13th of June 1752. Her mother was Esther Sleepe, granddaughter of a French refugee named Dubois. Fanny was the fourth child in a family of six. Of her brothers, James (1750-1821) became an admiral and sailed with Captain Cook on his second and third voyages, and Charles Burney (1757-1817) was a well-known classical scholar. In 1760 the family removed to London, and Dr Burney, who was now a fashionable music master, took a house in Poland Street. Mrs Burney died in 1761, when Fanny was only nine years old. Her sisters Esther (Hetty), afterwards Mrs Charles Rousseau Burney, and Susanna, afterwards Mrs Phillips, were sent to school in Paris, but Fanny was left to educate herself. Early in 1766 she paid her first visit to Dr Burney's friend Samuel Crisp at Chessington Hall, near Epsom. Dr Burney had first made Samuel Crisp's acquaintance about 1 745 at the house of Fulke Greville, grandfather of the diarists, and the two studied music while the rest of the guests hunted. Crisp wrote a play, Virginia, which was staged by David Garrick in 1754 at the request of the beautiful countess of Coventry (née Maria Gunning). The play had no great success, and in 1764 Crisp established himself in retirement at Chessington Hall, where he frequently entertained his sister, Mrs Sophia Gast, of Burford, Oxfordshire, and Dr Burney and his family, to whom he was familiarly known as "daddy" Crisp.' It was to her "daddy" Crisp and her sister Susan that Fanny Burney addressed large portions of her diary and many of her letters. After his wife's death in 1767, Dr Burney married Elizabeth Allen, widow of a King's Lynn wine-merchant.

From her fifteenth year Fanny lived in the midst of an exceptionally brilliant social circle, gathered round her father in Poland Street, and later in his new home in St Martin's Street, Leicester Fields. Garrick was a constant visitor, and would arrive before eight o'clock in the morning. Of the various "lyons" they entertained she leaves a graphic account, notably of Omai, the Otaheitan native, and of Alexis Orlov, the favourite of Catherine II. of Russia. Dr Johnson she first met at her father's home in March 1777. Her father's drawing-room, where she met many of the chief musicians, actors and authors of the day, was in fact Fanny's only school. Her reading, however, was by no means limited. Macaulay stated that in the whole of Dr Burney's library there was but one novel, Fielding's Amelia; but Austin Dobson points out that she was acquainted with the abbe Prevost's Doyen de Killerine, and with Marivaux's Vie de Marianne, besides Clarissa Harlowe and the books of Mrs Elizabeth Griffith and Mrs Frances Brooke. Her diary also contains the record of much more strenuous reading. Her stepmother, a woman of some cultivation, did not encourage habits of scribbling. Fanny, therefore, made a bonfire of her MSS., among them a History of Caroline Evelyn, a story containing an account of Evelina's mother. Luckily her journal did not meet with the same fate. The first entry in it was made on the 30th of May 1768, and it extended over seventy-two years. The earlier portions of it underwent wholesale editing in later days, and much of it was entirely obliterated. She planned out Evelina, or A Young Lady's Entrance into the World, long before it was written down. Evelina was published by Thomas Lowndes in the end of January 1778, but it was not until June that Dr Burney learned its authorship, when the book had been reviewed and praised everywhere. Fanny proudly told Mrs Thrale the secret. Mrs Thrale wrote to Dr Burney on the 22nd of July: "Mr Johnson returned home full of the Prayes of the Book I had lent him, and protesting that there were passages in it which might do honour to Richardson: we talk of it for ever, and he feels ardent after the denouement; he could not get rid of the Rogue, he said." Miss Burney soon visited the Thrales at Streatham, "the most consequential day I have spent since my birth" she calls the occasion. It was the prelude to much longer visits there. Dr Johnson's best compliments were made for her benefit, and eagerly transcribed in her diary. His affectionate friendship for "little Burney" only ceased with his death.

Evelina was a continued success. Sir Joshua Reynolds sat up all night to read it, as did Edmund Burke, who came next to Johnson in Miss Burney's esteem. She was introduced to Elizabeth Montagu and the other bluestocking ladies, to Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and to the gay Mrs Mary Cholmondeley, the sister of Peg Woffington, whose manners, as described in the diary, 1 His letters to Mrs Gast and another sister, Anne, were edited with the title of Burford Papers (1906), by W. H. Hutton.

explain much of Evelina. At the suggestion of Mrs Thrale, and with offers of help from Arthur Murphy, and encouragement from Sheridan, Fanny began to write a comedy. Crisp, realizing the limitations of her powers, tried to dissuade her, and the .piece, The Witlings, was suppressed in deference to what she called a "hissing, groaning, catcalling epistle" from her two "daddies." Meanwhile her intercourse with Mrs Thrale proved very exacting, and left her little time for writing. She went with her to Bath in 1780, and was at Streatham again in 1781. Her next book was written partly at Chessington and after much discussion with Mr Crisp. Cecilia; or, Memoirs of an Heiress, by the author of Evelina, was published in 5 vols. in 1782 by Messrs Payne & Cadell (who paid the author 250 - not 2000 as stated by Macaulay). If Cecilia has not quite the freshness and charm of Evelina, it is more carefully constructed, and contains many happy examples of what Johnson called Miss Burney's gift of "character-mongering." Burke sent her a letter full of high praise. But some of her friends found the writing too often modelled on Johnson's, and Horace Walpole thought the personages spoke too uniformly in character.

On the 24th of April 1783, Fanny Burney's "most judicious adviser and stimulating critic," "daddy" Crisp, died. He was her devoted friend, as she was to him, "the dearest thing on earth." The next year she was to lose two more friends. Mrs Thrale married Piozzi, and Johnson died. Fanny had met the celebrated Mrs Delany in 1783, and she now attached herself to her. Mrs Delany, who was living (1785) in a house near Windsor Castle presented to her by George III., was on the friendliest terms with both the king and queen, and Fanny was honoured with more than one royal interview. Queen Charlotte, soon afterwards, offered Miss Burney the post of second keeper of the robes, with a salary of 200 a year, which after some hesitation was accepted. Much has been said against Dr Burney for allowing the authoress of Evelina and Cecilia to undertake an office which meant separation from all her friends and a wearisome round of court ceremonial. On the other hand, it may be fairly urged that Fanny's literary gifts were really limited. She had written nothing for four years, and apparently felt she had used her best material. "What my daddy Crisp says," she wrote as early as 1779, "` that it would be the best policy, but for pecuniary advantages, for me to write no more,' is exactly what I have always thought since Evelina was published" (Diary, i. 258). Her misgivings as to her unfitness for court life were quite justified. From Queen Charlotte she received unvarying kindness, though she was not very clever with her waiting-maid's duties. She had to attend the queen's toilet, to take care of her lap-dog and her snuff-box, and to help her senior, Mrs Schwellenberg, in entertaining the king's equerries and visitors at tea. The constant association with Mrs Schwellenberg, who has been described as "a peevish old person of uncertain temper and impaired health, swaddled in the buckram of backstairs etiquette," proved to be the worst part of Fanny's duties. Her diary is full of amusing court gossip, and sometimes deals with graver matters, notably in the account of Warren Hastings' trial, and in the story of the beginning of George III.'s madness, as seen by a member of his household. But the strain told on her health, and after pressure both from Fanny and her numerous friends, Dr Burney prepared with her a joint memorial asking the queen's leave to resign. She left the royal service in July 1791 with a retiring pension of ioo a year, granted from the queen's private purse, and returned to her father's house at Chelsea. Dr Burney had been appointed organist at Chelsea Hospital in 1783, through Burke's influence.

In 1792 she became acquainted with a group of French exiles, who had taken a house, Juniper Hall, near Mickleham, where Fanny's sister, Mrs Phillips, lived. On the 31st of July 1793 she married one of the exiles, Alexandre D'Arblay, an artillery officer, who had been adjutant-general to La Fayette. They took a cottage at Bookham on the strength, it appears, of Miss Burney's pension. In 1793 she produced her Brief Reflections relative to the Emigrant French Clergy. Her son Alexandre was born on the 18th of December 1794. In the following spring Sheridan produced at Drury Lane her Edwy and Elgiva, a tragedy which was not saved even by the acting of the Kembles and Mrs Siddons. The play was never printed. Money was now a serious object, and Madame D'Arblay was therefore persuaded to issue her next novel, Camilla: or A Picture of Youth (5 vols., 1796), by subscription. A month after publication Dr Burney told Horace Walpole that his daughter had made £2000 by the book, and this sum was almost certainly augmented later. It is interesting to note that Jane Austen was among the subscribers. Unfortunately its literary success was not as great. "How I like Camilla?" wrote Horace Walpole to Miss Hannah More (August 29th, 1796), "I do not care to say how little. Alas! she has reversed experience. .. this author knew the world and penetrated characters before she had stepped over the threshold; and, now she has seen so much of it, she has little or no insight at all: perhaps she apprehended having seen too much, and kept the bags of foul air that she brought from the Cave of Tempests too closely tied." Nevertheless Camilla has found judicious persons to admire it, notably Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey. A second play, Love and Fashion, was actually put in rehearsal in 1 799, but was withdrawn in the next year. In 1801 Madame D'Arblay accompanied her husband to Paris, where General D'Arblay eventually obtained a place in the civil service. In 1812 she returned to England, bringing with her her son Alexandre to escape the conscription. In 1814 she published The Wanderer; or Female Difficulties. Possibly because readers expected to find a description of her impressions of revolutionary France, it had a large sale, from which the author realized £7000. Nobody, it has been said, ever read The Wanderer. In the end of the year General D'Arblay came to England and took his wife back to France. During the Hundred Days of 1815 she was in Belgium, and the vivid account in her Diary of Brussels during Waterloo may have been used by Thackeray in Vanity Fair. General D'Arblay now received permission to settle in England. After his death, which took place at Bath on the 3rd of May 1818, his wife lived in Bolton Street, Piccadilly. There she was visited in 1826 by Sir Walter Scott, who describes her (Journal, November 18th, 1826) as an elderly lady with no remains of personal beauty, but with a gentle manner and a pleasing countenance. The later years of her life were occupied with the editing of the Memoirs of Dr Burney, arranged from his own Manuscripts, from family papers and from personal recollections (3 vols., 1832). Her style had, as time went on, altered for the worse, and this book is full of extraordinary affectations. Madame D'Arblay died in London on the 6th of January 1840 and was buried at Walcot, Bath, near her son and husband.

Madame D'Arblay is still read in Evelina, but her best title to the affections of modern readers is the Diary and Letters. The small egotisms of the writer do not alienate other readers as they did John Wilson Croker. Dr Johnson lives in its pages almost as vividly as in those of Boswell, and King George and his wife in a friendlier light than in most of their contemporary portraits. Croker, in The Quarterly Review, April 1833 and June 1842, made two attacks on Madame D'Arblay. The first is an unfriendly but largely justifiable criticism on the Memoirs of Dr Burney. In the second, a review of the first three volumes of the Diary and Letters, Croker abused the writer's innocent vanity, and declared that, considering their bulk and pretensions, the Diary and Letters were "nearly the most worthless we have ever waded through." These pronouncements drew forth the eloquent defence by Lord Macaulay, first printed in The Edinburgh Review, January 1843, which, in spite of some inaccuracies and considerable exaggeration, has perhaps done more than anything else to maintain Madame D'Arblay's constant popularity.


The Diary and Letters of Madame D'Arblay was edited by her niece, Charlotte Frances Barrett, in 7 vols. (1842-1846). The text, covering the years 1778-1840, was edited with preface, notes and reproductions of contemporary portraits and other illustrations, by Mr Austin Dobson in 6 vols. (1904-1905). This Diary, which begins with the publication of Evelina, was supplemented in 1889 by The Early Diary of Frances Burney (1768-1778), which was in the first instance suppressed as being of purely private interest, edited by Mrs Annie Raine Ellis, with an introduction giving many particulars of the Burney family. Mrs Ellis also edited Evelina for "Bohn's Novelist's Library" in 1881, and Cecilia in 1882. See also Austin Dobson's Fanny Burney (Madame D'Arblay) (1903), in the "English Men of Letters Series."

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