Frances Burney’s writing inspired Jane Austen. Virginia Woolf considered her ‘the mother of English literature’. Yet few people know about the 18th century author.
Shaftesbury resident Deborah Jones is an expert and treasurer of the Burney Society, an international fan club and academic research group. Ahead of her Shaftesbury lecture, Deborah explains why Fanny hasn’t gained the attention she deserves.
Deborah is passionate about Fanny Burney. Her eyes twinkle and she smiles as she enthusiastically recounts stories of this outstanding female writer and social observer, and her influential family. The Burneys were all high achievers and they mixed with the most influential people in London.
Born in 1752, Fanny began writing her journal at the age of 16 and regularly commented on contemporary events during her fascinating 88-year life. Deborah enjoys Fanny’s witty writing style but it’s the author’s insight into Georgian life that makes academics here and in North America keen to study her words.
“Her journal is used by historians as a resource for facts and colour because it brings you into the society and events of history. The story in the book ‘Vanity Fair’ of the Battle of Waterloo was written much later than the battle. The author took his information from Fanny’s journals. She was there in Belgium at the time of Waterloo because she married a Frenchman,” said Deborah.
Fanny lived in France for ten years and became trapped there because of their war with England. Her husband had said to Napoleon that he would fight with the Emperor but not against England because the nation had been good to him. Napoleon reportedly replied that he wouldn’t expect anything else from the husband of ‘Cecilia’.
“’Cecilia’ is her second book, so it’s obvious that Napoleon was acquainted with her books. She was just as famous on that side of the Channel as she was on this side. She became the toast of London culture and so was her family. What is there not to like?” posed Deborah.
Fanny didn’t seek out high society and she was apparently quite shy. George III asked her to join his court as a second wardrobe mistress to Queen Charlotte. That role put her in a position where she was exposed to a rich seam of topics for her journals.
Deborah gave an example of Fanny writing about seeing the Prime Minister, Pitt the Elder, walking into a room. “You’re reading about somebody who was there in the middle of events, a person whom we read about in history was a flesh and blood character to Fanny. She writes about the personal quirks, character, mannerisms and the conversations,” said Deborah.
It’s curious that a life so rich and colourful has not been portrayed on the big screen, yet, although Fanny has been represented in one movie. “If you saw the film ‘The Madness of King George’ there’s a scene where the king goes chasing after one of the courtiers in Kew Gardens and catches and kisses her. She is trying to escape. That woman is Fanny Burney,” said Deborah.
Burney did visit Dorset, but she bypassed Shaftesbury because it wasn’t a spa town. “She has some fascinating things to say about Weymouth and Blandford, where she visited the church and also Milton Abbas,” said Deborah.
Nobody knows whether Fanny wanted her journals and letters to be discovered. “The style is such, with some error corrections, that she probably did think people would read them. Maybe just family,” said Deborah. Fanny did write many letters to her sisters whom she loved dearly. “Everything we know about the 18th-century we can see in the journals but not in the cold, detached way. She writes with humour.”
Deborah says that Jane Austen was a fan. “She adopted her style and improved upon it. That’s one of the reasons that Fanny’s fame became eclipsed. Austen came almost immediately afterwards and became the great toast of the town. Pride and Prejudice is a better book than Cecilia or the others, but I would hope that people at university reading English Literature would read it. And having read and appreciated her writings, I hope they would enthuse about her if they go into teaching at schools.”
It’s easy to forget that a female writer was a groundbreaking concept back then. “Women were meant to be quiet and retiring. Women of a certain class weren’t supposed to even read novels, let alone write them. She went anonymous to start with, because of the risk,” said Deborah.
Dr Deborah Jones’ talk will introduce attendees to Fanny’s entire family. ‘The Brilliant Burneys – Stars of the 18th Century’ is on at Gold Hill Museum at 2.30pm on Tuesday, 5th November. If you’re a member of the Shaftesbury and District Historical Society, entry is free. If you’re not a member you can pay £3 on the door. “I hope that the reading public will find her as enriching and life enhancing as I do,” said Deborah.
This is an abridged Alfred article. Click on the audio file above for the extended interview.