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Female Difficulties

Fanny Burney: A Biography
By Claire Harman
(Alfred A. Knopf, 417 pp., $30) 

No writer is more excruciating than Frances Burney. At her best she moves readers to squirm or to shut their eyes. The account of her mastectomy, performed with only a wine cordial for anesthetic, has lately become a standard text in medical schools, not to mention in English and Women's Studies departments. The scene is a house in Paris in 1811, where "7 men in black" abruptly enter the patient's room. Compelled against modesty to remove her robe, she is placed on two old mattresses, with a handkerchief over her face; but "bright through the cambric, I saw the glitter of polished Steel." Her right breast cannot be saved. Although she screams and briefly faints, she takes in every detail: the moment when air rushes into the wound "like a mass of minute but sharp & forked poinards"; when the surgeon, tired from cutting flesh against the grain, is forced to shift the knife to his left hand; when, after the breast is gone, one doctor points his finger--"which I literally felt elevated over the wound, though I saw nothing, & though he touched nothing"--to indicate that the scraping must go on. At last it is done. Arms dangling, enfeebled, she opens her eyes: "& I then saw my good Dr. Larrey, pale nearly as myself, his face streaked with blood, & its expression depicting grief, apprehension, & almost horror."

Burney herself could hardly bear to write this down. She did it, she claimed, to let her relatives in England know that she had survived--though, as Claire Harman suggests, she also must have wanted them to feel her pain. This writer is good at keeping one eye on her audience, as when she observes the hardened army surgeon Larrey in sympathetic anguish. One might call such a woman a control freak. During the operation she is remarkably strong: when no one will hold her breast up for examination, she does it herself. But the strength to call back these details and to fix them on paper seems equally impressive. By writing, Burney proves that she is alive.

Her novels are excruciating, too. The plots depend on subjecting a morbidly sensitive and inhibited heroine to impossible pressures. Rakes and boors publicly woo her just as the man she admires is passing by. Hysterical acquaintances extort money from her by threatening suicide. A brother from hell plays tricks that leave her at the mercy of scoundrels. Reluctantly forced to perform, she is frozen by stage fright. Tyrannical matrons demand to be told the very secret that she has sworn to keep. Her best friends misjudge and abandon her. And things get worse until death seems the only way out.

Often a few frank words would clear up the mess, but rigid ideas of conduct choke the heroine, and hundreds of pages must pass before she can speak. Technically these novels graft Samuel Richardson's psychological tensions and moral scruples onto Tobias Smollett's rough humor and cruel practical jokes. But Burney's capacity for embarrassment is all her own. Her journals display its presence throughout her life, as in a wonderful scene in Kew Gardens when she frantically runs away from George III (whose madness was temporarily in remission) while the poor king puffs after her, calling, "Miss Burney! Miss Burney!" There is always some comic potential in these plights. Even the ghastly mastectomy resembles a theater of the absurd--Ionesco, perhaps--as the seven abashed men in black hang their heads while the little lady takes charge. But the embarrassment spreads through the later novels until it envelops the reader. Many readers simply cannot stand it.

To be embarrassed through and through requires a keen sense of social decorum. Burney's heroines have thin skins; they are prudes surrounded by snobs. The modern British class system had just begun to come into its own in Burney's time, and she was the earliest novelist to catch its fine points. Samuel Johnson was tickled by Mr. Smith, the "Holborn beau" in Evelina: "`Oh, Mr. Smith, Mr. Smith is the man!' cried he, laughing violently. `Harry Fielding never drew so good a character!--such a varnish of low politeness!--such a struggle to appear a gentleman!'" Mr. Smith and his ilk, the brazen middle classes, feel no shame. But for Evelina, who does not know her place but hopes to rise, a social gaffe is an earthquake.

Extreme self-consciousness also marks this sensitive creature. The screws of embarrassment tighten fast when the shamed one notices other people noticing her. Like her heroines, Burney was very self-conscious. The greatest value of the mastectomy narrative, according to Harman, "is as a testimony to the inviolability of the ego." If that is so, the later novels might be considered assaults on the ego that test how much anxiety it can endure before it breaks. Small debts and social snubs accumulate like straws until the heroine is crushed beneath their weight. There is nothing quite like this in fiction, except for the desolate Ultima Thule (1929) by Ethel Richardson Robertson ("Henry Handel Richardson"), in which the mills of debt grind down the soul, a penny at a time. Burney's typical heroine does better; eventually she gets back on her feet. But first she must travel to ultima Thule, where no one knows her name.

Names are one of Burney's obsessions, in fact. In her first novel, Evelina goes by the partially anagrammatic alias of Miss Anville until, at the very end, she can sign herself truly Belmont. Cecilia, in the novel named after her, must give up her fortune because her husband refuses to take her surname.And in The Wanderer, Burney's last novel, the anonymous heroine resists all attempts to find out who she is.

The stranger, compelled to speak, said, with an air of extreme embarrassment, "I am conscious, Madam, how dreadfully all appearances are against me! Yet I have no means, with any prudence, to enter into an explanation: I dare not, therefore, solicit your good opinion, though my distress is so urgent, that I am forced to sue for your assistance,--I ought, perhaps, to say your charity!"

"I don't want," said Mrs. Maple, "to hear all that sort of stuff over again. Let me only know who you are, and I shall myself be the best judge what should be done for you. What is it, then, once for all, that you call yourself? No prevarications! Tell me your name, or go about your business."

“Yes, your name! your name!” repeated Elinor. “Your name! your name!” echoed Selina. “Your name! your name!” re-echoed Ireton. The spirits and courage of the stranger seemed now to forsake her; and, with a faultering voice, she answered, “Alas! I hardly know it myself!”

Hundreds of pages later she turns out to be Juliet, whose eponym thought a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Yet even then her lineage remains a secret. The role of Nobody suits Burney's heroines. A good family name would protect these orphans, but they must wander naked through the world. Society shuns an unidentified woman; like a great wine without its label, she loses her value.

All writers care about names, but Burney is special. In her view they often betray the self, exposing it to an inquisitive public. If names protect respectable persons, they also broadcast our identities and make them vulnerable to loudmouths. No wonder British schoolboys keep their given names to themselves. When I was growing up, the women in my family all called me Laurie. Thank God my classmates never knew; each of us needs a little space to be private. Most people live with a secret about what they or their family used to be called. The secret of the upwardly mobile Burneys was that they were descended from plebeian MacBurneys. The novelist suppressed her father's account of his early years, lest it open "to the publick view a species of Family degradation to which the name of Burney now gives no similitude." Such delicacy is understandable. Would anyone like to be known to the public as Fanny?

Probably not. The famous novelist never put her name to a work until, in her eightieth year, she published Memoirs of Doctor Burney (1832) "arranged ... by his daughter, Madame d'Arblay." After her death, when a selection of her diaries and letters was edited by a niece, once again her aristocratic married name, Madame d'Arblay, appeared on the title page. Later editions called her Frances Burney. It was only in the twentieth century that editors, biographers, and critics began regularly to make free with "Fanny," as if joining the family circle or cuddling a pet. Hence the once anonymous, dignified writer became everyone's intimate friend. How chummy; how condescending.

Naming a writer, like naming a baby, requires some care. Joyce Hemlow, the leading Burney scholar of modern times, earned the right to use a familiar name: having spent her life editing the journals and letters, she knew the ins and outs of Fanny at least as well as Madame d'Arblay did. But Hemlow's biography, The History of Fanny Burney, which appeared in 1958, is cannily titled. By conjuring up a novel, such as The History of Tom Jones (whom nobody calls Thomas), it promises to tell the story of a character, not the life of an author. In practice Hemlow varies her style, replacing "Fanny" sometimes with "Fanny Burney" and later with "Madame d'Arblay." Other biographies--there are at least a dozen--tend to be still less formal. Anyone willing to plunge into millions of words can get to know Fanny. For seventy years her journals recorded the daily adventures and feelings that mattered to her, admitting readers posthumously to the nooks of her soul. Longtime companions do not stand on ceremony.

But lately Frances Burney has been making a comeback. As their titles imply, Margaret Anne Doody's Frances Burney: The Life in the Works (1988) and Janice Farrar Thaddeus's Frances Burney: A Literary Life (2000) put the writer first and take her too seriously to pose as her friend. Doody's book, opinionated and brilliant, champions a great, misunderstood writer who challenged the values of her age and would challenge ours, too, if we bothered to read all the novels. Earlier critics had doted on Evelina; or The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World (1778), an entertaining comedy of manners that provides an easy bridge from the eighteenth century to Jane Austen. But the later three novels are far less amusing, and not much like Austen's. Cecilia; or Memoirs of an Heiress (1782) sinks its idealistic heroine in a society ruled by money and pride of birth, drains her fortune, thwarts her love, and drives her out of her mind; even the happy ending is murky and rueful. The heroine goes through a wringer again in Camilla; or A Picture of Youth (1796), in which tiny indiscretions and the inability of men and women to communicate their true feelings gradually build from scenes of comic embarrassment to Gothic psychological tortures.

Despite their length and their tribulations, these novels sold well; and Austen herself, in Northanger Abbey, hailed both Cecilia and Camilla as works "in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language." (The title of Pride and Prejudice comes from Cecilia.) But almost nobody liked The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties (1814). Fanny could never have written such a book, engaged with the burdens that women face in making a living, elaborately stilted in style, and mystifyingly plotted. This novel must have been perpetrated by Madame d'Arblay.

Yet critics who value Frances Burney most as a writer are likely to regard the perplexities and the wanderings of her later novels as points of honor, precisely because she comes to grips with "female difficulties." Even her doubts about writing fiction, which respectable people such as her father associated with frivolous entertainment or "degradation" (according to the preface to The Wanderer), authenticate her commitment to telling the whole unpleasant truth. In these novels, as in the actual lives of women, marriage is not the solution to every problem. It is rather a way of stirring up still more problems. Hence the plots keep turning and turning. And so do the sentences, as they labor to pack improving sentiments into the simplest description. These turgid to-ings and fro-ings are not easy to follow; they alienate many readers. For more sympathetic critics, however, alienation is just the point. A woman who understands the world in which she lives can hardly make her stories turn out well.

For popular appeal, though, nothing beats a Cinderella story. As a storyteller and a self-inventor, Fanny the person will always be more satisfying than Frances the serious writer. The journals provide the stuff of fairy tales: a little nobody makes good. Fanny herself appreciated the mythic potential of her rise to fame as "an accidental author." Born in 1752 into a large family of social climbers whose patriarch, the music teacher and historian Charles Burney, emerged from obscurity and eventually flourished in the high society of London, she seemed at first a backward child. Her older sister Esther ("Hetty") thrilled the public as a ten-year-old virtuosa on the harpsichord; another precocious sister, Susanna (Susan), three years younger than Fanny, learned to read before she did. One family friend called Fanny "the little dunce" (she may have been dyslexic). In any event, she kept shyly in the background.

Her situation became still worse in 1762, when her mother died. Fanny's busy, grieving, much-adored father neglected her, and after he re-married his new wife fell into the role of "Family Scourge," a jealous stepmother and rival for the patriarch's affection. But at fifteen Fanny began her climb to the light; she started a journal addressed to Nobody, her kindred spirit. Gradually, in secret, she honed her art, while quietly keeping a sharp satiric eye on London manners. Early in 1778 a new novel about a young lady's entrance into the world made a sensation. Only a few people knew who had written it. Charles Burney and his wife were not among them.

Quite soon Cinderella put on her slipper. As everyone, including her father, sang the praises of Evelina, the author's cover was quickly blown and Fanny was taken up by people of fashion and the literary elite. Samuel Johnson and Hester Thrale welcomed her into their circle; Edmund Burke stayed up all night reading the novel; and Richard Brinsley Sheridan pronounced it "superior to Fielding" and asked Fanny to write him a play. (She did draft a comedy called The Witlings, but her father, who feared that its satire would offend some influential people, persuaded her to suppress it. Although she never made her mark as a playwright, at least one later comedy--A Busy Day, which was not staged until 1993--confirms her talent.) From then on, an eager public sought her acquaintance and looked forward to her next book. When Cecilia came out, both Mary Wollstonecraft and Queen Charlotte were deeply impressed.

But life was less happy at home. Her stepmother had "grown more sour than ever," and eventually all of Fanny's brothers and sisters, including her best ally, Susan, married and moved away. Worst of all was a humiliating bogus courtship; George Owen Cambridge, a young clergyman with whom Fanny fell in love, dallied with her for years but never got around to proposing. Cinderella went back to her ashes. In 1786 she was offered a chance to wait on the queen at court as Second Keeper of the Robes--a glorified servant. Overjoyed by the honor, her father pressed her to accept; it would settle her future and perhaps advance his own interests. Fanny could not resist. For the next five years she suffered from her confinement at court: the lack of privacy and independence, the rudeness of superiors, the loneliness, the paralyzing etiquette, the excruciating boredom. It very nearly killed her. Finally, thanks to the pity aroused by her haggard looks, she managed to resign. It was 1791; she was thirty-nine.

Then at last Prince Charming came along. Alexandre Gabriel Jean-Baptiste Piochard d'Arblay was a handsome and gallant soldier who had commanded the guards at the Tuileries on the night that Louis XVI made his brief escape to Varennes. In the aftermath d'Arblay lost his fortune and almost his life. A Constitutionalist and follower of Lafayette, he fled the Terror and found his way to the colony of emigres at Juniper Hall in Surrey. Susan lived nearby; she wrote admiring letters to her sister about the "franc et loyal" military man; and when Fanny visited she was as captivated by his talk as Desdemona by Othello's. Although Charles Burney opposed the match--d'Arblay was foreign, penniless, Catholic, and suspiciously liberal--the couple soon married, and they were very happy. In 1794, at forty-two, Fanny gave birth to a healthy son, "the Idol of the World."

They lived as happily ever after as most people do. But the long last part of Fanny's story chronicles a survivor. She survived the death of Susan in 1800, which ended an era of "perfect Happiness." She survived ten years of exile in France (1802-1812), where her husband, now General d'Arblay, had gone on an unsuccessful quest to reclaim his property and his career. She survived her mastectomy in 1811. After her father's death in 1814 she not only survived but took charge of his Memoirs, smoothing him to a plaster saint and herself to a little princess. She survived her husband and her son, who never lived up to his promise. And after her death in 1840, the publication of her Diaries and Letters brought Fanny's story back to life again.

Claire Harman deftly retraces that story and adds many shrewd psychological insights. This is no fairy tale. In place of the legendary ingenue it sets a complex and elusive human being. The center of interest is Fanny's personal history, not her literary career. For the most part this book disregards Frances Burney, "the Mother of English Fiction" (in Virginia Woolf's phrase). A reader who wants to know how her fiction works, or what it took from or taught to other writers, had better look elsewhere. Harman does not pretend to champion the novels or even to like them much. She keeps calling their dedications "fulsome" and might well understand what that much abused word means. Though appreciative of Evelina and Cecilia, she has little use for the later books and seems most pleased with the novelist when she can be typed as a sort of messy, underdeveloped Austen. The mind of the woman counts more than her place in the house of fiction.

Still, writing is in Harman's book the key to Fanny. By putting words on paper she got a life. Harman is at her best in following the paper trail of published and unpublished writings, and she is always aware of Fanny's efforts to shape and control her own image. Yet such familiarity breeds suspicion. For someone who prided herself on telling the truth, this artful keeper of journals certainly bent a great many facts. Perhaps her mean stepmother was not so mean. Or maybe Cinderella switched the slipper.

One gripping account, for instance, describes Fanny's peril when high tide trapped her and her dog on a small, steep island. Desperately and painfully she climbed to the top, using the handle of her parasol to haul the dog up by the collar; and there they clung to a rock for ten hours while the waves dashed them with spray. According to an eyewitness who rescued her, however, these circumstantial details were mostly invented. The dog was not there; the lady was not clinging to a rock but sitting on the sand; and she was in no real danger. Harman stalks the truth like Sherlock Holmes: the dog had just whelped and was highly unlikely to have been taken on a long walk. But the clinching argument is psychological. Writing six years after the incident, the widowed Madame d'Arblay re-fashioned it to express "her intense and wholly justifiable terror of being alone," and by then the dog was her only constant companion. So an inner symbolic truth or "retrospective prophecy" displaces mere facts.

Yet the example is unsettling. A writer who sees her feelings so vividly that they take shape as rocks and parasols has spun a web of words around her life. Biographers can easily be caught in such a web. Perhaps the most interesting part of this book is Harman's own struggle against getting stuck. "As one pores over the details of her life, finding inconsistencies in the record, what is a biographer to make of this strangely creative autobiographer? Is she an inveterate liar, or an inveterate writer?" The answer, of course, is that the two are hard to separate. The end of the book applauds Fanny's courage in admitting that "Truth and Fiction were sometimes `indivisible' in her mind." But a biographer shows her courage by keeping truth and fiction apart. Harman's narrative has two strands: the story of how Fanny Burney created herself, and the story of what she made up or left out.

In the long run, what can a reader trust? Personal histories are not much more dependable than outright fictions. The sheer volume of papers amassed by a tireless scribbler covers her secrets: if Rosebud is there beneath the litter, the snoops will not find it. Harman concludes that no one can have the last word. The simple, artless heroine vanishes into the gloom of an intricate maze with no exit. So the story of Fanny Burney is after all as disturbing as Frances Burney's stories. If we trust the novels, the life of a sensitive woman must have been torture in Burney's time and place. Genteel Fanny makes a better show, if only to put on a better face for readers to come. And yet she also seems to have felt the rack. Are the private stories truer than the novels? Did Burney reveal her inner life in the journals, or in those long excruciating fictions? Nobody knows. Dear reader, nobody knows.

This article originally ran in the October 8, 2001, issue of the magazine.