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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Frances (Fanny) Burney (Madame d’Arblay) (1752–1840)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THERE is a suggestion of the ‘Ugly Duckling’ story in Fanny Burney’s early life. The personality of the shy little girl, who was neither especially pretty nor precocious, was rather merged in the half-dozen of gayer brothers and sisters. The first eight years of her life were passed at Lynn Regis in Norfolk; then the family moved to London, where her father continued his career as an important writer on music and a fashionable music-master. Soon after, Mrs. Burney died. All the children but young Fanny were sent away to school. She was to have been educated at home, but received little attention from the learned, kind, but heedless Dr. Burney, who seems to have considered her the dull member of his flock. “Poor Fanny!” he often said, until her sudden fame overwhelmed him with surprise as well as exultation. Only his friend, her beloved “Daddy Crisp” of the letters, appreciated her; himself a disappointed dramatic author, soured by what he felt to be an incomprehensible failure, yet of fine critical talent, with kind and wise suggestions for his favorite Fanny.  1
  But while her book-education was of the slightest, her social advantages were great. Pleasure-loving Dr. Burney had a delightful faculty of attracting witty and musical friends to enliven his home. Fanny’s great unnoticed gift was power of observation. The shy girl who avoided notice herself, found her social pleasure in watching and listening to clever people. Perhaps a Gallic strain—for her mother was of French descent—gave her clear-sightedness. She had a turn for social satire which added humorous discrimination to her judgments. She understood people better than books, and perceived their petty hypocrisies, self-deceptions, and conventional standards, with witty good sense and love of sincerity. Years of this silent note-taking and personal intercourse with brilliant people gave her unusual knowledge of the world.  2
  She was a docile girl, ready always to heed her father and her “Daddy Crisp,” ready to obey her kindly stepmother, and try to exchange for practical occupations her pet pastime of scribbling.  3
  But from the time she was ten she had loved to write down her impressions, and the habit was too strong to be more than temporarily renounced. Like many imaginative persons, she was fond of carrying on serial inventions in which repressed fancies found expression. One long story she destroyed; but the characters haunted her, and she began a sequel which became ‘Evelina.’ In the young, beautiful, virtuous heroine, with her many mortifying experiences and her ultimate triumph, she may have found compensation for a starved vanity of her own.  4
  For a long time she and her sisters enjoyed Evelina’s tribulations; then Fanny grew ambitious, and encouraged by her brother, thought of publication. When she tremblingly asked her father’s consent, he carelessly countenanced the venture and gave it no second thought. After much negotiation, a publisher offered twenty pounds for the manuscript, and in 1778 the appearance of ‘Evelina’ ended Fanny Burney’s obscurity. For a long time the book was the topic of boundless praise and endless discussion. Every one wondered who could have written the clever story, which was usually attributed to a society man. The great Dr. Johnson was enthusiastic, insisted upon knowing the author, and soon grew very fond of his little Fanny. He introduced her to his friends, and she became the celebrity of a delightful circle. Sir Joshua Reynolds and Burke sat up all night to finish ‘Evelina.’ The Thrales, Madame Delaney,—who later introduced her at court,—Sheridan, Gibbon, and Sir Walter Scott, were among those who admired her most cordially.  5
  It was a happy time for Fanny, encouraged to believe her talent far greater than it was. She wrote a drama which was read in solemn judgment by her father and “Daddy Crisp,” who decided against it as too like ‘Les Précieuses Ridicules,’ a play she had never read. A second novel, ‘Cecilia,’ appeared in 1782, and was as successful as its predecessor. Later readers find it less spontaneous, and after it she never resumed her early style except in her journal and correspondence. Her ambition was fully astir. She had every incentive from her family and friends. But the old zest in composition had departed. The self-consciousness which had always tormented her in society seized her now, when she was trying to cater to public taste, and made her change her frank, free, personal expression for a stilted artificial formality of phrase.  6
  Her reputation was now at its height, and she was very happy in her position as society favorite and pride of the father whom she had always passionately admired, when she made the mistake of her life. Urged by her father, she accepted a position at court as Second Keeper of the Queen’s Robes. There she spent five pleasureless and worse than profitless years. In her ‘Diary and Letters,’ the most readable to-day of all her works, she has told the story of wretched discomfort, of stupidly uncongenial companionship, of arduous tasks made worse by the selfish thoughtlessness of her superiors. She has also given our best historical picture of that time; the everyday life at court, the slow agony of King George’s increasing insanity. But the drudgery and mean hardships of the place, and the depression of being separated from her family, broke down her health; and after much opposition she was allowed to resign in 1791.  7
  Soon afterwards she astonished her friends by marrying General d’Arblay, a French officer and a gentleman, although very poor. As the pair had an income of only one hundred pounds, this seems a perilously rash act for a woman over forty. Fortunately the match proved a very happy one, and the situation stimulated Madame d’Arblay to renewed authorship. ‘Camilla,’ her third novel, was sold by subscription, and was a very remunerative piece of work. But from a critical point of view it was a failure; and being written in a heavy pedantic style, is quite deficient in her early charm. With the proceeds she built a modest home, Camilla Cottage. Later the family moved to France, where her husband died and where her only son received his early education. When he was nearly ready for an English university she returned to England, and passed her tranquil age among her friends until she died at eighty-eight.  8
  What Fanny Burney did in all unconsciousness was to establish fiction upon a new basis. She may be said to have created the family novel. Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne had bequeathed their legacy impregnated with objectionable qualities, in spite of strength and charm; they were read rather secretly, and tabooed for women. On the other hand, the followers of Richardson were too didactic to be readable. Fanny Burney proved that entertaining tales, unweighted by heavy moralizing, may be written, adapted to young and old. Her sketches of life were witty, sincere, and vigorous, yet always moral in tone. ‘Evelina,’ the work of an innocent, frank girl, could be read by any one.  9
  A still greater source of her success was her robust and abounding, though sometimes rather broad and cheap, fun. In her time decent novels were apt to be appallingly serious in tone, and not infrequently stupid; humor in spite of Addison still connoted much coarseness and obtrusive sexuality, and in fiction had to be sought in the novels written for men only. As humor is the deadly foe to sentimentalism and hysterics, the Richardson school were equally averse to it on further grounds. Fanny Burney produced novels fit for women’s and family reading, yet full of humor of a masculine vigor—and it must be added, with something of masculine unsensitiveness. There is little fineness to most of it; some is mere horseplay, some is extravagant farce: but it is deep and genuine, it supplied an exigent want, and deserved its welcome. De Morgan says it was like introducing dresses of glaring red and yellow and other crude colors into a country where every one had previously dressed in drab—a great relief, but not art. This is hard measure, however: some of her character-drawing is almost as richly humorous and valid as Jane Austen’s own.  10
  Fanny Burney undoubtedly did much to augment the new respect for woman’s intellectual ability, and was a stimulus to the brilliant group which succeeded her. Miss Ferrier, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen all owe her something of their inspiration and more of their welcome.  11
 
 
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