An important, comprehensive view of the pioneering novelist and playwright (1752–1840).
Burney, who has been enjoying a recent revival (Janice Farrar Thaddeus’s Frances Burney, 2000), has a thorough and compassionate critic in Harman (ed., The Diaries of Sylvia Towsend Warner, 1996). Harman acknowledges that the Burney family archive is so extensive that “scholars grow gray” attempting to digest it, but she has managed well the complications of sifting such literary sands. Harman sees Burney as an inventor, not just of novels and plays, but of her own life (her autobiographical writings are notoriously inaccurate). “Is she an inveterate liar,” asks Harman, “or an inveterate writer?” Her answer is the latter. Burney’s celebrated father, Dr. Charles Burney, musician, writer, and teacher, reared a large family, encouraging his children to enjoy the intellectual life. Fanny, the second daughter, was surprisingly slow to read, but once she began, she never really stopped. She was soon writing regularly and composed and published her first novel (Evelina, 1778) without telling her father. She then had the delicious experience of watching friends and family read and enjoy her novel, without knowing its authorship. Her literary celebrity (which was considerable) was several times interrupted, once by her appointment to the court of George III (Burney attended Queen Charlotte for five years), another time by the rise of Napoleon (when Napoleon declared war on England, she was trapped in France for nine years with her French husband). Although the author’s focus is on Fanny, she periodically explores the careers of her siblings (and her sad son, who preceded her in death), a decision that both enriches Fanny’s story and illustrates how remarkable it was. Included are the agonizing details of Burney’s 1811 mastectomy, performed without anesthetic. Harman notes that Fanny was no feminist and would have been “shocked and distressed” to have been classified as such.
Substantial research informs this sympathetic and vibrant biography. (36 b&w photos)