Frances (Fanny) Burney Frances (Fanny) Burney

Fanny Burney's upbringing resembled that of a heroine of an 18th-century novel. The daughter of musicologist William Burney, she was born into an artistic and well-connected family. Her formal schooling was minimal -- she didn't learn to read or write until at least age 10 -- but her education in decorum and conduct began at an earlier age, typical of middle-class girls in England in the mid-1700s.

Conduct books for girls were tremendously popular in this period and considered a necessary part of the middle-class girl's education. The novel -- also aimed squarely at an increasingly female readership -- flourished as a genre at the same time, and a number of the earliest novels can be read as attempts at teaching the rules of conduct to English readers. Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747-1748) are the most influential examples of this convergence. Burney learned early that humility, not displays of vanity, flattered a young lady, and she in fact destroyed her first attempt at written "exhibition," the 1767 manuscript The History of Caroline Evelyn. Out of the ashes of this first effort came the wildly popular Evelina (1778), subtitled "The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World," which she published anonymously.

Word of her authorship spread quickly, however, and in the same year as Evelina's publication, Burney began a friendship with Samuel Johnson and his circle. Of Burney's four novels, Evelina is the one read most frequently today. Its epistolary form, in which Evelina writes meticulously detailed letters about her adventures in London and receives letters of advice from her guardian and other adults, is typical of the early novel, as is its moral of "virtue rewarded" (the subtitle of Pamela) by a good marriage and money.

Burney wrote a number of unproduced comedies and dramas, and three other novels: Cecilia (1782), Camilla (1796), and The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties (1814). In 1793, Burney married the French exile, Alexandre d'Arblay and their 25 years of marriage saw frequent, though not acrimonious, separations, in which d'Arblay attempted to retrieve property he had lost during the French Revolution. They had one son, Alexander, who died in 1837.

Burney had a breast amputated in 1811 (in a procedure we would now call a mastectomy), and she described the largely unanesthetized experience -- she was given one glass of wine prior to the surgery -- in grueling detail in a letter to her sister. Burney died in London in 1840.