1902 Encyclopedia > Madame D'Arblay (Frances Burney)

Madame D'Arblay
(Frances Burney; Fanny Burney)
English novelist, diarist and playwright

MADAME D'ARBLAY, (1752-1840). Frances Burney, daughter of Charles Burney, D.Mus., was born at Lynn Regis, in Norfolk, 1752. Her mother was a Miss Esther Sleepe, distantly of French descent. In 1760 the Burneys moved to London; and in 1761 Mrs Burney died, leaving six children, of whom Fanny, the third, was but nine years old. Her sisters were sent to school, but she, as she tells us herself, " never was placed in any seminary, and never was put under any governess or instructor whatsoever." At ten years old she had taught herself to read and write, and became an incessant scribbler both of prose and verse, and ardently fond of reading. Six years after his wife's death Dr Burney married again ; and from her fifteenth year onwards Fanny lived in the midst of an exceptionally brilliant social circle, gathered round her father in his house in St Martin's Street, Leicester Fields, which included the chief musicians, actors, and literary men of the day, and not a few of his aristocratic patrons. Her father's drawing-room was in fact Fanny's only school, and not a bad one. Her stepmother, although a spirited and sensible woman, did not encourage Fanny's habits of scribbling, which she considered dangerously unfeminine. Fanny, therefore, when she was fifteen, solemnly burnt all her manuscripts,—among them The History of Caroline Evelyn, a story of which her first published novel, Evelina, was the sequel. At the same time she began her famous Diary, which extended over seventy-two years of her life. She was not much more than fifteen when she planned the story of Evelina ; but it was not written till some years later, and was not published till the year 1778, when its authoress was six-and-twenty. Having, she tells us, an " odd inclination " to see her work in print, she confided her secret to her sisters, copied out part of her manuscript in a feigned hand, and persuaded her younger brother Charles to be her agent with the booksellers, the interviews being held at a coffee-house in the evening, and young Charles being disguised in a big cloak and hat for the purpose. Dodsley refused her MS. as anonymous, but Lowndes, after its completion, accepted it, and gave her £20 for it. Dr Burney was told of what was going on, and good-naturedly favoured his daughter's whim, without so much as asking the name of her book. Evelina, or a Young Lady's Entrance into the World, was therefore published quite clandestinely, and Miss Burney herself knew the event only through an advertisement in the papers; while it had been six months in print, and had been reviewed and praised everywhere, before her father held the three little volumes in his own hand. Dr Burney proudly told Mrs Thrale the secret of the authorship, and Miss Burney was at once taken to Streatham, and admitted into a coterie of which Johnson was the great centre. Her fame spread. Johnson had declared that there were passages in Evelina which might do honour to Richardson; Sir Joshua Reynolds could not be persuaded to eat till he had finished the story; and Burke had sat up all night to read it. Miss Burney was introduced to Mrs Montagu and the Bas-bleus, to Sheridan, who wanted her to write for the stage, and to her special admirers Mrs Cholmondely and the beautiful Mrs Bunbury. But the chief feature in her early literary life was Dr Johnson's friendship for her, which excited the jealousy of Boswell, and ended only with Johnson's death. The second story, Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress, in five volumes, 1782, greatly increased her popularity, and brought her a letter from Burke, in which he said, " In an age distinguished by having produced extraordinary women, I hardly dare to tell you where my opinion would place you amongst them." In 1786, through the influence of the good old Mrs Delany, known as the correspondent of Swift and Young, Miss Burney obtained the post of second keeper of the robes to Queen Charlotte, consort of George III., with a salary of £200. For five years (from her thirty-fourth to her thirty-ninth year) it was her duty to attend at the Queen's daily toilettes, to take care of her lap-dog and her snuff-box, to read to her now and then, and to preside over the tea-table of the equerries. Her Diary and Letters of this time abound in amusing court gossip ; but the post was an uncongenial one, and she resigned it in 1791 on account of ill-health. The queen allowed her a pension of £100 a year, the king saying, " It is but her due ; she has given up five years of her pen." In 1793 Miss Burney became the wife of M. D'Arblay, a French officer of artillery, who, with Madame de Stael, Talleyrand, and other refugees, lived at "Juniper Hall," Dorking. In the same year she published a pamphlet on the emigrant French clergy. Her only child, afterwards the Rev. A. D'Arblay, was born in 1794; and in 1795 appeared her third novel, Camilla, or a Picture of Youth, in five vols. This book was published by subscription, and brought her more than £3000. From 1802 to 1812 Madame D'Arblay was in France with her husband and son, and in 1814 she published The Wanderer, or Female Difficulties, another five-volumed story, a comparative failure, though at the time it realized £1500. Madame D'Arblay was in France and Belgium through the war 1814-15, her husband having regained the post of marechal de camp, which he had formerly held under Louis XVI. They returned to England, and General D'Arblay died at Bath in 1818.

In Sir Walter Scott's diary for November 18, 1826, he describes his being taken to see Madame D'Arblay by Mr Rogers, and says, "I have been introduced to Madame D'Arblay, the celebrated authoress of Evelina and Cecilia, —an elderly lady with no remains of personal beauty, but with a simple and gentle manner, and pleasing expression of countenance, and apparently quick feelings." In 1832, when she was eighty years of age, Madame D'Arblay pub-lished the memoirs of her father, who died in 1814. This book, the rambling recollections of an old lady, is full of imperfections and extraordinary affectations of style. Madame D'Arblay died at Bath, 1840, aged eighty-eight, and her Journal and Letters were edited by her niece, and published in seven volumes, 1842-6.

Madame D'Arblay was not remarkable for personal beauty. She was small, retiring, and rather prudish, delighting to be lionized, while she dreaded nothing more than to be thought unfeminine or eccentric. Her style in writing was considered remarkable for its sprightliness and humour. Some of her most vivid characters were extremely popular. " You are a perfect Braughton," exclaimed Dr Johnson when Boswell was about to quit Mrs Thrale's table before the guests had finished eating. And Miss Burney tells us how " the Doctor " was one day seen laughing to himself, and suddenly turned to her, quoting from Evelina, with " Only think, Polly, Miss has danced with a lord !" Her best character sketches and most spirited dialogues are, however, to be found, not in her novels, but in her Journal and Letters. The drawback of everything which she wrote of an autobiographic kind was her painful self-consciousess and astounding egotism. It was her great ambition to write for the stage. She made three attempts to write a play; and her tragedy, entitled Edwy and Elgiva, was acted by Mrs Siddons and Kemble at Drury Lane in 1795, but had to be withdrawn as a failure, and was never printed. (F. M.)

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