It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen left us far too little to read.
If you’ve re-read her novels so many times that your copies have split spines and pages so dog-eared that they’re falling apart, you’re in good company. Austen is still one of the most beloved writers of all time, even two centuries after her death. Her books are continually sought-after, and the movie and television adaptations just keep coming—PBS Masterpiece just aired a Sanditon miniseries, and a new Emma film is set to premiere tonight.
There’s something irresistible about her works—perhaps because they’re equal parts witty and whimsical, they’re somehow satirical and romantic at the same time, and they manage to be deeply insightful and effortlessly enjoyable.
But, before there was Jane Austen, there was Frances (Fanny) Burney, an eighteenth-century author who inspired the next generation of women writers. In fact, when Burney released her novel Camilla in subscription format in 1796, among the list of subscribers was one Miss J. Austen.
When I stumbled upon Burney for the first time, I was instantly smitten. Reading her novels made me feel like I was in a familiar place—they are witty, intelligent, and lovely, just like Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park.
So, who was Fanny Burney?
Burney was born in 1752 in the English county of Norfolk, the daughter of musician Charles Burney. She was supposedly a slow learner, only beginning to read at 10 years old, but from that point on she devoured everything she could get her hands on.
As a young girl, words poured out of her, and she produced piles of juvenilia, including plays, songs, and poems. At 15 years old, she tossed it all into a bonfire—perhaps due to her stepmother’s disapproval, who did not consider writing a ladylike pursuit.
But she couldn’t keep her pen down, and soon she was back at it. She began writing a journal, which she would keep for more than 70 years, commenting on the everyday happenings of London society from the Georgian era into the early years of Victoria’s reign.
A lady of letters
Her social observations inspired her professional work, and in her mid-twenties, she released her first novel: Evelina, or, The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (1778). Told in epistolary fashion, this satirical book follows the foibles of a young inexperienced girl when she enters fashionable society.
She published it anonymously, but it was so well-received that everyone wanted to know the identity of its mysterious author. Once her identity was announced, her success persuaded her father to reconsider his disapproval of her profession.
Her next novel was Cecilia, or, Memoirs of an Heiress (1782), which tells the story of a spirited young heiress who can only keep her fortune if her husband agrees to take her name in marriage. It was likewise successful, and Burney’s name became even more recognized.
In contrast to Austen’s charming country life, Burney lived right in the center of things—frequenting the theatres and operas of London and even serving Queen Charlotte (wife of George III) for a time. She regularly encountered important men of the time like Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson.
Later life and legacy
After her stint at court, Burney visited family friends and her sister Susan at Norbury Park, where she met a group of French émigrés settled nearby. A man named Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard d’Arblay began to court her, and the two married in 1793.
She resumed her writing and published Camilla, or, A Picture of Youth in 1796. Her husband was supportive of her work and acted as her copyist. Camilla was another widely successful book, beloved for its romance, sharp insight into human nature, and endearing characters.
In 1802, they moved to France in hopes of recovering property that d’Arblay lost in the French Revolution. There, Burney continued to write and publish, and her husband took a job in the Napoleonic government. After her husband died, she returned to London and edited her father’s memoirs for publication. She died in 1840 at 87 years old.
Though much-neglected by readers today, her legacy is lasting and important. Virginia Woolf dubbed her the “mother of English fiction.” Her influence can be traced through the next century, carrying us right through Jane Austen’s comedies of manners, Charles Dickens’ insightful realism, and the social satires of William Makepeace Thackeray—not to mention that her reputation as a respected lady of letters also paved the way for female writers like the Brontës and Elizabeth Gaskell.
So, before you pick up that battered copy of Pride and Prejudice for the hundred-seventy-third time, give one of Burney’s novels a try instead. Don’t worry, Austen’s novels will still be there when you’re done.