- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 26, 2001

By Claire Harman
Knopf, $30, 417 pages, illus.

Few biographers can have worked through such a treasure trove of documents as that left by Fanny Burney. She wrote four novels, two of them — "Evelina" and "Cecilia" — of such literary interest that Virginia Woolf called her "the Mother of English Fiction." She also wrote several plays and a biography of her father, the composer and musicologist Charles Burney. In addition, she kept a journal and corresponded with an extraordinary number of friends and relations. When she died aged 87 in 1840, she had produced literally millions of words, and even though she and her niece destroyed much they considered too private for publication, millions still remain, buttressed by millions of others written by family and friends.
Claire Harman has painstakingly scrutinized this archive, identifying the many instances when Burney rewrote her past to produce a better impression: "None of the best-known stories about her life bears close inspection; each is riddled with contradictory statements, inconsistencies, evidence of editing or elaboration." A less diligent biographer would have bowed beneath the burden of analysis thus imposed. A more sentimental biographer would have condoned Burney's alterations. Claire Harmon does neither. Sifting her material meticulously, and tempering sympathy with psychological insight, she has written a lucid account of Burney's long life and a sensitive, though not indulgent, interpretation of her actions.
When Frances Burney was born in 1752, her father's musical talents had already attracted important patrons, and he was bent on improving himself and his family. Fanny, as she was always known, adored him and shared his desire for social prestige. Here, suggests her biographer, is one of the reasons she doctored her diaries: She wanted them to flatter herself and her family.
Though Fanny was destined to become the most famous Burney, as a child her talents were over-shadowed by those of her elder sister Hetty, who was a prodigy on the harpsichord. Fanny, in contrast, had no special musical skill and was slow in learning to read. When Hetty and another sister Susan went to school in France, Fanny stayed home. But though she received no formal education, she read and studied assiduously. She had a phenomenal memory, but made a point of recording virtually everything in her diary. Significantly she addressed it to Nobody, explaining, "To whom dare I reveal my private opinions of my nearest Relations? the secret thoughts of my dearest friends? My own hopes, fears, reflections, & dislikes? — Nobody… . To Nobody I can be wholly unreserved."
This seemingly whimsical dedication reveals the chasm between Fanny's private thoughts and those she could or would discuss. Her dyslexia, her lack of formal schooling and her mother's early death may have contributed to her reserve. Then, too, she was constrained by her father's ambitions for the Burney name and by all the rules that controlled female behavior in the 18th century. Whatever the case, her conservative notions and her need to conceal her feelings remained throughout her life. Thus at 15 she burned all her work, only to resume writing shortly afterwards, probably because she needed a release valve.
By 1770 Fanny had written parts of "Evelina," and in 1778 she completed it and published it anonymously. Anonymous publication was not rare, especially for women writers, but Burney hated the idea of being known as the author, maintaining rigid silence even when London buzzed with acclaim. Word leaked out, possibly from her from her father, who no doubt relished the reflected glory. Still, to the end of her life, Burney was terribly embarrassed to be acknowledged as a novelist. As her half-sister wrote, "she seemed ready to drop if ever her works were alluded to."
Why, then, did she publish? She claimed both a "vague wish" to see her work in print, and also pressing "circumstances." If true, these can be no more than the immediate cause, since "Evelina" was so long in the writing. Her half-sister's suggestion that despite her modesty and refinement, she was both "self-regarding" and needed an outlet for her feelings seems more useful. Her diaries certainly show she observed and commented more sharply than she let on. The contrast between the private and public selves created what Fanny called "an exceeding odd sensation when I consider it is in the power of any and every body to read what I so carefully hoarded even from my best Friends."
Perhaps surprisingly, "Evelina" is not a conservative novel. It combines the comic and the serious, the romantic and realistic in a love story told, for the first time, from the women's point of view. Its dialogues read like a play, while its variety of incident and its knowledge of contemporary London prefigure Charles Dickens. The biographer posits that Burney's ability to conflate many genres combined with the lack of prurience that typified many 18th-century novels accounts for its success.
The Burneys had always lived among singers, musicians and actors. Success spun Fanny into the orbit of Dr. Samuel Johnson, with whom she became a favorite. Later she was to meet the elderly novelist Mrs. Mary Delany, who engineered a position for her as Second Mistress of the Wardrobe in the court of George III. Here, Fanny witnessed the first bouts of the king's illness, diagnosed as madness, and when he improved, she was among the party that toured the south of England to demonstrate his health. But her own health suffered from five years in this tiring and tedious job, and she returned to her writer's life in London.
In the 1790s, now the author also of "Cecilia," Burney met a group of aristocratic French proponents of constitutional monarchy, among them the gentle and artistic Chevalier D'Arblay. Soon they were in love, and despite a lack of money and different religions they married. Burney always had rejected the idea that a woman must marry at all costs, understanding from bitter family experiences that marriages can be nightmarish. Hers, however, was not. Both she and D'Arblay seem to have been ideally happy, even when they had to spend 10 years of the Napoleonic wars living in France. Among the traumas Burney weathered was a mastectomy performed without anesthesia, and being stranded in Brussels while the battle of Waterloo thundered only nine miles away.
By the time Burney returned in England, the career of one of her greatest admirers, the much younger Jane Austen, was coming to its close. Burney was to outlive all her siblings, her husband and her only child. When she died in 1840, Queen Victoria was on the throne and Dickens was already a successful novelist. Claire Harman's biography thus not only recounts the eventful life of a woman beset with quiddities, but that of a literary era which began in the heyday of the Augustans, passed through the revolutionary years of Romanticism, and emerged with both the Gothic and realist modes of fiction well in place. Her book is scrupulous in its research, judicious in its tone, and rich with insights into its subject: in short, a model of the biographer's art.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic living in Amherst, Mass.

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