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Fanny Burney: A Biography

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Claire Harman's full-scale biography of Fanny Burney, the first literary woman novelist and a true child of eighteenth-century England and the Enlightenment, is rich with insights and pleasures as it brings us into the extraordinary life (1752-1840) of the woman Virginia Woolf called ìthe mother of English fiction. We are present at Mrs. Thrale's dinner party when the twent Claire Harman's full-scale biography of Fanny Burney, the first literary woman novelist and a true child of eighteenth-century England and the Enlightenment, is rich with insights and pleasures as it brings us into the extraordinary life (1752-1840) of the woman Virginia Woolf called ìthe mother of English fiction. We are present at Mrs. Thrale's dinner party when the twenty-six-year-old Fanny has the incomparable thrill of hearing Dr. Johnson himself admiringly acknowledge her authorship of Evelina, her first novel, anonymously published for fear of upsetting her adored father, and now the talk of the town. We see her growing up, daughter of the charming and gifted musician and teacher Dr. Charles Burney, who was the very embodiment of a new class: talented, energized, self-educated, self-made, self-conscious, socially ambitious and easily endearing himself to aristocratic patrons. We see Fanny partly enjoying, partly rejecting the celebrity engendered by Evelina, and four years later by Cecilia ("If you will be an author and a wit," says Mrs. Thrale, "you must take the consequences"). And we see her mingling with the most famous men and women of the time, not only Dr. Johnson but Joshua Reynolds, Sheridan, David Garrick, Mrs. Siddons, Horace Walpole and, later, Chateaubriand and Madame de StaÎl. For five years, during the time of George III's madness, Fanny Burney held a position in the Royal Household as Second Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte. For her father, Fanny's going to court was like going to heaven, but for Fanny it was more an incarceration. Her journals, published posthumously in 1842, gave her some solace. She saw herself as an eavesdropper. Dr. Johnson wryly called her "a spy." Her marriage at forty-one to a penniless Catholic exile, Alexandre d'Arblay, resulted in trans-Channel crossings that left her stranded for almost a decade in Napoleon's France, and then, after a dramatic flight from Paris, trapped in Brussels on the eve of Waterloo. Claire Harman's biography of Fanny Burney is as lively as it is meticulously researched and authoritative. It gives us the woman, her world and the early-blooming artist whose acute grasp of social nuance, gift for satire, drama and skillful play among large casts of characters won her comparison with the best of Smollett, Richardson and Fielding, the admiration of Jane Austen and Lord Byron and a secure place in the pantheon of the English novel.


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Claire Harman's full-scale biography of Fanny Burney, the first literary woman novelist and a true child of eighteenth-century England and the Enlightenment, is rich with insights and pleasures as it brings us into the extraordinary life (1752-1840) of the woman Virginia Woolf called ìthe mother of English fiction. We are present at Mrs. Thrale's dinner party when the twent Claire Harman's full-scale biography of Fanny Burney, the first literary woman novelist and a true child of eighteenth-century England and the Enlightenment, is rich with insights and pleasures as it brings us into the extraordinary life (1752-1840) of the woman Virginia Woolf called ìthe mother of English fiction. We are present at Mrs. Thrale's dinner party when the twenty-six-year-old Fanny has the incomparable thrill of hearing Dr. Johnson himself admiringly acknowledge her authorship of Evelina, her first novel, anonymously published for fear of upsetting her adored father, and now the talk of the town. We see her growing up, daughter of the charming and gifted musician and teacher Dr. Charles Burney, who was the very embodiment of a new class: talented, energized, self-educated, self-made, self-conscious, socially ambitious and easily endearing himself to aristocratic patrons. We see Fanny partly enjoying, partly rejecting the celebrity engendered by Evelina, and four years later by Cecilia ("If you will be an author and a wit," says Mrs. Thrale, "you must take the consequences"). And we see her mingling with the most famous men and women of the time, not only Dr. Johnson but Joshua Reynolds, Sheridan, David Garrick, Mrs. Siddons, Horace Walpole and, later, Chateaubriand and Madame de StaÎl. For five years, during the time of George III's madness, Fanny Burney held a position in the Royal Household as Second Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte. For her father, Fanny's going to court was like going to heaven, but for Fanny it was more an incarceration. Her journals, published posthumously in 1842, gave her some solace. She saw herself as an eavesdropper. Dr. Johnson wryly called her "a spy." Her marriage at forty-one to a penniless Catholic exile, Alexandre d'Arblay, resulted in trans-Channel crossings that left her stranded for almost a decade in Napoleon's France, and then, after a dramatic flight from Paris, trapped in Brussels on the eve of Waterloo. Claire Harman's biography of Fanny Burney is as lively as it is meticulously researched and authoritative. It gives us the woman, her world and the early-blooming artist whose acute grasp of social nuance, gift for satire, drama and skillful play among large casts of characters won her comparison with the best of Smollett, Richardson and Fielding, the admiration of Jane Austen and Lord Byron and a secure place in the pantheon of the English novel.

30 review for Fanny Burney: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Issicratea

    I was drawn into reading this biography of Fanny Burney after reading, and loving, her Journals and Letters. I wanted to read a little more on her background and context; and, to be honest, I think I wanted to see how far her extraordinary account of her life checked out against the historical truth. I got more than I bargained for in Clare Harman’s biography, which seems preoccupied by the question of the reliability of Burney’s record of her life almost to the point of obtuseness. Harman is pa I was drawn into reading this biography of Fanny Burney after reading, and loving, her Journals and Letters. I wanted to read a little more on her background and context; and, to be honest, I think I wanted to see how far her extraordinary account of her life checked out against the historical truth. I got more than I bargained for in Clare Harman’s biography, which seems preoccupied by the question of the reliability of Burney’s record of her life almost to the point of obtuseness. Harman is particularly damning about Burney’s last work (1832), a memoir of her music historian father, Charles Burney, which gives an idealized and sanitized portrait of his slightly rollicking life. It also misrepresents aspects of it, such as his relationship with his second wife, whom Fanny and her siblings all loathed. Fair enough—any good biographer should point out these things, but Harman seems oddly morally outraged by this act of filial airbrushing; and it seems to color her treatment of Burney more generally. To someone of my literary background, at least, the constant harping on whether Burney’s representation of her life in her letters and journals meets strict standards of historical veracity seems somewhat beside the point. Autobiographical writings are fascinating precisely because they represent a line of intersection between the self and external reality. There is inevitably seepage between the two, and it doesn’t diminish the historical importance of such writings; it enhances it. The way in which people choose to embellish or edit their lives is a historical document in itself, as anyone who has read Benvenuto Cellini will know. These considerations apart, Harman’s biography is fine, though I’d advise anyone interested to start from the letters and journals, where Burney comes over as more witty and engaging than anyone would guess reading this book. Perhaps the part of Harman’s book I liked best is an appendix reproducing the work of a linguistic scholar, J. N. Waddell, who trawled through the Oxford English Dictionary picking out all the words and phrases first recorded in Burney’s works. It’s a remarkable tribute to her linguistic inventiveness and her ear for contemporary colloquial usage. Here are some of her ‘first occurrences’ that have made it into the language: ‘dine out’; ‘break down’ (of a vehicle); ‘distance’ (as a verb); ‘egotism;’ ‘elbow’ (as a verb); ‘far from it’ (as an exclamation); ‘formalize;’ ‘granddad;’ ‘lunch;’ ‘undefinably.’ And here are a few that sadly didn’t make the distance: ‘chaoticism’; ‘duberous’; ‘dutify’; ‘nothingist’; ‘unrobustify’. Shame!

  2. 4 out of 5

    Abigail Bok

    Anyone who sets up to be a biographer of a Burney had better be a speed reader: the entire Burney clan had a genetic predisposition to logorrhea. The most famous (today) member of the family—Fanny Burney, author of Evelina, Cecilia, Camilla, and The Wanderer—wrote continuously from her teens till her death in her eighties. Aside from the four novels, each longer than the last, there are plays, memoirs, screeds, and volume after volume of diary and letters. For this superior biography, Claire Harm Anyone who sets up to be a biographer of a Burney had better be a speed reader: the entire Burney clan had a genetic predisposition to logorrhea. The most famous (today) member of the family—Fanny Burney, author of Evelina, Cecilia, Camilla, and The Wanderer—wrote continuously from her teens till her death in her eighties. Aside from the four novels, each longer than the last, there are plays, memoirs, screeds, and volume after volume of diary and letters. For this superior biography, Claire Harman has mastered not just Fanny’s own writings but also significant chunks of those of her father, brothers, and other family members, as well as those of friends and associates. Every page is rich in quotation from these voluminous sources, but the quotes aren’t hauled in for show; they are organically integrated into a seamless narrative of Fanny’s life and times. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a more accomplished biographical study. This is all the more remarkable because Fanny Burney is not the first person I’d think of as providing rich fodder for such treatment. She was a literary celebrity in her day and knew many of the public figures of England and France, but she made no history of her own and her works are not widely honored as timeless classics. The novels she wrote later in life, in fact, are downright awful. Harman does not seek to elevate Burney above her talents or portray her as a sterling character. But in Harman’s portrayal she is a rich and complex person, a mix of conflicting ideas and impulses, embedded in the contradictory social and intellectual movements of her age. I found the person evoked in these pages believable and learned a great deal, both about Burney herself and about the literary and intellectual world of which she was an integral part. The last third of the biography is sketchier than the rest, but this is in part because Burney herself became a less assiduous journaler and autobiographer between 1800 and 1840, when she died. She also occupied a less central position in the cultural life of the day, being more focused on her role as wife, mother, and daughter, so the relative brevity is understandable. Beyond the facts of her external life, Harman also gives us a convincing take on Burney’s emotional landscape and includes penetrating critiques of the novels and plays. Reading this biography was enriching and enlightening for me.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Judy

    Having just finished, and greatly enjoyed, Burney's novel "Evelina" I am compelled to find out more about this author whose time, life circumstances and far-from-idle mind promise a fascinating study. Well educated and widely read, the daughter and amanuensis of a noted musical scholar whose acquaintance included a substantial Bohemian element (artists and actors), Burney was well placed to observe and consider people and society in all their colourful diversity. But her own personal experiences Having just finished, and greatly enjoyed, Burney's novel "Evelina" I am compelled to find out more about this author whose time, life circumstances and far-from-idle mind promise a fascinating study. Well educated and widely read, the daughter and amanuensis of a noted musical scholar whose acquaintance included a substantial Bohemian element (artists and actors), Burney was well placed to observe and consider people and society in all their colourful diversity. But her own personal experiences too are of interest - she had to write "Evelina" in secrecy (from some, such as her stepmother)it has been claimed, because writing (other than letters) was not viewed as an appropriate occupation for women in those days! She spent time in residence at Windsor Castle ( George III reigning)and so experienced first hand Court life and its strains; she later married a French emigre and lived in France during the unstable period of Napoleon's rule/s. Great fodder for her fiction, no doubt! And then she managed to live to a ripe old age (over 80 yrs), so I guess she witnessed significant transitions in society (French and English) over that span. Her letters must be mine of information.....I'd also like to gain a better idea of her place in literary history - yes, she is a well-known influence upon Jane Austen, but what did she contribute to the development of the novel, and to drama? What were the influences acting on her, and how did she respond to them? Completion Update: To say everything at once - all my expectations of an absorbing and satisfying read have been answered by Harman's biography. Posterity has been fortunate in receiving volumes of Fanny Burney's writings, including Letters and Journals (there are over 12 books of these) together with her fictional works. However, wading though all this material to get an overview of her life would be a daunting task which few of us have the time for. Harman's 350-page biography teases out the landmarks, key developments and turning points, relevant historical, cultural, and literary contexts, external and internal crises, and weaves these into a highly readable and insightful study which gives shape to Burney's extended personal history and to (not exclusively favourable) developments in her literary career. From the pages emerges an admirable but humanly flawed figure: her shortcomings as historian of her own family are well known (oh Fanny, those half-truths and inventions do you no credit!) but her remarkable - and lifelong - powers of observation and penetration, channeled into storytelling, have left us a great legacy.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Siria

    One of the better examples of a biography that I've read lately, Harman's book examines not only Fanny Burney's life, but gives us a wonderful glimpse of the wider world in which she found herself. It's well-written, with some lovely clear prose. I think the aspect of the book which I liked the most, however, was that Harman displayed a clear empathy with Burney, and a respect for her, but at the same time didn't allow that to blind herself to other aspects of the woman's personality. Harman has One of the better examples of a biography that I've read lately, Harman's book examines not only Fanny Burney's life, but gives us a wonderful glimpse of the wider world in which she found herself. It's well-written, with some lovely clear prose. I think the aspect of the book which I liked the most, however, was that Harman displayed a clear empathy with Burney, and a respect for her, but at the same time didn't allow that to blind herself to other aspects of the woman's personality. Harman has a very deft and concise way of exposing the contradictions, weaknesses and distinctive elements of Burney's personality which make her so fascinating to read about. A warning, though, that this is not the book to read if you don't want to hear about the details - and very in-depth details at that - of a mastectomy as performed in an era before the advent of anaesthesia or pain killers. *winces*

  5. 5 out of 5

    Lauren

    This is an interesting biography of a fascinating woman. Her life is almost as intriguing as her novels. Harman makes an attempt to analyze and understand what she terms "this complex, wordy woman," but recognized that, as Fanny has said, "precise investigation of the interior movements by which I may be impelled" was of questionable value, for as Fanny wrote: the intricasies of the human Heart are various as innumerable, & its feelings, upon all interesting occasions, are so minute & complex, as This is an interesting biography of a fascinating woman. Her life is almost as intriguing as her novels. Harman makes an attempt to analyze and understand what she terms "this complex, wordy woman," but recognized that, as Fanny has said, "precise investigation of the interior movements by which I may be impelled" was of questionable value, for as Fanny wrote: the intricasies of the human Heart are various as innumerable, & its feelings, upon all interesting occasions, are so minute & complex, as to baffle all the power of Language. What Addison has said of the Ways of Heaven, may with much more propriety & accuracy be applied to the Mind of Man, which indeed is Dark & Intricate, Filled with wild mazes, & perplexed with Error.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Nicole Perkins

    I haven't read any of Fanny Burney's work; being a Lit major with a strong interest in Women's Studies I feel that I should: Burney was after all one of the first women to make a living as a writer. Harman offers some fascinating insight to Burney's life and influences to her writing. Probably dyslexic, absolutely self-taught, Burney rose to become a popular novelist and playwright in her own time, and her works are still read and enjoyed today. I haven't read any of Fanny Burney's work; being a Lit major with a strong interest in Women's Studies I feel that I should: Burney was after all one of the first women to make a living as a writer. Harman offers some fascinating insight to Burney's life and influences to her writing. Probably dyslexic, absolutely self-taught, Burney rose to become a popular novelist and playwright in her own time, and her works are still read and enjoyed today.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jodi

    This is a very well-written and comprehensive biography of an interesting subject, but I think it requires some independent historical context and knowledge of Miss Burney's works in order to appreciate it. For a reader lacking that basic background of Georgian politics and literature, I think it might be hard to get through. Not that you have to be an expert on this period of British history, but some knowledge is helpful. I found the book is more informative than entertaining. This is a very well-written and comprehensive biography of an interesting subject, but I think it requires some independent historical context and knowledge of Miss Burney's works in order to appreciate it. For a reader lacking that basic background of Georgian politics and literature, I think it might be hard to get through. Not that you have to be an expert on this period of British history, but some knowledge is helpful. I found the book is more informative than entertaining.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Patricia

    This was a fair-minded and well written biography. It was especially interesting to learn about Burney's many creative neologisms. This was a fair-minded and well written biography. It was especially interesting to learn about Burney's many creative neologisms.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Josie Moralez

  10. 5 out of 5

    Lemon

  11. 4 out of 5

    Milad

  12. 5 out of 5

    Steve

  13. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

  14. 4 out of 5

    Bob

  15. 5 out of 5

    Rick-Founder JM CM BOOK CLUB

  16. 5 out of 5

    Rosy

  17. 5 out of 5

    Ann Brogan

  18. 5 out of 5

    Kristen

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

  20. 4 out of 5

    Ejb

  21. 5 out of 5

    Bonnie Goodwin

  22. 5 out of 5

    Kristi

  23. 5 out of 5

    Wortumdrehung

  24. 5 out of 5

    WeiChien Kuo

  25. 4 out of 5

    Saskia

  26. 4 out of 5

    Maranda

  27. 5 out of 5

    Lisa Christian

  28. 4 out of 5

    Meredith

  29. 4 out of 5

    Francesca Page-Smith

  30. 4 out of 5

    Caroline

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