A woman briefly rivaled his success in fiction. She was born in 1752 to Charles Burney, the future historian of music. She was brought up on notes rather than on letters; till she was eight she could not read;16 no one dreamed that she would be a writer. Her mother died when Frances was nine. As almost all the musicians who performed in London came to her father’s home, and attracted to it a good portion of the elite, Fanny acquired education by listening to words and music. She matured slowly, was shy and plain, and took forty years to find a husband. When her famous novel was published (January, 1778) she was twenty-five, and was so fearful lest it displease her father that she concealed her authorship. Evelina, or A Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, made a stir. Anonymity aroused curiosity; rumor said a girl of seventeen had written it. Johnson, who had been praised in its preface, praised it, and recommended it to Dr. Burney. Mrs. Thrale complained that it was too short. When Mrs. Thrale learned the secret it spread over London; Fanny became a lioness of society; everybody read her book, and “my kind and most devoted father was so happy in my happiness.”17
Her art lay in describing, with lingering memory and lively imagination, how the world of London society appeared to an orphaned girl of seventeen who had been brought up by a rural parson not at all like Laurence Sterne. Doubtless Fanny too had thrilled to Garrick’s acting, and had felt as Evelina wrote to her guardian: “Such ease! such vivacity in his manner! such grace in his motions! such fire and meaning in his eyes! … And when he danced, O, how I envied Clarinda! I almost wished to have jumped on the stage and joined them.”18 London, wearying of its vice, felt cleansed by the fresh wind blowing from these youthful pages.
That once famous novel is dead, but the diary that Fanny kept is still a living part of English literature and history, for it offers a near view of celebrities from Johnson and George III to Herschel and Napoleon. Queen Charlotte made Miss Burney her keeper of the robes (1786), and for the next five years Fanny dressed and undressed her Majesty. The constrained and narrow life nearly stifled the authoress; at last her friends rescued her, and in 1793, youth quite gone, she married a ruined émigré, General d’Ar-blay. She supported him by her writings and her income; for ten years she lived with him in France and obscurity, isolated by the intensity of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. In 1814 she was allowed to return to England and receive the last blessing of her father, who died at the age of eighty-eight. She herself lived to that age, into quite a different world, which did not realize that the famous Jane Austen (died 1817) had taken her inspiration from the forgotten novels of a forgotten lady who was still alive in 1840.