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  1. Frances Burney
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  5. Frances Burney - New World Encyclopedia

Claire Harman does a very good job of detailing An important, comprehensive view of the pioneering novelist and playwright Burney, who has been enjoying a recent revival Janice Farrar Thaddeus's Frances Burney, , has a thorough Fanny Burney : A Biography. Claire Harman.

Frances Burney

Harman excels in the vivid presentation of scenes, the selection of detail She was anxious that she might turn into an author, a fate incompatible - for a woman - with respectability. Burney brought Fanny into contact with some of the best-known artists and intellects of the day in a coterie centering around the brilliant Mrs.

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Thrale and Samuel Johnson. Fanny herself was an unusual little girl: in a family of high achievers, she still could not read the alphabet at the age of 8 and was called the ''little dunce'' by a family friend. She did, however, have a remarkable memory for conversation and a talent for making up imaginative detail, which Harman suggests may have been compensation for unrecognized dyslexia. Eventually writing became Burney's way of combining the imaginative powers and detailed social observations that were her talents, allowing her to reshape experience in a form that gave her great private pleasure.

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Burney began the diary she later edited for the public at the age of 15, addressing it with apparent artlessness to ''Nobody'': ''To Nobody can I reveal every thought. About the same time she burned the highly romantic fictions she had been obsessively writing for years. Yet she was soon at work on a new manuscript, a book that she wrote in secret and anonymously published in at the age of As Mrs.

Thrale was said to remark, ''There's a great deal of human Life in this book. It's writ by somebody that knows the top and the bottom -- the highest and lowest of Mankind.

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View all New York Times newsletters. To Burney's amazement, ''Evelina'' received excellent reviews and was immensely popular, thanks to its spirited social observations and sharp satiric turns which would prove a major influence on Jane Austen. Soon all of London was guessing who the author could be, and Burney had the pleasurable embarrassment of hearing her friends and family praise the book in front of her without having a notion that the author was in the room.

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With her facility for mimicking conversation, she became celebrated for depicting the pretentious, the vulgar and the roguish with the same animation as the morally uplifting characters. According to Burney, Dr.

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Johnson once exclaimed about her portrait of a vulgarian, ''Madam, there is no Character better drawn any where -- in any book, or by any Author. Once out of the literary closet, Burney followed ''Evelina'' with three other novels -- Cecilia,'' ''Camilla'' and ''The Wanderer'' -- but her growing fame did not bring her wealth or security.

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Instead, she spent five years at court as Second Keeper of the Robes to the dull, stodgy Queen Charlotte, a miserable period of her life that for Burney was like being trapped in a polite, privileged jailhouse. Yet though her pictures of court life are, as always, sharply observed she was with King George and his family when news came of the fall of the Bastille , she maintained a sentimental view of aristocracy and wealth that was consistent with the fate of her heroines.

This stifling period of confinement was followed by the most exciting time of Burney's life, when her already extensive intellectual and social network was enlarged by a brilliant, witty circle of exiled French aristocrats and their English sympathizers, a band that included Louis de Narbonne the ex-minister of war , Talleyrand and the notorious Mme.

Another member of the circle was a close friend of Narbonne's who had served under Lafayette, Chevalier d'Arblay, a year-old unemployed and penniless minor nobleman who was to become Burney's husband and the father of her only child, a son born when she was Following her husband to his native land, Burney sent home long, richly detailed accounts of life in postrevolutionary France, as well as a riveting account of her harrowing mastectomy, performed without anesthetic of any sort after a possibly erroneous diagnosis of cancer. She died at 87, having outlived both her beloved husband and only child, as well as nearly all the siblings and friends who had been her intimate correspondents.

Today few seem willing to plow through the three volumes of ''Evelina,'' much less ''Cecilia'' or ''Camilla.

Frances Burney - New World Encyclopedia

In recent years, Fanny Burney has been rediscovered by academics, including some who have insisted that she wrote her novels as a feminist rebellion against the plight of women in her time, though Burney herself was a staunch conservative in matters political and social. It is disconcerting to see the otherwise wryly critical Harman accept this interpretation at face value; she describes Burney as possessing a ''natural and powerful feminism'' and ''Evelina'' as ''profoundly feminist,'' though in fact the heroine's tribulations are resolved at the end by recognition from her wealthy father and marriage to a perfect, adoring aristocrat.

Even in Burney's own time, Mary Wollstonecraft was setting a much higher standard for radical ideas about being female, ideas that, as Harman admits, horrified the author of ''Evelina. Whether or not Burney was a heroine for our times, her life and work are worth remembering, and Claire Harman's book introduces both to a contemporary audience with lively wit and grace. Please upgrade your browser. See next articles.