No fairytale life at the palace for Fanny Burney

Many a young girl, I suspect, has dreamed of being a lady-in-waiting to a queen. The words conjure up a life of glamour and excitement, and the possibility of meeting Prince Charming. But when Fanny Burney was asked to serve Queen Charlotte as Second Keeper of the Robes, she had a feeling it would be a disaster. Instead of having time for her writing, she would be required to wait on the queen at least three times a day, to help her get dressed, to choose her ornaments and fan, and to help dress her hair. Charles Burney, Fanny’s father, was proud to have his daughter serve in the Court and strongly encouraged her to take the position. She would receive an apartment of her own and 200 pounds a year, a nice supplement to the family income.

The court of George III was not known for its culture or style. Fanny went there in 1786 and served almost five years, but she found Court life stifling. Fanny admired Queen Charlotte because of her high moral standards, but the queen was not a well-educated woman and was not interested in books or intellectual discussion. After Fanny’s life at home associating with artists, musicians and writers, the endless rules and formality of court life were hard to accept. Everyone was required to back out of the presence of the King and walking backwards in a long skirt was a difficult skill to master. Fanny knew that it was her success as an author that led to her appointment at the Court, but she found the monarchs knew little about her books. In her diary she recorded this conversation with the king:

“How came you—how happened it—what?—what?”
“I-I only wrote, Sir, for my own amusement,–only in some odd, idle hours.”
“But your publishing—your printing,–how was that?
“That was only, sir, –only because—“
I hesitated most abominably, not knowing how to tell him a long story, and growing terribly confused at these questions;….
The What! was then repeated, with so earnest a look, that, forced to say something, I stammeringly answered—
“I thought-sir-it would look very well in print.”

Fanny found her life at Court far from a fairytale. Much of it was a series of difficult conversations with people who shared neither her interests nor her talents. To make matters worse, while she was still in this post, King George became ill and suffered bouts of manic energy and feverish behavior. No one knew the cause of his illness and no doctor could cure it; it wasn’t until the 20th century that his rare illness, porphyria, was determined to be the cause of his attacks of madness. Living through the attacks was difficult for the Queen and for Fanny who had to report to her on the condition of the king each morning.

It is no wonder that Fanny grew increasingly unhappy in her service to the Queen, and yet it was not easy to find a way out. She found it difficult to eat and lost weight, her anxiety made her breathless and dizzy. She tried several times to resign from her post, and her friends urged the Queen to let her go, but it took months before her wish was granted and she could return to live with her family again.

Fanny Burney's tombstone
Fanny Burney’s tombstone
From that time on, Fanny Burney’s efforts to make money were all turned toward writing, and she was successful with her novels. It is nice to think that he life was made happier by a late marriage to a French aristocrat, Alexandre d’Arblay, a refugee from the French revolution. The marriage was a happy one and the couple had one son. Fanny continued to write to support her family; she endured a mastectomy without anesthesia, and lived to be 88 years old. Her books are still available online and in many libraries as well several biographies of her. One of the more recent ones is Fanny Burney by Claire Harman, a fascinating introduction to a woman worth knowing.

Fanny Burney–an Indie author from the past

Title page of EvelinaEngraving of Fanny BurneySometimes when the news seems impossible to bear, as it has these past few weeks with the tragedy in Boston and suffering in Syria, I turn back to the past to escape the dreadful present times. Of course, the past isn’t any better than today, but at least the pain of those days has passed and people survived despite all their troubles. One of my favorite periods of the past is the 18th century, when manners were formal and civility masked much of the cruelty of the times.

One of my favorite people of the 18th century is Fanny Burney, a woman born in 1752, who was considered so dull and backward by her family that she was never educated at all. The Burney children grew up in a busy household because their father was a popular music teacher and had many students from the London’s society world. Her brothers and sisters were given tutors or sent to school, but poor Fanny grew up a silent watcher of what went on in the world around her. When she was eight years old she still could not read and no one noticed how or when she finally caught on to how to do it. But reading led to writing and eventually Fanny was able to use her hours of quiet observation to write a series of novels that expertly caught the social life of the times.

Fanny was eager to publish her book, but unlike today’s authors, she tried to do it secretly. She arranged with a bookseller to print her book and distribute it and watched and waited for it to be discovered. Like most writers even today, she sometimes worried about putting her work before the world. In her diary she wrote:“I have an exceeding odd sensation, when I consider that it is now in the power of any and every body to read what I so carefully hoarded even from my best friends, till this last month or two; and that a work which was so lately lodged, in all privacy in my bureau, may now be seen by every butcher and baker, cobbler and tinker, throughout the three kingdoms, for the small tribute of threepence.”

Despite her fears, she was thrilled when she was told by friends and relatives that they had discovered a remarkable new book. She was pleased to listen to an aunt read the book to her invalid brother and laughed to think they had decided it must be the work of a man. Soon enough however, her family and others learned who the true author was and Fanny Burney was launched on a new and illustrious career as one of England’s most popular authors. Jane Austen loved her books and was influenced by her success. The quiet girl became a favorite in society; she served as a lady-in-waiting for Queen Charlotte. Then, in a development worthy of her own books, she married happily and had a son. She suffered many of the trials that have become familiar in modern life, including breast cancer, but she survived.

Best of all, her novels and diaries are still readable and available in most libraries as well as incredibly inexpensively online. In fact I’m going to search out my Kindle and read my 99-cent version of Evelina. I’ll write more about Fanny next time.