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.