Why This Room is Special

Frances Burney

Novels

It would be impossible to bind Frances Burney’s novels in one book. Between 1778 and 1814 she published four novels which ran to no less than eighteen volumes.

Burney’s prodigious output is all the more impressive because she had still not mastered reading by the age of eight. Family friends nicknamed her ‘the little dunce’, and nobody imagined she would become a famous novelist.

Once Burney did start ‘scribbling’, as she put it, she didn’t stop. By the age of fifteen she had begun the diary which is now an important source for scholars of the eighteenth century. But she kept her endeavours hidden, even burning the manuscript of her first novel. Then in 1778, aged twenty six, she published Evelina, or the History of Young Lady’s Entrance into the World. Although Evelina was published anonymously, it turned out to be Burney’s entrance into the world too.

With Evelina, Burney had invented a new genre of fiction: the novel of manners, which explores the impact of custom and convention on our lives. Today the best-known examples of this type of fiction are Austen’s novels. The closing paragraph of Burney’s Cecilia (1782), from which the words ‘PRIDE’ and ‘PREJUDICE’ jump out in capitals no less than three times, is thought to have given Austen the idea for the title of her most famous novel. Austen was also among the subscribers to Burney’s third novel Camilla (1796).

In 1810, Burney discovered she had breast cancer. Miraculously, she survived a mastectomy without anaesthetic, and wrote an unflinching account of her experience. She went on to outlive her husband and son.

C.H.

Frances Burney, book spine
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