Before Jane Austen, there was Fanny Burney, one of Britain’s first female novelists

Fanny Burney is considered one of Britain’s first female novelists, writing sharp satirical stories which poked fun at the foibles of fashionable society a few decades before Jane Austen.  She was a frequent visitor to Brighton, often staying here as a guest of Hester Thrales, and joining her in the sea for a dip.

Fanny Burney, by Charles Turner, published by Paul and Dominic Colnaghi & Co, after Edward Francisco Burney mezzotint, published 16 May 1840 NPG D13846 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Fanny was born into a large family in Kings Lynn, Suffolk.  Her father was a successful musician.  Although her two sisters were sent to Paris for an education Fanny was considered not very bright – it’s been suggested she may have had dyslexia – so had no formal education. This gave her the freedom to read whatever she liked at home, write diaries, and start to make up stories, or ‘scribblings’ as she called them.  Aged fifteen, with the notion that writing wasn’t a respectable activity for a young lady, she destroyed her first novel.  At some point it appears the urge to write won out the urge to be a respectable young lady.

Evelina, Volume II, 1779 edition

Her first and most famous novel, ‘Evelina’ appeared in 1778, published anonymously and without the knowledge of her father.  Written in letter form, ‘Evelina’ charts the progress of a seventeen year old woman as she negotiates the many traps, challenges and dangers of being a young woman of marriageable age in the eighteenth century.  The novel is pioneering for its use of a female protagonist – a rare thing at the time – its satirical view of fashionable society, and its mocking of the masculine values that shaped women’s lives.  Writing a good few years before Jane Austen, Burney was well aware of the pitfalls of the cynical marriage market that had no room for love and saw partners only in terms of how much money they were worth.

The novel was a huge success, gaining praise from literary heavyweights of the age, and after a few months Burney owned up to being the author.  Consequently, she fell into Hester Thrale’s orbit and became part of the artistic, cultural and political set who gathered around the Thrales in Streatham.  In 1779, she stayed here in Brighton with the Thrale family and wrote in her diary how much she enjoyed sea-bathing.

Fanny went on to write four novels, eight plays, one biography and twenty-five volumes of journals and letters.

She put off marriage until her early forties, marrying a French emigre, General Alexandre D’Arblay in 1793.  They had one son.

A footnote to Fanny Burney’s career is the description of a mastectomy that she underwent in France in 1810.  Anaesthetic had yet to be invented and Burney remained conscious throughout the surgery.  The incredibly detailed operation, described in a letter to her sister, is considered the earliest known description of this procedure by a woman. Burney survived the operation, living until her 80s, outliving her husband and son, and finally settling in Bath.

This is an extract from Louise Peskett’s forthcoming book, Brighton Women, the Notable and the Notorious: A Guided Walk

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