Frances Burney, Privacy, and Female Writing Practices in 18th-Century England

Frances Burney (1752-1840), or Madame D’Arblay, second daughter of Charles Burney, born in Norfolk, England, was a writer who achieved success through her four main works: Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1782), Camilla (1796) and The Wanderer (1814). From a young age, Frances Burney developed her writing skills. However, before becoming a writer, she kept a diary and communicated via correspondence with family and friends. Her literary career began with the anonymous publication of Evelina, Or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World. In this work, the trajectory of the young woman opens up the possibility of examining and reflecting on the historical, social, and literary context of 18th-century England, as well as the author herself, Frances Burney, through her writings in his diary and letters.  Here, I propose to analyze the private writing practices of a young Frances Burney before becoming an author – that is, her diary and her letters from 1768 to 1778. In this period, Frances was still single and living with her father, but was already involved in English aristocratic society. Considering that diaries and letters are configured as a form of private writing, her work also covers privacy and its influence on the writing of 18th-century English women.

Portrait of future femme du général Alexandre d’Arblay (elle n’épouse cet émigré français qu’en 1793), Frances, alias ‘Fanny’ Burney (1752-1840), British writer, par son frère. Edward Burney (ca. 1784-1785)

In order to research Frances Burney’s writing practices, it is crucial to understand female education ideals in the early modern period. Reading and writing, at that time, were almost exclusively intended for noble women. Yet, such practices were still mostly restricted to the private sphere. Female literary expression was highly contested and judged, and often, for this reason, when their intellectual works managed to advance and surpass this private circulation, they achieved this anonymously, as was the case for Burney. Furthermore, it is important to emphasize that the education of women at the time was mostly focused on what would provide them with good marriage prospects.

Frances’ Father, Charles Burney, by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1781

This brings us to another important point: male support. In Frances Burney’s case, it was her father who encouraged her love of reading, which later led her to seek refuge in pen and paper. Her diary, in turn, can demonstrate the cultural practices of this period, as well as reporting the thoughts and feelings of an individual. Thus, by adding the necessary filters, such as class, race, and gender, it is possible to consider what the private thoughts of (at least part of) the population were like. In Frances Burney’s diary, we can observe from her reports what were the thoughts, feelings, and vulnerabilities of an aristocratic woman in 18th-century English society. However, the biggest paradox in her diary occurs right at the beginning, where Burney states that she needs to write to someone she trusts completely and, thus, decides to write to nobody. However, her diary circulated among a selected circle of family and friends. As such, her diary tensions the public and the private at the moment she states that she could only reveal her most intimate feelings and thoughts, as well as conversations with third parties, to ‘no one’, and, even so, she chooses to circulate the diary.

Letter From Fanny Burney To Dr Charles Burney (https://blogs.ncl.ac.uk/speccoll/2015/09/20/frances-burney-correspondence/, accessed on 25 January 2024)

Similarly, her letters lend themselves to a wide range of analyses: historical, literary, lexical, paleographic, and gender. Furthermore, like the diary, letters give us the possibility of observing privacy. In letters, it was possible to report anguish, desires, and uncertainties, as well as detail everyday events, as Frances Burney did. It was possible to see that Burney was very aware of what to say and who to say it to, or rather, what to write and who to write it to. In fact, we can consider that Frances knew how to move between public and private very well. She did not see her writing in the private sphere as an obstacle. In fact, she used this strategy of circulating the diary among a selected group as, possibly, a way of “measuring” her writing skills. Furthermore, Frances was able to use the sociability of her father and, consequently, her family to strengthen ties with intellectuals of the time. From this, she gained benefits such as friendship with playwright Samuel Crisp. She was also able to enter Hester Thrale’s Streatham salon, which included Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds and Edmund Burke as members. Consequently, she secured her place in the society of the important Bluestockings, alongside Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Carter and Hester Chapone. Therefore, beyond the question of being a good writer from an aristocratic family, Burney was welcomed by intellectual circles in which gender mattered.

* This post was based on my research as a history bachelor at Universidade Federal de Santa Maria, which culminated in my BA thesis: Writing to Nobody: Privacidade e Práticas de Escrita Feminina na Inglaterra do Século XVIII a partir da Escritora Frances Burney, defended in 2023 under the supervision of Adriano Comissoli and Natacha Klein Käfer.

REFERENCES

BURNEY, Frances. Journals and Letters. Penguin Classics, 2001.

CHISHOLM, Kate. The Burney family. In: SABOR, Peter. The Cambridge Companion to Frances Burney Edited by Peter Sabor. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2007.

CIVALE, Susan. The Literary Afterlife of Frances Burney and the Victorian Periodical Press. Victorian Periodicals Review, 2011, vol.44 no.3, p.236-266. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/236760729_The_Literary_Afterlife_of_Frances_Burney_and_the_Victorian_Periodical_Pres, accessed  24 set. 2023.

CONCEIÇÃO, Adriana Angelita da. Sentir, escrever e governar: a prática epistolar eas cartas de D. Luís de Almeida, 2º Marquês do Lavradio (1768-1779). Tese (Doutoradoem História). São Paulo, Faculdade de Filosofia, Letras e Ciências Humanas daUniversidade de São Paulo, 2011.

DAYBELL, James. Early Modern Women’s Letter Writing, 1450-1700. London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

ELK, Martine Van. Early Modern Women’s Writing – Domesticity, Privacy, and the Public Sphere in England and the Dutch Republic. In: HADFIELD, Andrew. O’Callaghan, Michelle. Early Modern Literature in History. 2017.

GOREAU, Angeline. The Whole Duty of a Woman: female writers in seventeenth-century England. Doubleday & Company, New York, 1985.

GREEN, Michäel. Public and Private in Jewish Egodocuments of Amsterdam. In: BRUUN, Mette. GREEN, Michäel. NORGAARD, Lars. Early Modern Privacy –Sources and Approaches. Leiden, Brill, 2022.

JONES, Vivien. Burney and Gender. In: SABOR, Peter. The Cambridge Companion to Frances Burney Edited by Peter Sabor. New York, Cambridge University Press,2007. p.117.

KÄFER, Natacha Klein. PEREZ, Natália da Silva. Situating Women’s Private Practices of Knowledge Production in the Early Modern Context. In: KÄFER, Natacha; PEREZ, Natália. Women’s Private Practices of Knowledge Production in Early Modern Europe. Cham, Palgrave Macmillan, 2024.

LUCA, Tânia Regina de. Diários pessoais – Territórios abertos para a História. In: PINSKY, Carla. O Historiador e suas Fontes. São Paulo, Contexto, 2009.

PACHECO, Anita. A Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

PAUL, Mary. Frances Burney’s Marketing of Evelina to a Gendered Market. In: PAUL, Mary. Marketing Women’s Writing in Eighteenth-Century England: The Consideration of Audience in the Works of Mary Astell, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Frances Burney. Dissertação (Mestrado em Inglês). Fresno. 101 p. 2005.

PEREZ, Natália da Silva. Lady Jane Lumley’s Private Education and Its Political Resonances. In: KÄFER, Natacha. PEREZ, Natália. Women’s Private Practices of Knowledge Production in Early Modern Europe. Cham, Palgrave Macmillan, 2024.

RAMOS, Beatriz Rodrigues. Evelina, de Frances Burney: romance de educação.Dissertação (Mestrado em Letras) – Faculdade de Filosofia, Letras e Ciências Humanasda Universidade de São Paulo, São Paulo, 86 p. 2022.

RODRÍGUEZ, Carmen Mª Fernández. Frances Burney and female friendships: some notes on Cecilia (1782) and The Wanderer (1814). Journal of English Studies, vol. 9, p.109-123. 2011. <Frances Burney and Female Friendships: Some Notes on “Cecilia” (1783) y “The Wanderer” (1814) Journal of English Studies (unirioja.es)>, accessed on: 17 ago. 2023.

VICKERY, Amanda. A Self off the Shelf: The Rise of the Pocket Diary in Eighteenth-Century England. Eighteenth-Century Studies, 2021, vol. 54, no. 3. p. 667–86. <Project MUSE – A Self off the Shelf: The Rise of the Pocket Diary in Eighteenth-Century England (jhu.edu)>, accessed on: 07 set. 2023.

WADDELL, Brodie. Writing History from Below: Chronicling and Record-Keeping inEarly Modern England. History Workshop Journal, 2018, vol. 85, p. 239-264. <eprints.bbk.ac.uk/id/eprint/20709/1/Waddell – Writing History from Below(accepted ms).pdf>. accessed on 03 out. 2023.

WARD, Jennifer C. Letter-Writing by English Noblewomen in the Early Fifteenth Century. In: DAYBELL, James. Early Modern Women’s Letter Writing, 1450-1700. London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

WAXIN, Isabelle Lémonon. From Behind the Folding Screen to the Collège de France: Victorine de Chastenay’s Privacy Dynamics for Knowledge in the Making. In: KÄFER,Natacha. PEREZ, Natália. Women’s Private Practices of Knowledge Production in Early Modern Europe. Cham, Palgrave Macmillan, 2024.

WILTSHIRE, John. Journals and Letters. In: SABOR, Peter. The CambridgeCompanion to Frances Burney Edited by Peter Sabor. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search