British and Irish Literature Frances Burney
Hilary Havens, Peter Sabor
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 March 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 September 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0008


Frances Burney (b. 1752–d. 1840), the third child of the famous musicologist Dr. Charles Burney and his wife, Esther Sleepe Burney, was born in King’s Lynn, Norfolk. Before her eighth birthday the family moved to London, where she began writing journals, plays, and a novel, all voluntarily destroyed in 1767 on her fifteenth birthday. In 1768 she resumed her journal writing, and in 1778 she published her first novel, Evelina, anonymously. The revelation of its authorship brought Burney immediate fame and led to her friendships with Samuel Johnson and members of his circle, including Sir Joshua Reynolds and Hester Thrale. When her first play, The Witlings, was suppressed at the urging of her father and a family friend, Samuel Crisp, she began work on her second novel, Cecilia, published to great acclaim in 1782. After an abortive courtship by George Owen Cambridge, in 1786 she accepted a position at court as Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte. Here, embittered by the harshness of her domineering colleague Elizabeth Schwellenberg, she endured an unhappy existence until 1791. In 1793 she married Alexandre d’Arblay, an aristocratic but penniless French refugee in England; their only child, Alexander, was born in 1794. She wrote her third novel, Camilla (1796), to provide an inheritance for their son and to build their home, Camilla Cottage, at Norbury Park, the seat of her friends the Locks. Burney and her husband lived in France from 1802 to 1812, interned there by Napoleon. She was also in France in 1814–1815, recording in her journals the final stages of the Napoleonic Wars. French and English relations are major themes in her final novel, The Wanderer (1814). Widowed in 1818, she lived in London for the remainder of her life, publishing the autobiographical Memoirs of Doctor Burney in 1832. In addition to her novels, Burney is distinguished for her dramatic writing and her journals and letters. She wrote four comic dramas and four tragedies. None of these was published, and only one, the tragedy Edwy and Elgiva, was produced during her lifetime. Burney’s journals and letters, written over a seventy-year period from 1768 to 1839, are renowned for their remarkable range and variety, and for her ability to bring the world around her to life.

General Overviews

These representative general studies take up a broad range of themes. Most critical studies after the mid-1980s have been heavily influenced by feminism. Straub 1987 examines the difficulties Burney experienced as she became a published author. Anger and violence are also popular subthemes: Epstein 1989 finds latent and explicit sources of rage in Burney’s writings; Rogers 1990, in contrast, reads Burney as a conventional figure who could vent her emotions only subversively; while Zonitch 1997 interprets the violence in Burney’s prose as her reaction to the diminishing power of the patriarchy. In recent years, studies of Burney have often been the fruits of international scholarship: Song 2005 considers the significance of naming in Burney’s novels and life, while Saggini 2012 explores theatrical elements within Burney’s prose.

  • Epstein, Julia. The Iron Pen: Frances Burney and the Politics of Women’s Writing. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

    A feminist reading of all of Burney’s novels that connects them to her journals and various aspects of her life. Suggests that implicit and explicit “reservoirs of rage” in Burney’s writings are linked to the constricted situation of women toward the end of the eighteenth century.

  • Rogers, Katharine M. Frances Burney: The World of Female Difficulties. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990.

    Emphasizes Burney’s conventional leanings and proposes that each of her novels blends her acceptance of prevailing social norms with her transgressive protest against them.

  • Saggini, Francesca. Backstage in the Novel: Frances Burney and the Theater Arts. Translated by Laura Kopp. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012.

    Focuses on affinities between the 18th-century novel and the theater, highlighting theatrical elements in Burney’s fiction. Contains chapters on Evelina, The Witlings, Cecilia, and The Wanderer, as well as a comprehensive appendix on the actors and the theatrical and musical performances mentioned in Burney’s writings between 1768 and 1804.

  • Song, Min. The Problem of the Name: A Culture-Oriented Eclectic Approach to the Issue of Identity in Frances Burney’s World. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2005.

    The first monograph on Burney published in China, where there is an emerging field of Burney criticism. It focuses on the trope of naming, a central problem in both Burney’s life and works.

  • Straub, Kristina. Divided Fictions: Fanny Burney and Feminine Strategy. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987.

    Focuses on Burney’s entrance into the literary world, and hence on her first two novels, particularly Evelina. A feminist interpretation that explores the alienating experience of public authorship on the private, female self.

  • Zonitch, Barbara. Familiar Violence: Gender and Social Upheaval in the Novels of Frances Burney. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997.

    Interprets Burney’s preoccupation with violence as her response to the “death of aristocratic social domination”; without the protection of paternalism, women are subjected to the “escalating violence of the modern world” (p. 14). Contains chapters on each of Burney’s novels, focusing on the difficulties experienced by her heroines.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.