Frances "Fanny" Burney witnessed a large amount of history and generated a significant share of it herself during her long and interesting life.
Burney, who lived from 1752 to 1840, gained fame in the 1770s with the publication of "Evelina," a pioneering English novel. Seen as a precursor to Jane Austen, she wrote several other novels, none of them as brilliant as the satirical "Evelina." The book's success brought her into London's literary world, where she enjoyed the company of Samuel Johnson and his circle.
Later, she served for five years as "keeper of the robes" for Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. George's mental illness led to his son, eventually George IV, taking over for much of his reign, the dynamic times known as "the Regency." After marrying a French solider, Alexandre d'Arblay, Burney also witnessed events surrounding Waterloo.
Burney's journals, first published in the early Victorian era, for years eclipsed the reputation of her novels. The journals detail her days at court, although she was circumspect about the onset of George III's insanity, and life in Johnson's London. She also discusses undergoing excruciating breast surgery without anesthetic and her Waterloo-related experiences.
Her life spanned an era of monumental events, including the transformation from a rural to an industrial economy. She and her generation also witnessed the French and American revolutions, the rise and fall of Napoleon, explosive population growth, the onset of an urban middle class and the beginning of rail and steamship transportation.
Oxford University Press is now publishing Burney's court journals and letters from 1786-1791, when she served Queen Charlotte. Vols III-IV, covering 1788, comes out in September. Thomas Keymer jn the Aug. 27 London Review of Books gives an entertaining and informative overview of Burney's life and work.
Burney stands out as a representative of a generation that witnessed tremendous social and cultural change. Her journals are among the most vital chronicles of those shifting eras, and now her novels are undergoing reconsideration, with "Evelina" again acclaimed as a classic. Burney led a rich and eventful life, and her journals and novels make her one of her time's most interesting writers.