Sample text for Fanny Burney : a biography / Claire Harman.

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Chapter 1


A Low Race of Mortals

The Burneys are I believe a very low Race of Mortals," wrote Dr. Johnson's confidante Hester Thrale in February 1779 of her daughter's music master and his family. The remark was scribbled in the margin of her journal as a gloss on her opinion that Dr. Burney's second daughter, Fanny, was "not a Woman of Fashion."1 This was such an obvious thing to say about twenty-six-year-old Fanny Burney that it hardly bore mentioning, unless from mild spite. The Burneys were indeed not "people of Fashion"; they were representative of the coming class, the intelligentsia: self-made, self-educated, self-conscious people in uneasy amity with their wealthy and well-born patrons. No doubt those patrons found it obliquely threatening that a "low race" could produce so many high achievers: in 1779 Dr. Burney, author, composer and teacher, was halfway through publishing his ground-breaking General History of Music; Fanny had shot to fame the previous year with her first novel, Evelina; another of the Burney daughters was a famous harpsichordist; and one of the sons had circumnavigated the world with Captain Cook. The Burneys, and people like them, had every reason to think they were being admired rather than sneered at.

There had been no patrimony, titles or property to smooth Dr. Burney's path in life; he had achieved his position through a combination of natural genius and unstinting hard work, his eye forever on the main chance, his "spare person" worn to a ravelling. Mrs. Thrale claimed not to understand the devotion Burney inspired in his children-"tis very seldom that a person's own family will give him Credit for Talents which bring in no money to make them fine or considerable,"2 she wrote in her diary; but what was "no money" to Mrs. Thrale was riches to the Burneys, just as their reception among the "Great folks"-at her own house, Streatham Park, for instance-was more than enough to make them feel "considerable." Fanny Burney's pride in the insignificant-looking man who had effected these miracles was boundless, and she saw no absurdity in describing her father as the powerful "trunk" of the Burney tree.3 Charles Burney had so successfully overcome his humble background that he really did seem to have sprung up from nowhere and to have started his family history afresh.

One of the Doctor's other harpsichord pupils in 1779 (they were all young ladies "of Fashion") had told Mrs. Thrale that "these Burney's are Irish people I'm sure; Mac Burneys they used to be called."4 Where the girl picked up this information one can hardly imagine, unless through class instinct; the Doctor did not advertise his changed name. Charles MacBurney, as he was first known, was born in Shrewsbury in 1726, the twin to a sister called Susanna and the youngest son of his father's second family. His grandfather, James, who was of Scottish or Irish descent (accounts differ), had had an estate in Shropshire and a house in Whitehall in the late seventeenth century, but by the time of Charles's birth the family money had all but disappeared. The story goes that the grandfather MacBurney was so disgusted by his son James running off with a young actress, Rebecca Ellis, that he disinherited him. The old gentleman rather perversely followed up this gesture of affronted rectitude by marrying his own cook and starting a second family, of whom the eldest son, Joseph, inherited most of the property. This son frittered his inheritance away, was imprisoned for debt and supported himself later by becoming a dancing-master; but despite his fall from grace and wealth, he seemed happy with his lot (or so Charles Burney, his half-nephew, thought when they met in the 1750s), and that branch of the family was noted for its cheerfulness and striking good looks.

The outcast older brother James and his teenaged bride Rebecca had their first child in 1699 and went on to have fourteen more over the next twenty years, of whom at least nine survived. James had been expensively educated at Westminster School and had had some training in portrait painting under Michael Dahl, a fashionable Swedish portraitist who had painted the Swedish royal family as well as Queen Anne and members of the English aristocracy. James's character was not, however, one to capitalise on these advantages, being "volatile, & improvident."5 He was more concerned with keeping up his reputation as a convivial dinner-guest and bon-viveur (an activity which presumably got him away from his home full of babies) than with establishing himself in any one place or profession long enough to make anything of his talents as a painter, dancer, copyist or fiddler. As one of his children recorded later, the inevitable consequence of his fecklessness was that "his family was left to lament, that his talent for pleasantry, & love of sociability, overcame his prudential care, either for himself or them."6

Poor Rebecca MacBurney, the mother of fifteen children and still only in her thirties, died, it is assumed, sometime before 1720. That was the date at which James made his second marriage, to Ann Cooper of Shrewsbury, the daughter of a herald painter. A painting said to be of Ann Cooper shows a very handsome and assured young woman. She is reputed to have had a small fortune and to have turned down an offer of marriage from the poet William Wycherley;* both these things make it the more mysterious that she accepted the proposal of James MacBurney, unemployed forty-two-year-old father of nine. But MacBurney's charm was legendary, and perhaps Ann's age made a difference-she was about thirty at the time. They had six children, four of whom, Ann, Richard, Rebecca and Charles, lived to great ages. The youngest child died in infancy and Charles's twin, Susanna, at the age of about seven.

How much of a wrench the death of his twin was to the little Charles Burney is hard to tell, since he was ejected from the family at the age of three and sent with his older brother Richard to live with a woman called Ball in Condover, four miles outside Shrewsbury. He was left in the care of Nurse Ball for nine years-his whole childhood-a fact which shocked his daughter Fanny when she discovered it almost ninety years later. Fanny was particularly appalled by the mother's behaviour, which she thought "nearly unnatural,"7 and she destroyed what evidence there was of the "niggardly unfeelingness" and neglect she felt her father had suffered. By editing the episode out of her father's papers, Fanny hoped to conceal "a species of Family degradation" from public view; but no member of the public could have been more upset by it than she. She had known her grandmother Burney all her childhood, when the widow was living in Covent Garden with her two unmarried daughters. It must have seemed astonishing that this same grandmother, so much part of the family background, had, for whatever reason, opted out of caring for her own sons all those years before. Fanny's novels are full of orphaned or abandoned children laid open to peril through lack of parental care; in them, bad parents are punished or vilified and made to repent, but Ann Burney seemed to have committed the cardinal sin of unfeeling and gotten off scot-free.

Charles Burney himself did not seem embittered by the long separation from his parents, although his intense affection for his own children (especially when they were little) and his apparent desire to establish a solid, admirable and outstanding Burney dynasty within one generation may have been reactions against it. The splitting up of the MacBurney family in the late 1720s was probably necessitated by lack of money. James went back to London temporarily to take up work as an actor at the new Goodman's Fields Theatre at about this time; perhaps he and his wife felt that the boys would be better off out of the way, getting some education at the Condover village school. The fact that Ann Burney's later relations with her sons were detached could of course have been the effect as much as the cause of her not bringing them up herself, but Fanny seems not to have considered the kind of harsh compromises that might have to be made when a couple with five children of their own (and nine older semi-dependants) finds themselves close to destitution. The threat of poverty is the most potent danger that faces the heroines of Fanny Burney's novels; all other evils stem from it. But it is also something that never really overcomes any of them. Poverty brings out the best in her heroines: they act with dignity, expand their sensitivities and support themselves by plain sewing, teaching, governessing or becoming ladies' companions. The charting of a gentlewoman's descent into wage-earning carries a sort of illicit thrill for author and reader alike (one can say quite clearly a sexual thrill, because of the unspoken threat of prostitution, the obvious last-ditch job opportunity for women), but class always ultimately protects Burney's heroines from crossing the line into "degradation."

In the 1740s, the MacBurneys were struggling to cross that line in the other direction. The family name was changed, soon after Charles's birth, from MacBurney (or "Mackburny," as the twins were christened) to plain Burney. This was probably done to facilitate James's revived stage career, for as the scholar Roger Lonsdale points out, Charles Burney himself suggested the reason for another actor's name change from McLaughlin to Macklin might have been "to get rid not only of its Paddy appearance but of its harshness."8 The new name had an added significance for Charles: it marked a fresh start. Burney's later success, riding under the banner of an (as he thought) untraceable family name, became a source of profound pride to himself and his children-so important to Fanny that her stated reason for destroying most of her father's early memoirs was to protect "the Name of Burney," even if it was only a few decades old and had started life as a professional convenience.

Charles Burney was assimilated back into his re-christened family when they moved to Chester in 1739. He had led what seems a truly happy, country-boy's life at Condover with Nurse Ball, and left her with an "agony of grief."9 But the city offered obvious advantages, and at the Free School in Chester he began the musical training, as choirboy and then organist, which was to shape his life. The cathedral organist suffered from gout, and recruited the fourteen-year-old Burney as an assistant while the boy was still hardly able to read music. His success was such, both as a singer and a player, that his half-brother James, who was organist of St. Mary's Church in Shrewsbury, asked to have him as an assistant. Charles "ran away" back to his native town for a couple of years, despite his parents' disapproval, but by 1744 was back in Chester, on the persuasion of his father "who I believe, loved me very affectionately," as Charles wrote later.10

However fragmented their family life was at times, James MacBurney's strong paternal love and good nature held the clan together, and there were evenings of great gaiety in the household. Charles Burney inspired similar affection among his own children, recalling after one family party in later years,

we were as merry, & laughed as loud as the Burneys always do, when they get together and open their hearts; tell their old stories, & have no fear of being Quizzed by interlopers. It was so in my poor dear old father's time, & my boyish days-when my brother Thomas from London-or James from Shrewsbury came on a visit to Chester, we used, young & old, Male & female, to sit up all night-not to drink, but to laugh à gorge deploye;e.11

Charles Burney's important break came the same year (1744), when the composer Thomas Arne was passing through Chester on his way from Dublin to take up the post of composer at the Drury Lane Theatre. Arne got to hear of the diligent and talented young musician, who was already composing as well as able to play the violin, harpsichord and organ, and suggested to James Burney that the boy ought to be apprenticed to "an eminent Master in London." On a subsequent meeting, Arne said that he himself would take Charles for £100 down, with no further liabilities, and at a third attempt said he would take him for nothing, realising he was still getting a good deal. Delighted and grateful, the Burneys of course agreed, though Charles was to look back on the bargain with mixed feelings.

Once in London, Arne got as much out of his apprentice as possible, making him transcribe quantities of music, teach junior pupils, run errands, play in the Drury Lane band and sometimes sing in the chorus there, any payment always going straight into the master's pocket. Arne himself was passing the peak of his fame; the revival of his Masque of Alfred in 1745, containing the popular patriotic song "Rule, Britannia!," was not successful, but his close connections with the capital's best musicians and actors were very valuable to young Burney, who lived with the curmudgeonly composer and his wife in Great Queen Street and attended parties with them at the house of Arne's sister, the actress Susannah Cibber. The charismatic David Garrick, who was to become a close friend of Burney, was the star of this coterie, which included Drury Lane and Covent Garden's other leading men and ladies James Quin, Peg Woffington and Kitty Clive. Burney met literary men too, through his friendship with "the Scottish Orpheus" James Oswald, James Thomson, Tobias Smollett and Christopher Smart among them. His career as an arch-networker among London's bohemians was off to an excellent start.

As time went on, Burney became disillusioned with his apprenticeship to Arne. He was a hard worker, but his master's regime did not reward his zeal. In fact, he came to think that Arne was deliberately holding him back. He felt he was wasted and wasting almost "into a consumption" as an amanuensis, a chore which he hated (but which, years later, he was happy to impose on his own daughters). Arne was immoral, unfriendly and unprincipled, and after two years Burney's loyalty to him had evaporated. When Fulke Greville, direct descendant of the Elizabethan poet, and "then generally looked up to as the finest gentleman in town,"12 expressed a desire to take Burney into his employ-not as an apprentice, of course, but as a gentleman's companion and music-maker-an escape route opened. It was not possible to leave Arne immediately, but Burney began to be patronised by Greville, invited to his grand country seat, Wilbury House in Wiltshire, and taken about when Greville was in town...

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Burney, Fanny, -- 1752-1840.
Novelists, English -- 18th century -- Biography.
Novelists, English -- 19th century -- Biography.
Great Britain -- Court and courtiers -- Biography.