The story of ‘Fanny’ Burney - the Norfolk woman who inspired Jane Austen

A painting of Fanny Burney. Picture: Matthew Usher

A painting of Fanny Burney. Picture: Matthew Usher - Credit: Matthew Usher

Next Saturday marks the 200th anniversary of Dr Charles Burney, an internationally-famous musician of his day. But his Norfolk-born daughter would go on to even greater fame – and inspire one of the best-loved writers of all time. Gareth Calway and Trevor Heaton tell the story of the 'Brilliant Burneys'.

A painting of Charles Burney. Picture: Matthew Usher

A painting of Charles Burney. Picture: Matthew Usher - Credit: Matthew Usher

Take a look at this quotation: 'if to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, then to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you will also owe their termination.'

Remind you of anything? And those capitals have not been added here, but by the original writer - 'Fanny' (Frances) Burney, King's Lynn's own literary superstar, in the last chapter of her novel Cecilia.

They would have certainly impressed her readers, including a young lady who was a keen subscriber to her novel Camilla - a certain 'Miss J Austen' of Hampshire.

From left, Liz Kuczora and Janet North in period dress in front of the Custom House in King's Lynn,

From left, Liz Kuczora and Janet North in period dress in front of the Custom House in King's Lynn, site of a summer exhibition about the 'brilliant Burneys'. Picture: Matthew Usher - Credit: Matthew Usher


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And yet the talented Frances and her once equally-famous father have now largely slipped below our cultural radar - something which organisers of the 64th King's Lynn Festival, which begins tomorrow, are determined to put right.

Frances was the daughter of musician and composer Dr Charles Burney, the 200th anniversary of whose death is being marked by a special 'Charles Burney Day' next Saturday.

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Charles was treated as a popstar of the day when he lived and worked in Lynn in the 18th century but his influence continues to underline the town's position on the cultural map.

As historian Dr Paul Richards explains, Burney's star status made him an instant hit with the town's well-to-do. 'Because of his celebrity status, Lynn merchants wanted Burney to teach their daughters to play the harpsichord and further attention was drawn to Lynn when he commissioned the Snetzler organ at St Margaret's,' he said. 'His first concert playing it was reported in the London papers.'

Peter Sabor, a world authority on Charles who is professor of English at McGill University, Montreal, will give an illustrated lecture on Burney and, in particular, his friendship with Samuel Johnson, at St George's Guildhall.

Then at at 7pm in the Minster (St Margaret's Church) that evening The English Concert, recognised as one of the finest chamber orchestras in the world, will perform music which traces Burney's travels around Europe while he was gathering material for his book, The General History of Music, which brought him international fame.

And at 9.30pm renowned organist John Butt will give an organ recital on the Snetzler organ to Lynn. The programme will include music by the writer-composer too.

Meanwhile Lynn's beautiful Custom House - a building Charles and his young daughter Frances would have known and admired, as townsfolk and visitors still do today - is hosting a little gem of an exhibition of all things Burney organised by enthusiast Alison Gifford.

Burney, already a distinguished young London organist, brought his family to the cleaner air of Lynn after a bout of ill-health in 1751.

He was soon appointed as organist at St Margaret's Church, now Lynn Minster, and much sought after as an elite music tutor by the town's great merchant families. But it is his roles as music historian and composer, which were more important to him, that have secured him his place in cultural history.

He had a profound influence in Lynn at a time when music, dancing, books and picture collecting became the vogue.

Georgian Lynn was a large and prosperous port. Its elite merchant class lived in the town houses that still dominate King Street, Tuesday Market Place and Queen Street.

The Trinity Guildhall was extended to make an Assembly Room and Card Room; open pasture was landscaped to provide elegant Walks for the fashionable to stroll in and St George's Guildhall was adapted as a theatre.

In the words of Nikolaus Pevsner, 'The sequence of streets… is one of the most satisfying Georgian promenades in England.' Sir John Betjeman was another devotee of its elegance.

Soon after Frances' birth in 1752, the Burneys moved to the modish des res of 84 High Street (now identified by a green plaque). Large fashionable shops were rebuilt in this street by a wide range of tradesmen and patronised by town merchants and country gentry.

Big barrel-shaped windows of many panes fronted spacious interiors full of merchandise: carpets, glass, teas, sugar, coffee, chocolates, hats – and of course tickets for theatre, stagecoach and the latest Burney concert.

Saturday Market Place is dominated by Lynn Minster as it was in the Burneys' day. The loss of its landmark spire in a gale ten years before Burney's arrival in the town would no doubt still have been a topic of conversation.

A new Georgian nave was finished in 1747 and commented on by Burney on his arrival in the town: he thought the organ appalling, along with the ignorance of music among his patrons (views he presumably kept to himself). He persuaded the Lynn Corporation to commission a new organ in 1754 - at the enormous sum of £700 - and it was placed against the great west window (it is now in the east end nave).

Soon after their arrival, Charles and his first wife Esther were busily mingling with the upper crust in and around Lynn, including the great merchant family the Hogges who lived on Tuesday Market Place.

Burney tells us: 'My wife, though herself no card player, never failed to be equally invited; for she had a most delightful turn in conversation, seasoned with agreeable wit, and pleasing manners.'

Burney had egalitarian leanings, however, and sought out street musicians on his travels as well as elite performers. He moved to a 'pretty and convenient' house in Chapel Street – now the site of the council offices - in 1751. It cost him £12 a year in rent and Esther followed him in 1752, bringing their three children Hetty, Charles and James to a new house in High Street.

Charles sadly perished here as an infant and is buried in St Nicholas' Chapel, and Frances was born in Lynn in the same eventful year. There followed Susannah, Charles and Charlotte and another child, George, who died.

Growing up in Lynn and seeing the interplay between the merchant families, their rivalries and airs-and-graces, their fallings-out and fallings-in of friendship, must have given the young Frances ample material to tuck away to call upon for her later satirical barbs.

She was comically aware at an early age of the discrepancy between what people said and what they did. This account of her Confirmation by the Bishop of Norwich is a good example: 'When I was preparing... I had such an idea I should undergo an examination and I was fearful of some wry question that might discountenance me, that I learnt nearly the whole common prayer book by heart! - Besides reading the Bible quite through three times!... (and) after all this hard work - the fat clumsy stumpy worthy Bishop of Norwich clapt his hand upon my head, and off it, as fast as he possibly could, and never made a single interrogatory, nor uttered a single doubt or demur upon my fitness or unfitness for his blessing.'

On another time she wrote about seeing the ships moored along the Ouse and hearing the 'oaths & ribaldry' of the sailors and porters... until she fled back in the house, blushing. Or watching a wedding party arrive, and leave, St Margaret's Church within 15 minutes - 'O heavens! How short a time does it take to put an end to a Woman's liberty!'.

Frances and her family stayed on in Lynn until she was 18. For some years they had partly lived in London, and took the final decision to move back to the capital for good in 1770.

Family friend Dr Johnson told her affectionately that he was never taken in by her ladylike self-effacement. 'Your shyness, and slyness, and pretending to know nothing, never took me in. I always knew you for a toadling' (ie a little toad that looks harmless but carries poison in its tail.) The painter Sir Joshua Reynolds professed a healthy dread of 'little' Fanny's satirical eye, of her ruthless exposure of affectation - and selfishness.

Evelina, or A Young Lady's Entrance into the World was written in secret and published anonymously in 1778 and taken as the work of a man - Dr Johnson was even suggested as the author - until delighted readers found her out and celebrated her achievement.

The 1780-2 follow-up, Cecilia, confirmed her reputation, and for her third novel Camilla she received the then-unprecedented sum of £1,000 for the copyright in 1796, proof of her pulling power as a novelist.

One of those who eagerly read the book was the young Jane Austen. She was to begin her most famous novel, originally called 'First Impressions', only a few months after reading Camilla. First Impressions would have made a memorable title - but not as memorable as the one she eventually came up with: Pride and Prejudice.

One of Burney's biographers, Clair Harman, observes: 'Austen was a devoted fan of Burney, and seems to have particularly admired Camilla.' Scholars have spotted parallels in plots, situations - even jokes - between the two writers.

Like Jane Austen, Frances employed comedy, irony and satire; focused on female heroines, and wrote about the 'domestic' topics of love, marriage, money, and manners.

Austen so admired her that she even joked to her sister Cassandra in an 1813 letter that she might marry Frances' son Alex (Austen was 38, he was 20 at the time).

Austen admiringly alludes to two of Burney's books in Northanger Abbey: 'It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.'

Frances - who became Madame D'Arblay on her 1793 marriage to a general who had fled the French Revolution - lived on until 1840, her lively diaries eventually becoming more famous than her novels. Jane Austen, her great protégée, had died in 1817, three years after Frances' father.

Frances had spent five years at Queen Charlotte's court, satirising its paralysing etiquette and tormenting lack of independence to the delight of her readers.

But her diaries are kinder about Lynn, as this disagreement with her sisters shows: 'I offered some few words in favour of my poor abused town, the land of my nativity - of the world's happiness – we discoursed a little time and Hetty suddenly cried out 'Hush hush, Mama's in the next room. If she hears us we two will be whipt. And Fanny will have a sugar plumb' 'Aye,' cried Maria, 'tis her defending Lynn which makes Mama [Fanny's stepmother, Mrs Allen, Lynn born and bred] so fond'.

Let's not forget it was 'poor abused' Lynn which helped to shape a writer, who in turn helped inspire an even greater literary name. Virginia Woolf wrote tellingly, if a little hazily when you consider the relative dates of their deaths, that 'Jane Austen should have laid a wreath upon the grave of Fanny Burney'.

So perhaps walking somewhere in the elegant drawing rooms frequented by Austen's characters lurks the echoes of the ghosts of those long-forgotten merchants of Georgian Lynn.

For more information about Charles Burney Day events, visit www.kingslynnfestival.org.uk, call the box office 01553 764864 or the Festival office on 01553 767557. The festival begins tomorrow and runs until July 26. The exhibition 'Georgian Lynn and the brilliant Burney family' continues at the Custom House, Purfleet Street, until October 31, admission £1. You can read Gareth's 'Ballad of Fanny Burney' at http://garethcalway.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/the-brilliant-burneys-of-kings-lynn.html.

Fanny Burney: A Biography, by Clair Harman, is published by HarperCollins.

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