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Saturday, October 30, 2021

What did Jane Austen and Fanny Burney have in common?

What inspired Jane Austen to write those famous first lines of Pride and Prejudice?

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

Perhaps this sentence echoes Jane Austen's contemporary, Fanny Burney's (1752-1840) Camilla, where she writes: "It is received wisdom among match-makers, that a young lady without fortune has a less and less chance of getting off upon every public appearance". 

Jane Austen took several influences from authors that she admired, such as Maria Edgeworth, Samuel Johnson and Jane West. Did you know that, during Jane Austen's lifetime, there were plenty of proliferous female authors around? While Jane Austen herself wasn't famous for her works and only became slightly better known as an authoress towards the end of her life, Fanny Burney (also known as Frances D'Arblay) was a well-known and celebrated Georgian author and much admired by young Jane Austen herself. Fanny Burney only became overshadowed by Jane Austen much, much later during the Victorian era. 

In fact, in Fanny Burney's novel Cecilia (1782), the term, Pride and Prejudice, is mentioned three times, in block capitals. One example reads:  The whole of this unfortunate business,” said Dr Lyster, “has been the result of PRIDE and PREJUDICE.” The powerful alliteration must have stuck firmly to young Jane's mind. 

I have written a more detailed analysis of Fanny Burney's most famous book, Evelina. I believe that Jane Austen's creation of Mr Darcy is influenced by Burney's male hero, Lord Osbourne, Evelina's broody and moody love interest in the novel. They meet at an assembly and get on very badly to begin with but are eventually united. There are many more similaries in Camilla as well. 

I recently read Claire Harman's biography of Fanny Burney, and it was fascinating to learn more about the author who was one of the most popular authors of her generation and who had a very eventful life. Based on my reading, I thought I might compare the two authors and their similarities and differences. 

Similarities between Jane Austen and Fanny Burney: 

-Both authors grew up in the Georgian era, although Fanny Burney was 23 years older than Jane Austen, having been born in 1752.

-Both wrote about young female protagonists. Burney's titles include 'Evelina', 'Cecilia' and 'Camilla', while Austen had 'Elinor and Marianne' (early title of Sense and Sensibility), 'Susan' (early title of Northanger Abbey), 'Catharine' (an early fragment) and 'Emma'.

-Austen's Northanger Abbey follows a similar pattern of a coming-of-age novel to Burney's Evelina. Like Evelina, Catherine Morland is a simple, naive character entering the world and "society", makes mistakes and learns as she matures in the novel.  

-Both authors have adopted a highly stylised, complex style of writing and write about manners and morals. Both use clever, often comical dialogue to portray characters and their voices.

-Both authors lived in Bath at around the same time, but it is not known if they met. 

Differences between Jane Austen and Fanny Burney: 

-Unlike Jane Austen, who lived a relatively quiet life as the daughter of a country clergyman, unknown to the public, Fanny Burney was born into a cultured family of authors. Her father, Charles Burney, was a music historian, composer and musician. Burney grew up in London, in the middle of fine society, mingling in theatrical and literary circles, and was always well known and recognised throughout her lifetime. 

-Although Jane Austen was invited to Carlton House to meet the Prince Regent's librarian, she never met members of the royal family. Austen was famously sceptical of the Prince Regent, sympathising with his long-suffering wife, Princess Caroline. She wrote, "Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman and because I hate her Husband." Fanny Burney, on the other hand, was a firm monarchist and had, a few decades earlier, been appointed Mistress of the Robes to Queen Charlotte (The Prince Regent's mother). Burney suffered greatly during her five year stint in the palace, but continued to support the queen after leaving her royal duties. Burney also mingled with the French royal family while she lived in Paris. 

-Although Jane Austen was well travelled in the south of England, she never ventured abroad. Burney, on the other hand, married a French exile, General D'Arblay, and they lived across both countries and had a bilingual family. The couple were stranded in France for over a decade due to the war between England and France in the early 1800s. 

-While Jane Austen sets most of her scenes inside people's houses, Fanny Burney's books are mostly set in London and often outdoors - at the theatre or in a pleasure garden and so on - reflecting the sociable life that Burney led. 


  1. Very good Anna. I am going to have to read Claire Harman's book now.I have researched a bit about Fanny Burney/D'Arblay when she lived in Great Bookham in Surrey, not far from Box Hill. Jane's Aunt and Uncle, the Cookes lived in Great Bookham and new Fanny Burney and her husband quite well. The Reverend Cooke was the local vicar. I find it difficult to think that Jane and Fanny were never introduced to each other when Jane visited her relatives but there you go. Once again, an enjoyable article Anna. Have you ever been to Great Bookham?

    1. Thanks Tony! I thought it was extraordinary that they had this common acquintance and perhaps they were indeed introduced! Maybe it was mentioned in some of the destroyed letters as we haven’t got the evidence for it? Fascinating! I haven’t been to Great Bookham but have driven through the area on our way to Box Hill.


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