I noticed the other day that the 18th-century historian – let me rephrase that – expert on
18th-century history, Catherine Curzon, aka @MadameGilflurt on Twitter, commented on the fact that Fanny Burney had died on that day (6th January) in 1840.
By coincidence, a couple of days later, on my way to exercise class (that’s not a smug new-year’s-resolution type comment, I’ve been going to that class for a while) I noticed the new moon hovering just above the horizon. It was a mere sliver of light but looked huge that evening: a spectacular sight.
Yes, there really is a connection between those two observations, and this is where I beg the indulgence of my more loyal readers who may have seen some of this text on earlier occasions, and it is that Fanny Burney once lived in Half Moon Street.
The street, which was built in 1730, takes its name from an old ale house that stood at the corner and was still standing in 1780. Although not quite as common as the sun, the moon is used in many tavern signs. The half moon could be representative of the Virgin Mary: a crescent moon is sometimes shown under her feet in pictures of the Assumption.
Other famous (and real) residents of Half Moon Street include James Boswell, Henry James, William Hazlitt, and Somerset Maugham, who said in 1930 that the street was “sedate and respectable”.
There were also various fictional residents of the street, including Bulldog Drummond, a gentleman adventurer; Algernon Moncreiff from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest; and PG Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, who had a flat there where he was looked after by the unflappable Jeeves.
But back to Fanny Burney, later Madame D’Arblay, who was an extraordinary woman. She was a talented and gifted – and largely self-taught – 18th century writer. She was also, as one writer describes it, “a morally upright figure in the decaying court circles of King George III in his later, deranged years.”
Fanny, whose grave demeanour earned her the family nickname of ‘the Old Lady’ when she was about eleven, was small, slender, and short-sighted. She was educated at home, but was teased by her brother because, at the age of eight, she did not know her letters.
A quick learner, Fanny became an avid reader and writer; she wrote a novel (The History of Caroline Evelyn) when she was ten, but possibly burned that and other writings when she was fifteen and trying to “to combat this writing passion”. In Fanny’s time, women were not supposed to spend time writing more than the occasional letter.
The family had moved to London when Fanny was about six, and lived in Poland Street where her father, who was closely acquainted with Samuel Johnson and David Garrick, worked as a music teacher. When Fanny was twelve, her sisters went with their father to France; it was feared that Fanny, who was close to her French – and Catholic –grandmother, might succumb to Catholicism. Undeterred, Fanny taught herself French.
She began a diary, the first entry of which is dated 27 March 1768, and experimented with different literary styles. Under a cloak of extreme secrecy she later began writing her first novel, Evelina, apparently composed in part of “disjointed scraps and fragments” she had assembled in 1772, as a sequel to The History of Caroline Evelyn. She wrote the manuscript in a disguised hand, and approached a publisher under the name of Mr King.
Following an unsuccessful first attempt, Fanny, along with her siblings and a cousin who had been taken into her confidence, approached the Fleet Street bookseller Thomas Lowndes, who agreed to publish the book. The book became popular, though it was some time before even her father learned the identity of the author. Samuel Johnson was a great admirer of the book, saying that it was better than the efforts of both Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson.
In her lifetime Fanny did enjoy commercial success. Her book Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress was reprinted it at least twice within a year and her book Camilla, or, A Picture of Youth, sold out all 4,000 copies within a few months of publication. She was an inspiration to many writers, including Jane Austen, who was a great admirer. Austen took the title Pride and Prejudice from the final paragraph of Cecilia, in which the capitalised phrase ‘PRIDE and PREJUDICE’ recurs three times.
Fanny married Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard D’Arblay on 28 July 1793, relatively late in life. Her father did not attend the wedding, having expressed disapproval of his daughter marrying a penniless foreigner. The couple remained happily married and had one son.
Apart from her literary successes, Fanny should also go down in history as a woman of huge courage, having written the earliest known patient’s perspective of a mastectomy – in her case, performed without anaesthetic.
In this harrowing description, penned several months after the operation and taking her three months to write it as she relived the agony, she wrote:
“Yet — when the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast – cutting through veins – arteries – flesh – nerves – I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision – & I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still, so excruciating was the agony.”
The pain, she told her sister, continued after the cut had been made, when the delicate area became exposed to air; the ordeal was by no means over at that point as the surgeon needed yet to “separate the bottom, the foundation of this dreadful gland from the parts to which it adhered”, at which point, “I then felt the knife (rack)ling against the breast bone – scraping it!”
This is but a small portion of the letter, not for the faint-hearted, in which she also urges Esther and her daughters not to wait as long as she had with any similar health concerns. Ironically, Fanny outlived most of her family, including her husband, son, sister, and one of her nieces.
There is memorial window to Fanny at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, and London’s oldest surviving plaque for a woman was erected in 1885 at her residence in Mayfair’s Bolton Street. According to English Heritage, “It is a sign of the times in which it was made that its inscription gives greater prominence to her married name – Madame D’Arblay – than to the one by which posterity knows her.”
Portland Street, near Poland Street where Fanny lived as a child, was renamed D’Arblay Street and, apart from Half Moon Street, Fanny also lived in Lower Sloane Street, Mount Street, and Grosvenor Street.