Fictive mother

Fanny Burney: a biography

Claire Harman <em>HarperCollins, 430pp, £19.99</em>

ISBN 0002556901

The woman whom Virginia Woolf called the "mother of English fiction" was a tiny scrap of a thing of whom little was expected. Born into a clan of emotionally robust and talented siblings, in 1752, Fanny Burney was soon squeezed into the non-role of awkward middle sister. She mumbled and blushed and was so short-sighted that she often failed to recognise people - something that would prove tricky years later when, as lady-in-waiting to Queen Charlotte, she was expected to acknowledge their Majesties on every conceivable occasion.

Unusually for a plain, shy girl, Burney did not have books to fall back on, since she showed all the signs of dyslexia until well into her teens. By way of compensation, she developed a phenomenal aural memory, which allowed her exactly to reproduce conversations that had taken place days before. It was a useful skill for a writer whose novels would depend on the minute mapping of social and linguistic nuance. This slight critical distance from language also meant that Burney was able to fiddle with it, coming up with a whole series of new expressions from "plain sailing" to "underbred", which eventually found their way into the OED.

Burney's work has not stood up well, although her play A Busy Day is currently at the Lyric Theatre, London. There is an amateurish looseness to novels such as Camilla and The Wanderer, which Claire Harman attributes to Burney's ambivalence about her role as a professional writer. Crafting her work too carefully sent the message that she had tried harder than a lady should; she was more concerned to be seen as a good woman than a good novelist. As a result, she never developed the critical eye and ear that would have told her why her first novel, Evelina (1778), worked so well, and why her last book, The Memoirs of Dr Burney (1832), was so dreadful. Coy and earnest as she often seemed about her work, she was also capable of turning out mediocre stuff to order.

Still, there is real value in Evelina, the novel Burney published anonymously when she was 26. The idea of satirising polite society by looking at it through the eyes of a young girl from the country was hardly new. But Burney rescued the plot from its usual prurient and sentimental overtones by investing the character of Evelina with a cool, clear intelligence and something approaching emotional autonomy. Women readers naturally loved the book, and their reinvestment in a fiction market that was thought to have gone stale gave novel reading - and writing - a boost.

Burney wrote about society so convincingly because she had grown up on its fringes. Her father was an ambitious musician who worked hard to present himself as a professional artist rather than a clever servant. A doctorate from Oxford gave him the status of a scholar, and friendships with respectable theatricals such as Sheridan and Garrick brought a touch of glamour. A place at court - perhaps as Master of the King's Band - would have been just the thing to round off Burney's career. But, on two occasions, he failed to get the job and, by way of odd compensation, he insisted that Fanny take a post as Second Keeper of the Robes.

It would be hard to imagine something for which Fanny was less suited. She had ghastly taste in clothes, didn't speak the court language of German, and found the whole business of walking out of a room backwards quite ridiculous. And then there was the tricky matter of the King's madness. Porphyria makes people inappropriately randy and, on one frightening occasion, Fanny found herself on the receiving end of fierce kisses from His Majesty.

Eventually, Fanny managed to break away from both the court and her subservience to the father she adored. At the age of 41, she married Alexandre d'Arblay, a gentle emigre who was seeing out the French Revolution from a country house in Dorking. It was a genuinely happy match, even though d'Arblay's carelessness with money and lack of push meant that it was hardly a worldly one.

Their happiness was crowned with the birth of Alexander - "the idol of the World", said Fanny, ominously anticipating the way in which she would ruin the child's emotional development with her nagging love. After 43 years of depression, possible drug addiction and erratic behaviour, Alexander's disappointing life ground to a halt, leaving his elderly widowed mother to live on for another three years.

No good biographer these days can avoid asking questions about their own process. Harman is keenly aware of all the epistemological tangles that life writing - and, in particular, writing the life of Fanny Burney - throws up.

Burney was an inveterate diary keeper, letter writer and fictionaliser of her own experience. Desperately anxious about how she would appear to posterity, she wrote and rewrote various episodes of her life until they came out exactly as she wanted. On several occasions, Harman has the evidence that allows her to unpick Burney's elaborations - for instance, she proves that one anecdote about how Burney almost drowned cannot possibly have happened in the way she claimed - but mostly, Harman admits that she does not have the evidence. Her task, then, is not to discount Burney's testimony, but to read it closely for the fantasies, wishes and fears that it reveals. In doing so, she provides a useful model of how biographers working with subjects quite different from the compulsively wordy Burney still need to approach apparently "authentic" sources, such as diaries and private letters, with a subtlety bordering on guile. It is this dense intellectual hinterland that ensures that Harman's excellent biography of Fanny Burney is unlikely to be bettered for many years to come.

Kathryn Hughes's George Eliot: the last Victorian (Fourth Estate) won the James Tait Black Prize

This article first appeared in the 17 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Special Report - Lost souls in the city in the sky