“I love all of that breed whom I can be said to know…”

Image: “Allan Ramsay’s State Portrait of George III in coronation robes”

From: Chisholm, K. (2007). The Burney family. In P. Sabor (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Frances Burney:


A few weeks before he died in December 1784, the great lexicographer and essayist Samuel Johnson wrote a short note to his friend Charles Burney which he ends by sending his respects ‘to dear Doctor Burney, and all the dear Burneys little and great’. Johnson, without a family himself, was intrigued by and enamoured of the Burneys, ‘little and great’. By 1784, the family comprised Charles Burney, the musician and scholar, and his second wife Elizabeth, along with their combined household of six children from Charles’s first marriage and the two much younger children from his second. The second Mrs Burney also had three children from her first marriage. Such a blended family of siblings, half-siblings and step-siblings was not unusual, but the Burneys appear to have been peculiarly close-knit, drawn together by the powerful personality of their father. Johnson declared of them, ‘I love all of that breed whom I can be said to know, and one or two whom I hardly know I love upon credit, and love them because they love each other.’

The Burneys were a talented clan of musicians, writers, scholars, geographers and artists. And their shared habit of ‘journalising’, recording their encounters in vivid, as-they-happened letters and diaries that were written for each other but with an awareness, too, of their potential historical significance, has ensured that they will never be forgotten. Between them, the Burneys left behind more than 10,000 items of correspondence. Reading through this enormous written record is to be entertained by an everyday saga of family life that is not so very different from our own: Dr Burney is mugged, his house is burgled, and his daughters fall out with their stepmother.”

Stewart Cooke, of Dawson College,wrote in Eighteenth-Century Life on 1.4.18:

“Frances Burney – also known as Fanny Burney – was born on 13 June 1752 in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England. Her family moved to London in 1760. Her mother, a musician, died when she was ten, and her father, the celebrated musician and scholar Charles Burney, remained an important influence throughout her life.

Burney’s entry into the world of letters was elaborately strategised and much anguished over, much like the debuts into society through which she put the heroines of her most celebrated novels. After a childhood spent writing stories and plays, Burney anonymously published her first novel, Evelina, in 1778. Wary of the public eye and uncertain how her family would react to her writing for a mass audience, Burney sought to keep her authorship secret for as long as possible. But, after months of public speculation and the praise of literary figures such as Hester Thrale and Samuel Johnson, Burney owned the novel as her own. Burney documented the odd feeling of watching her private writing go out into the world in her journals:

My little book, I am told, is now at all the circulating libraries. I have an exceeding odd sensation when I consider that it is now in the power of any and every body to read what I so carefully hoarded even from my best friends, till this last month or two; and that a work which was so lately lodged, in all privacy, in my bureau, may now be seen by every butcher and baker, cobbler and tinker, throughout the three kingdoms, for the small tribute of threepence.

Burney’s father introduced her to important writers, actors and artists – David Garrick and Joshua Reynolds socialised at the Burney household – but was conservative in his estimation of what literary genres were suitable for women writers. Burney was discouraged by her father and close family friend Samuel Crisp from writing comedy and satire, particularly for the stage. Instead, she put her sharp insight into the foibles and mannerisms of society to good use in her next novel, Cecilia (1782), which sold widely and cemented Burney’s literary reputation and her status as a literary celebrity in London.

Unmarried at 34 and with two failed romances behind her, Burney reluctantly accepted the position of ‘Keeper of the Robes’ in the court of King George III and Queen Charlotte. Burney maintained extensive journals throughout her time at court, but found the position exhausting and in 1790 requested to be dismissed.

Soon after, Burney met and married a French émigré, General Alexandre D’Arblay. When D’Arblay’s estate in France was confiscated, it fell to Burney to support their new household, which soon included a son. Burney’s third novel, Camilla (1796), was published by subscription and raised enough money to purchase her and D’Arblay’s first home. The family travelled to France in 1801 when D’Arblay took a position in Bonaparte’s government. There, Burney suffered from breast cancer and underwent an excruciating mastectomy, which she documented in a letter that survives as one of the earliest first-hand accounts of the procedure. Burney outlived her husband and returned to London after his death, where she edited her father’s memoirs for publication and maintained an extensive correspondence until she died in 1840.

Burney’s early success with Evelina was the beginning of a long writing career that produced three more novels, eight plays and multiple volumes of journals and letters. Burney’s writing is characterised by sharply delineated characters, a nuanced understanding of the dynamics of social class and complex, multi-threaded plots that wove together many characters. Burney’s work was influenced by earlier novelists such as Samuel Richardson and foreshadowed later 19th-century writers including William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens.”…

…”You must get rid … of this Cold, as fast as possible, because we want you at Twickenham!,” cried Richard Owen Cambridge on 22 January 1785 while visiting the ailing Frances Burney at her home in St. Martin’s Street, London. There is little doubt that Cambridge did, indeed, want Burney at Twickenham, often, in fact, possibly even permanently as a daughter-in-law. Invitations to visit Cambridge house and the family estate at Twickenham Meadows, near Richmond Bridge, were frequent during the years between the first meeting of Richard Owen and his son George Owen Cambridge with Burney in late 1782 and Burney’s internment in George III’s court in mid-1786. Nonetheless, it is not clear how much the other members of the Cambridge family wanted her at Twickenham. Burney’s relationship with the Cambridges, especially during the years 1783 to 1786, was problematic at best and for much of the time fraught with tension. More often than not, invitations to Cambridge House provoked anxiety as Burney pondered in her journals how to refuse without giving offence.

At the very moment when Burney should have been enjoying her success and fame, she found herself caught in a “situation so full of agitation, so rarely quiet; so frequently replete with distress—confusion—suspence … even torture.” This paper examines Burney’s shifting, sometimes turbulent, relationship with the members of the Cambridge family—Richard Owen and his wife Mary Trenchard; their daughters Charlotte, Catherine, and Mary; and their sons Richard Owen Jr.; Charles Owen, and, especially, George Owen—in an effort to understand the origins and course of, as Burney puts it, the “war which seems regularly to be declared upon my arrival” at Twickenham…”

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