Thursday, October 7, 2010

What’s in a Name? Meet Frances Burney - Audrey Bilger

What’s in a Name? Meet Frances Burney
Frances Burney has been called many things. She was most often referred to as Miss Burney or Madame D’Arblay during her lifetime. After her death, sections of her voluminous diary were published, and Victorian readers, given a window into her intimate secrets and family life, took to calling her Fanny, a nickname that stuck through most of the 20th century. With the advent of feminist literary criticism in the late 1970s, scholars began asking whether the name Fanny Burney was appropriate as the primary form of identification for this author. From everything we know of Burney’s sense of propriety, she would probably have been shocked to know that she would be on such familiar terms with generations to come. Using her nickname also emphasizes youth and puts her on chummy terms with readers. Since she lived to be 87 years of age and published her last book, a memoir of her father, when she was in her 70s, the pet name seems even more jarring.

In keeping with the conventions of the time, her name did not appear on the title pages of her books during her lifetime. Men as well as women of the middle class and above often shied away from putting their name in print, seeing this as a vulgar and largely unnecessary display. The English-speaking world was small enough that authors’ names became known in other ways, and title pages of successful writers such as Burney would include the names of the books already published. The habit of referring to Burney by her maiden name even though for more than half her life she would have been known as Madame D’Arblay most likely has to do with Evelina’s triumph over the other three novels. It was the only one of her books to remain in print throughout the 19th century and beyond. Many readers saw the author as identical to the 16-year-old heroine of her work, something that must also have helped along the tradition of calling her Fanny.

Nowadays, new editions of Burney’s work tend to give her back her adult name, Frances. Although there are those who still prefer to say Fanny, this no longer stands as her sole identity, and so it sounds a bit like when people call Shakespeare “Will” or Hemingway “Papa”—light and affectionate, but not definitive.  

Audrey Bilger
© 2010


  1. The name hovers on the edge of my awareness and the article is really interesting. I'm very curious to see what she looked like and to determine if "Fanny" was a misnomer from the start.


  2. Hi Kat: Audrey's observations about 18th century women authors are always of great interest! If you want to see a portrait of Frances Burney, you can see one here

  3. Thanks, John! Yes, I can definitely see that "Fanny" was appropriate, but with that elegant hat in the portrait, I also see the Madame D'Arblay figure. I think I shall have to find a copy of "Camilla" with its "light and dark comic elements" as well as the "gothic shudders". It sounds right up my alley!
    Had to look up "amanuensis" as its a word I have not seen since my university days. I just may have to write something on it.


  4. Crap! I just misused "its" - one of my biggest grammatical pet peeves.