A closet on the sidelines

BOOKS: FANNY BURNEY: Her Life by Kate Chisholm, Chatto pounds 20

IT IS A TRUTH universally acknowledged (well, by some critics at least) that great literature outlives contemporary inferior products simply by virtue of its aesthetic merits. The truth that interests me more is how any piece of prose, whether supposedly deathless or not, by dint of its grammar, spelling and structure, instantly transports you back to the time when it was made. Language works like a medium conjuring the dead to new life. Reading, you find that the past is not only the entrancing and utterly different past, but has become, through the alchemy, the materiality, of language, also the present. So Fanny Burney, in one sense far removed from us by the distance of two centuries, bursts through the barrier of death by writing such lively, witty, elegant sentences that she might be overheard chattering in the next room.

One of the best things about Kate Chisholm's enjoyable biography is its copious quotation from Fanny's own journals and letters as well as from her novels. Here she is, for example, as a teenager, relishing being left home alone: "I write now from a pretty neat little closet of mine that is in the Bed Chamber, where I keep all my affairs. Tell me, my dear, what heroine ever yet existed without her own Closet." Fanny's life can be made known to us because she wrote so much of it down herself, and her words were not thrown away but cherished by her family and friends.

A novelist knows that every person in the world has a fascinating life. Each of us has stories to tell. But to get your story told by others in a biography you have to fit into the fashionable narrative of your times. This often involves wealth, status, heroic deeds and derring-do. Or perhaps a particularly good spot on the sidelines. Fanny Burney lived an unconventional life for a woman of her times, in that she was encouraged to educate herself, did not marry young and vanish into wifehood, and did not die young after producing a baby every year. She was, par excellence, a survivor, and, because she earned her living as a writer, we can learn about her survival techniques.

Her life, as re-created by Kate Chisholm, reads like a wildly improbable fiction. She flirted with Dr Johnson and teased the Bluestockings, witnessed the madness of George III at first hand, lived in Paris as Napoleon's armies marched against England, and was in Brussels for the Battle of Waterloo. Jane Austen greatly admired her novels, and Jane Austen's heroine Catherine Morland, who declared in Northanger Abbey that she dislikes history because there are no women in it, clearly was in need of Fanny's irreverent, waspish, feminine accounts of the great events, and the great personages, of the day.

Born in the middle of the 18th century into a family of gifted musicians, Fanny Burney learned early on that women had to negotiate the double standard, and injustices seen as natural fate, if they were to have a reasonably good time. Her mother died, worn out by pregnancy and childbirth, while her children were still young. Marriage was the only vocation suggested to middle-class women, which meant that they gave up their talents to serve their families. It is melancholy to read how Fanny's sister Hetty started off as a highly regarded musician, an applauded public performer, confidently walking into a fancy-dress ball attired as a shepherdess playing a hurdy-gurdy, and instantly becoming the centre of attention, only to have to abandon her musical career after marriage because she became a mother. Fanny's other beloved sister, Susan, had to put up with a difficult husband who made her so miserable that ultimately she ran away from him, only to die young.

Fanny's two stepsisters both foundered on the rocks of extra-marital passion, which was applauded in men but not in women. Fanny was affectionately known in her family as a prude, but perhaps this was a defence strategy; not so much fear of sex as caution. Women all around you dying in childbirth meant that sex and death were tightly linked. Fanny seems to have felt ambivalent, after her mother's death, about speaking what she felt. Much as she loved her sisters, with whom she had an enviable closeness, she needed to fill the void in her heart. She did this by writing a journal addressed to Nobody, paradoxically conjuring fullness out of absence, and honing her skills as a novelist by putting down all the sharp comments she couldn't utter openly.

The publication of her first novel, Evelina, brought her instant success. She was snapped up by Mrs Thrale, the friend of Dr Johnson, and introduced to polite society. She went on to write other bestsellers, such as Cecilia and Camilla, and the readability of her works is testified to by the fact that they are all still in print today. She wrote about women's progress into the world, about learning the codes and skills you need, the seventh sense that lets you recognise rogues, pirates, and bitches all out to get you, and her books, for their freshness and breadth of canvas, remain compelling, thundering good reads. She married quite late on, eventually finding her true love, an aristocratic but radical emigre escaping the excesses of the Terror. Her courtship with General D'Arblay was carried on by means of writing. They practised their French and English by sending each other "themes" for comprehension and correction. Soon the essays became intimate, tender and passionate, and were accompanied by gifts of rose trees, and the building of a romantic retreat to be known as Camilla Cottage. Theirs was a great love, which lasted till death.

Fanny was a woman of remarkable courage. She endured a radical mastectomy without anaesthetic, she lived through revolutions, she witnessed the terrible aftermath and suffering of war at first hand. And she went on writing. The empty page drew her back, and back. Encountering her witty and sparkling novels, you can only feel glad. Even if you quibble at some of its comments and conclusions, this fascinating and enthralling biography will impel you dash off, as rapidly as one of Fanny's heroines leaping into a hired carriage, to the nearest library or bookshop to read everything else by her that you can lay your hands on.

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