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.

Arts and Entertainment
The Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse in London in 1971: from the left, Keys, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger

Music ...featuring Eric Clapton no less
Arts and Entertainment
In the dock: Dot Branning (June Brown); Union boss claims EastEnders writers are paid less than minimum wage

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Roger Christian wrote and directed the 1980 Black Angel original, which was lost until 2011

film
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Green (Hand out press photograph provided by Camilla Gould)

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

    ‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

    Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
    Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

    Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

    But if a real smoking gun is found, that might change things, says Tom Peck
    Twenty two years later Jurassic Park series faces questions over accuracy of the fictional dinosaurs in it

    Tyrannosaurus wrecked?

    Twenty two years on, Jurassic Park faces questions over accuracy
    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

    ... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
    Genes greatly influence when and how many babies a woman will have, study finds

    Mother’s genes play key role in decision to start a family

    Study's findings suggest that human fertility is still evolving
    12 best olive oils

    Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

    Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
    Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
    England can win the Ashes – and Elvis Presley will present the urn

    England can win the Ashes – and Elvis will present the urn

    In their last five Test, they have lost two and drawn two and defeated an India side last summer who thought that turning up was competing, says Stephen Brenkley
    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)