Move Over Austen

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Imagine a writer living in Silicon Valley observing the new techno billionaires trying to co-exist with the city's establishment. This same writer also happened to be living in the White House during the whole Monica Lewinsky madness. And was in Kosovo when U.N. troops arrived. How much money would that person make from the book, the screenplay, the rights to the story? Such a life sounds highly unlikely, but it is roughly equivalent to that led by 18th century writer Fanny Burney. Burney spent much of her life in London, watching the newly minted millionaires of the Industrial Revolution attempt to coexist with the hereditary aristocrats of the time; she was also serving Queen Charlotte when King George III suffered one of his legendary bouts of madness and, famously, chased Burney around Kew Gardens. Burney — then known by her married name of Madame d'Arblay — was later in Paris with her French husband during the Napoleonic Wars.

Burney didn't chronicle her experiences for publication during her lifetime and she didn't make a penny from her life story. But she did write four novels and eight plays. Her seven-volume diary was published by her niece shortly after her death in 1840, almost certainly as Burney intended. It is those journals that Burney is best known for now. They inspired William Thackeray's Vanity Fair and Virginia Woolf's essay Dr. Burney's Evening Party. Her description of being chased around Kew Gardens was later a key scene in the film The Madness of King George III: "What an adventure had I this Morning! one that has occasioned me the severest personal terror I ever experienced in my life ... I suddenly perceived, through some Trees, two or three figures ... I thought I saw the Person of his Majesty. Alarmed past all possible expression, I waited not to know more, but turning back, ran off with all my might — But what was my terror to hear myself being pursued! — to hear the voice of the King himself, loudly & hoarsely calling after me, ŚMiss Burney! Miss Burney!'"

It was her fiction, however, that made her famous in her own time — that led historian Thomas Macaulay to say she was a classic. Burney's books were more widely read than Jane Austen's and she counted Richard Sheridan and Samuel Johnson among her supporters. "She was the first female literary novelist," says Claire Harman, author of a biography of Burney to be published in July. The women in Burney's books struggle in the midst of confining social mores. Her first book was Evelina, published anonymously, about a girl, beautiful but lacking social connections or wealth, who falls in love with a lord. What made the novel a success was not the plot but the picture Burney drew of life in London. "Evelina was the first real heroine in contemporary circumstances," says Paula Stepankowsky, the president the Burney Society, a group which promotes the study and appreciation of Burney and her family. "She was sort of like Bridget Jones: a contemporary woman dealing with the personal problems of her time."

History hasn't recognized Burney the way her peers and scholars have. She lacks the mass recognition of Austen, for example. "Austen may have done it better, more elegantly, have been more polished, but Fanny did it first," says Stepankowsky.

Now Burney is finally getting her due. In addition to Harman's extensively researched biography, the first major production of a Burney play, A Busy Day, is moving from the Old Vic theater in Bristol, where it has had rave reviews, to London's West End. "It was very moving," said Harman. "I had tears in my eyes because I thought how much she would have loved to see it." Burney only saw one of her plays produced — Edwy and Elgiva — and that ran for only one night. Appalled by cheap sets and poor acting, Burney had it pulled.

Kate Chisholm, author of a more narrative biography of Burney published in 1998, says she thinks it's likely that Burney would have preferred being known as a playwright — an occupation deemed unsuitable for women in her day. "Her writing is sharper and more controversial in her plays," Chisholm says. "But it is the diaries that give us the insight into the period." bbc Radio 4 will serialize her letters and journals for three weeks this summer. And a memorial to her will go into Westminster Abbey alongside the likes of the Brontë sisters and Austen in 2002, making Burney the only female writer who published in the 18th century to be so honored.

Why all this attention now? It might be that the continued success of Austen's works has encouraged producers to try other women writers of the era. It might be because Stepankowsky's society has been campaigning on her behalf since the mid-1990s. Or perhaps it's because there are so many remarkable parallels between Fanny Burney's turbulent times and ours.