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Corvey ‘Adopt an Author’ |
Sarah Harriet Burney

The Corvey Project at
Sheffield Hallam University

Biography of Sarah Harriet Burney by Claire Murley, May 1998

Sarah Harriet Burney was born on 29 August, 1772, the youngest daughter of Dr. Charles Burney and his second wife, Mrs. Elizabeth Allen, widow of a wealthy merchant. They were married in 1767. Sarah was baptised on 29 September 1772, in the parish of St. Nicholas at King's Lynn (Hemlow, 1958: 46). Dr. Charles Burney (1726-1814) was an eminent figure in society, with many famous connections. A musicologist and historian, he toured Europe researching the history of music and had many literary works published.

After 1774, the family lived in London's Leicester Square in a house that had formerly belonged to Isaac Newton. Although Dr. Burney is known to have wanted to be seen as a 'gentleman of letters', the family had no claim to gentility and were part of a middle-class set of artists and performers. Actors, musicians and opera singers regularly visited the Burney household. Not much is known of Sarah's early years, other than that in 1781 she travelled to Switzerland to complete her education.

When five years old, Sarah was described by family friend Mr Twining as `a little thing buried under a great periwig, that turned out to be Queerness' (qtd. in Hemlow 1958 47). She was not noted for her beauty as a child or as an adult but was thought of as spirited and intelligent. Dr. Burney and Elizabeth Allen also had a son, Richard, a handsome boy known to the family as `Bengal Dick' because of his connections with India. He brought disgrace upon the family by his behaviour and died aged thirty-nine, leaving eight children. Richard Burney's eldest son obtained leave from the East India Company to do a degree at Cambridge (Kilpatrick, 1980: 184). It is possible that these associations were responsible for some of the ideas in Sarah Harriet Burney's novels, the Bengal being mentioned in more than one, and the East India Company in Clarentine.

In the years immediately after her birth, Sarah Harriet was brought up, according to her half-sister Maria Rishton, in `a perpetual state of Warfare' (Hemlow, 1958: 47). This is thought to be responsible for her unstable character. The children of Dr. Burney's first marriage, although fond of Sarah Harriet (often known as `Sally'), were known to dislike her mother.

In 1791 she accompanied Fanny Burney to attend Hastings' trial on the invitation of the queen. She had a talent for languages, being able to translate Italian, and she was fluent in French. In 1792 she stayed with her uncle-in-law, agriculturist Arthur Young, at Bradfield Hall. During this time she acted as interpreter between Young and his frequent visitor the Duc de Liancourt (Stephen and Lee, 1922: on Sarah Burney). In a letter to Dr. Burney dated 1792, Fanny Burney writes that Sarah Harriet `was living upon French politics and with French fugitives, at Bradfield, where she seems perfectly satisfied with foreign forage' (qtd. in Gibbs, 1940).

In 1793, Fanny Burney, already famous for her novels Evelina (1778) and Cecilia (1782), married General D'Arblay, a French refugee. Sarah was excited about the marriage, and it is thought that the M. D'Arblay is represented in the novel Clarentine as the Chevalier de Valcour (Hemlow, 1973: 72-77). Sarah then moved to live at Chelsea College with her parents, where her mother died in 1796. On this occasion, in a letter dated 7 November, 1796, Fanny Burney speculates about the effect this would have on Sarah Harriet: `I perceive she will rise into a much fairer and smoother and more pleasing character from this change. Her independence, from my father's excessive indulgence, may, indeed, be feared; but her intentions are good, and her temper and her manners are both most sensibly improved' (Hemlow, 1973: III: 219).

Sarah Harriet Burney's first novel, Clarentine, was published anonymously in 1796. It told the story of an orphan girl brought up by her rich relations, and was moderately successful. In a letter dated August 1797, Fanny again describes her half-sister's improving character when she stayed with her for a week, and they made visits to friends at Norbury Park (Hemlow 1973, III: 352). Describing her as entertaining, intelligent and good-hearted, she also alludes to her close relationship with her half-brother James Burney. He is thought to be the influence behind the character of William Somerset in Clarentine.

Her half-brother Captain James Burney was forty-eight years old and Sarah Harriet twenty-six when, in 1798, she left her father's house to live with him. The eldest of Dr. Burney's sons, he had been sent away to sea at the age of ten. He was married in 1785 to Sarah Payne, daughter of a bookseller. They had three children, one of whom died in infancy. He had previously separated from his wife on several occasions and she was known to be wary of his relationship with his half-sister. Sarah Harriet's mother is also thought to have discouraged his visits to Chelsea during her lifetime. After Mrs Burney's death, James intended to move to Chelsea, but this was refused by Dr. Burney. On September 2, James and Sarah eloped.

At this time Maria Rishton was staying at Chelsea, away from her married home in Norfolk, where she was experiencing difficulties. The whole family knew that James and Sarah were close, and Dr. Burney had previously confided in Maria his fears about their relationship. At the time of the elopement Dr. Burney was visiting a friend at Hampton. Maria wrote to Fanny, asking her to come immediately to Chelsea. The family reacted with horror to the news and there was much correspondence between them on the subject (Hemlow, 1973: IV: 214-217; 242-245; 274-5; 286-89).

Having lost her mother, Sarah did not become any closer to her father, complaining of his `Severity and Coldness' (Doody, 1988: 278). Her unhappy situation in his house would have contributed to her decision to leave under such circumstances. After initially fleeing to Bristol, the couple quickly moved back to London, to lodgings in Kentish Town. Maria reported that Sarah was well and in good spirits. James and Sarah then moved to lodgings in Tottenham Court Road, described by Maria as `living in the most groveling mean style' (Doody, 1988: 280).

In an attempt to keep their shame a secret, the Burney family told friends that James had separated from his wife, and that, as Dr. Burney was expecting his daughter Susan at Chelsea, Sarah had gone to keep house for James. They lived together for nearly five years, when, in 1803, James went back to live with his wife. In a letter dated 12 May, 1803, Sarah Harriet wrote to her cousin Charlotte explaining that the decision was mutual, the reason being that James was unhappy without his children and that it would be cruel to take them away from their mother. She also enquired if her aunt would `happen to know any worthy soul ... who would like to give me a good fat salary as governess to her brats' (Hemlow, 1975: VI: 521 n10).

By January 4, 1804, Sarah Harriet Burney was working as governess to the daughters of George Wilbraham (1741-1813), M.P for Bodmin in 1789-90, of Delamere Lodge, Cheshire. During the five years she lived with James, Sarah Harriet Burney did not produce any novels. Afterwards she never married or had children. Her later novels, rather than being a hobby, became a means of earning money to support herself. In July 1807 she returned to Chelsea and in 1808 her novel Geraldine Fauconberg was published, followed in 1812 by Traits of Nature, a second edition of which was called for in the same year. In 1813 a second edition of Geraldine Fauconberg was requested (Stephen and Lee, 1922: on Sarah Burney).

In 1814, Charles Burney died. In his will he made no provision for James. Sarah remained in Chelsea where she produced Tales of Fancy, in her name, between 1816-20. She left England for Florence, where she began writing Romance of Private Life, which was published in 1839, after Sarah had returned to England. Charles Lamb, a friend of James Burney's, published a sonnet to her in 1820 (16), in praise of her recently completed Country Neighbours. The second of the two tales making up Tales of Fancy, it was dedicated to Princess Elizabeth. In Florence she had mixed with a circle of artists and authors including Henry Crabb Robinson, who became a close friend and correspondent to her. She received great sympathy from her three remaining half-sisters, Esther, Fanny and Charlotte, on the death of James Burney in 1821.

At this time her situation was becoming uncertain. From 1821, in poor health, she spent time visiting her family. Entries in the diaries of Fanny D'Arblay in 1812 suggest that Sarah took to sea-bathing to ease rheumatism. In 1822 she gained the post of governess to the grandchildren of Lord Crewe, with her own house and a salary of 300 a year (17). The second tale of her Romance of Private Life was dedicated to Lord Crewe. Lord and Lady Crewe were close friends of the Burney family. The Shipwreck, the first of the two tales making up Tales of Fancy, was dedicated to Lady Crewe.

Sarah Harriet Burney spent the last years of her life in ill health at a boarding house in Bath. In 1840, on the death of Fanny D'Arblay, Henry Crabb Robinson wrote that she bequeathed Sarah '1200 per annum for her life' (qtd in Morley 1935 159 n2). She continued to socialise with Robinson and his friends until her death at Cheltenham on 8 February, 1844. Some of her property was left to her half-nephew, Martin Charles Burney, James Burney's son.


Doody, Margaret A. 1988. Frances Burney. Cambridge.

Gibbs, L., ed. 1940. The Diary of Fanny Burney. London: Everyman.

Hemlow, Joyce. 1958. Fanny Burney. Oxford.

Hemlow, Joyce. 1973. The Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney. Oxford.

Kilpatrick, Sarah. 1980. Fanny Burney. New York: Stein and Day.

Morley, Edith J. 1938. Henry Crabb Robinson on Books and Their Writers. London.

Morley, Edith J. (ed.) 1935. The Life and Times Henry Crabb Robinson. London.

Stephen, Leslie and Sidney Lee, eds. 1922. The Dictionary of National Biography. Vol 3.