Frances was the third child in a family of six. Her elder siblings were Esther (Hetty) (1749–1832) and James (1750–1821), the younger Susanna Elizabeth (1755–1800), Charles (1757–1817) and Charlotte Ann (1761–1838). Of her brothers, James became an admiral and sailed with Captain James Cook on his second and third voyages. The younger Charles Burney was a well-known classical scholar. Her younger half-sister, Sarah Burney (1772–1844), also became a novelist, publishing seven works of fiction of her own. Esther Sleepe Burney also bore two other boys, both named Charles, who died in infancy in 1752 and 1754.
Burney scholar Margaret Anne Doody has investigated conflicts within the Burney family that affected Frances’ writing and her personal life. Doody alleged that one strain was an incestuous relationship between James Burney and his half-sister Sarah in 1798-1803, but there is no direct evidence for this and it is hard to square with Frances's affection and financial assistance to Sarah in later life.
Frances Burney’s mother, described by historians as a woman of “warmth and intelligence,” was the daughter of a French refugee named Dubois and had been brought up a Catholic. This French heritage influenced Frances Burney’s self-perception in later life, possibly contributing to her attraction and subsequent marriage to Alexandre D’Arblay. Esther Burney died when Frances was ten years old, in 1762, a loss which Frances felt throughout her life.
Her father, Charles Burney, was respected not only for his personal charm, but also for his talents as a musician, musicologist and composer, and as a man of letters. In 1760 he moved his family to London, a decision that improved their access to the cultured elements of English society, and as a consequence their own social standing as well. They lived in the midst of a brilliant social circle that gathered around Charles at their home on Poland Street in Soho.
In 1766 Charles Burney eloped in order to marry for a second time, to Elizabeth Allen, the wealthy widow of a King’s Lynn wine merchant. Allen had three children of her own, and several years after the marriage the two families merged into one. This new domestic situation was unfortunately fraught with tension. The Burney children found their new stepmother overbearing and quick to anger, and they took refuge from the situation by making fun of the woman behind her back. However, their collective unhappiness served in some respects to bring them closer to one another. In 1774 the family moved again to what had been the house of Isaac Newton in St Martin’s Street, Westminster, London.
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