Carnegie Mellon University

‘The Voice of Fame’: Frances Burney and Eighteenth-Century British Celebrity

Author: Kate Hamilton
Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2016

Scholars of literature, sociology, and history have identified eighteenth-century Britain as integral to the history of modern celebrity, arguing that this period increasingly valued the staging and commodification of an “authentic” self. The proliferation of biographies, printed pamphlets, and newspapers—especially in the second half of the century—offered a medium for understanding and assessing the “real” individual behind the theatrical or political role. However, the interdisciplinary field of celebrity studies has at times failed to account for women’s role in this emergent “structure of feeling.” Drawing upon the work of theater historians Joseph Roach (2007) and Felicity Nussbaum (2010), my project identifies the historical moment in which “public intimacy”—or the public performance of an “inner,” seemingly private self, deployed through narrative, theatrical, and social performance—becomes central to women’s reputation and image shaping in 1770s and 1780s London.

As a case study for considering the gendered origins of modern celebrity, I explore the personal writing and early novels of the prolific novelist and playwright Frances Burney (1752-1840), an author and playwright who rose from obscurity to become one of the premier literary celebrities of her day. Despite her now-canonical status as a novelist of manners (in the vein of Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth), Burney’s analysis of and interaction with actresses, authors, and monarchs is frequently overlooked both by historians of celebrity as well as Burney scholars. Exposed to celebrated artists and performers through the career of her father, the novelist chronicled in both her personal writing and public fiction the paradox of gendered celebrity. On the one hand, Burney recognized that the external performance of gendered interiority—the physical embodiment of female virtue—became central to a “proper” celebrity in this period.

Building upon Chris Rojek’s discussion of achieved and ascribed celebrity (2001), I explore how Burney modeled her own virtuous reputation through social networks of intellectuals as well as through her literary output. Yet while the deployment of this inner virtue allowed female professionals to gain economic and social power, the commodity value of a women’s virtuous “public intimacy” paradoxically decreased through its exposure and circulation. As Burney engaged with predatory voyeurs and sycophants in her own life, so these malevolent characters manifested in Burney’s novels—texts which foreground the potential social infection of gendered publicity (and harassment) facing women in urban spaces. In short, Burney’s public and private writing identifies the tension between female virtue and female celebrity in late-Georgian England; ultimately, such a tension indicates that theorists and historians of modern celebrity must recognize the class, gender, and genre distinctions of eighteenth-century celebrity.