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1778: Author and satirist Fanny Burney describes Cuckfield

In 1778 famous novelist, playright and satirist Frances (Fanny) Burney (1752-1840) stopped (most probably in the Kings Head) overnight in Cuckfield enroute for Brighthelmstone (Brighton). She was daughter of a famous music historian, Charles Burney. Fanny was very close to her younger sister Susannna and in a letter dated 26 May, and

Frances (Fanny) Burney (1752-1840)

sent from Brighton, recorded some observations about the town:

At Cuckfield, which is in Sussex, and but 14 miles hence [from Brighton], we Dined. It is a clean and pretty Town, and we passed all the Time we rescued from Eating in the Church Yard.

Later she adds: ‘The View of the South Downs from Cuckfield to this place [she writes from Brighton] is very curious and singular.’

For her onward journey she recorded: Mr Thrale’s House is in West Street, which is the Court end of the Town here as well as in London. ’Tis a neat, small House, and I have a snug comfortable Room to myself. The sea is not many Yards from our Windows. Our Journey was delightfully pleasant, the Day being heavenly, the roads in fine order, the Prospects charming, and every body good humoured and cheerful.

Susanna Philips née Burney, c1775-1800

Two years after this letter, Susanna (aka Susan and Susannah), c1775- 1800, would marry Captain Molesworth Phillips (1755-1832) an officer in the Royal Marines. He was a friend of their brother James. Both Molesworth and James had been on Captain Cook's last expedition, and Phillips had apparently behaved with great bravery.

As for Fanny, she had a very full and eventful life. She started entries in her diary at the age of 15 and continued through her whole life. From her youth in London high society to a period in the court of Queen Charlotte and her years interned during the Napoleonic Wars in France with her husband Alexandre d’Arblay who had been a soldier and later to become a French émigré.

Her diary gives life in high society in turbulent times. She gives comic and candid portraits of people she encountered - including perceptive observations of the ‘mad’ King George, Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick and a charismatic Napoleon Bonaparte. She was once described as ' a fascinating storyteller with a talent for imitating the personalities that she described'.

Fanny's husband Alexandre d’Arblay (1754-1818)

She also details, in her most moving piece, undergoing at the age of 59 a mastectomy without anaesthetic.

In all, she wrote four novels, eight plays, one biography and 25 volumes of journals and letters. She has gained critical respect in her own right, but she also foreshadowed such novelists of manners with a satirical bent as Jane Austen and William Makepeace Thackeray.

After her meal in Cuckfield, mentioned above, she wandered around the churchyard jotting down a few epitaphs on the memorial stones that took her fancy - which probably by now are no longer readable:

Lord, thou hast pointed out my Life

In length much like a span;

My Age was nothing unto thee,

So Vain is every man.

The second was:

An indulgent Husband, and Friend sincere,

And a Neighbourly man lies buried here.

The Third was upon a Young Wife:

Not 12 months were past after our Wedding Day,

But Death in come, and from a loving Husband took me away.

The fourth, upon a Young Couple who both died soon after marriage.

Repent in Time, make no delay,

We after each other were soon called away.


Note: A blue plaque records Fanny's visits to Mr and Mrs Thrale's home at 78 West Street, Brighton.


Journals and Letters, by Frances Burney, Penguin Books 2006 also available as downloads such as Kindle.

Pictures from the National Portrait Gallery.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.


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