Fanny Burney: The Keeper of the Robes

Fanny Burney, who is best known as the author of novels Evelina and Cecilia, held the position of ‘Keeper of the Robes’ in the court of King George III and Queen Charlotte between 1786 and 1790. As Keeper of the Robes, Burney aided in dressing the Queen in a mostly ceremonial role, twice a day. Her role enabled her to form relationships with members of the royal family and household.

Fanny Burney was involved in court life at the time of the menus examined in this project and her extensive collections of journals and letters offer insight into her life and health at court and others who became affected by King George III’s illness. More information about members of the royal household present at the time of the menus can be found here, in one of our previous blogs.

To ‘a certain Miss Nobody’


Frances Burney as cited in hester davenport, faithful handmaid

Burney wrote her first diary at age sixteen and always wrote as if for an audience.[1] Initially, she wrote to an imaginary friend but by the time she was twenty, Burney’s diary became letters that she exchanged between her sister, Susan and other family friends. In her time at court, Fanny continued to write journals for Susan despite having been advised to not share details of her role in the royal household to the outside world.

‘The King is not well; he has not been quite well some time, yet nothing I hope alarming…’


FRANCES BURNEY AS CITED IN HESTER DAVENPORT, FAITHFUL HANDMAID

In October 1788, Burney wrote of the King’s illness which delayed the courts return to Windsor from Kew. The court were delayed for a week and Burney describes the melancholy and the difficulties of the time where anxiety was high. As King George III’s illness progresses, Burney shows the impact it had on the household and how his behavioural changes were perceived by members of his court. She also kept records of conversations that she had with other members of the royal household such as Colonel Goldsworthy and Colonel Digby that portrayed the anxieties of those close to the King.

‘Nobody stirred; not a voice was heard; not a step, not a motion. I could do nothing but watch, without knowing for what: there seemed a strangeness in the house most extraordinary.’


FRANCES BURNEY AS CITED IN HESTER DAVENPORT, FAITHFUL HANDMAID

During the period of illness, Burney’s relationship with Queen Charlotte is highlighted showing the companionship between the women and the increased pressures of Burney’s role as King George’s illness continued. On November 5th 1788, Burney was called to serve the Queen at one in the morning, after the royal family had dined. During the meal, it had been reported that the King had a violent outburst at one of his sons. She described the Queen as appearing ‘pale, ghastly pale’.

‘Deeply affected, I hastened up to her, but, in trying to speak, burst into an irresistible torrent of tears…She looked like death – colourless and wan; but nature is infectious; the tears gushed from her own eyes, and a perfect agony of weeping ensued…when it subsided, and she wiped her eyes, she said ‘I thank you, Miss Burney – you have made me cry – it is a great relief to me – I had not been able to cry before, all this night long’.’


FRANCES BURNEY AS CITED IN HESTER DAVENPORT, FAITHFUL HANDMAID

It was decided in November, 1788 that the King would move from Windsor to Kew to ensure privacy. On 5th December 1788, Dr. Willis was introduced to Colonel Digby and as seen by the inclusion of his servant in the menus, he was still present in the court in December, 1789. The King began a steady recovery in February 1789 and 23 April 1789 was celebrated as a day of thanksgiving for his recovery. As part of the celebration, Fanny Burney was awarded a medal for her service.

Royal Archives, LS9-226_0007,
14 December 1789.

Burney left the Queen’s service in July 1791. She continued to write letters and journals after she became trapped in Paris while visiting with her husband and son when the Napoleonic Wars restarted in 1802. She even wrote a detailed letter to her sister, Esther, about her mastectomy without anaesthetic in 1812 which you can read courtesy of the British Library.

Diaries and letters provide an alternate source which help to contextualise the menus in court life. The letters written by Burney give individuals of the court personality and character that make them feel more tangible. Burney also provides a valuable insight into the health and feelings of those surrounding King George III during his bouts of illness.


[1] Hester Davenport, Faithful Handmaid: Fanny Burney at the court of King George III (Stroud, 2000).


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