McGill University Library buys rare manuscript of literary pioneer Fanny Burney


McGill University Library buys rare manuscript of literary pioneer Fanny Burney

McGill University Library has bought at auction a rare manuscript notebook of English novelist Fanny Burney (1752-1840) containing the drafts of some 40 letters in French addressed to various friends from 1809-1811. Burney was a prolific writer and diarist whose work directly influenced her successors, such as Jane Austen and William Makepeace Thackeray. Her first novel, Evelina, was published in 1778 and became an international bestseller. Today, there are more than 60 lifetime editions in seven different languages. The novel arguably created a new school of fiction, one in which women in 18th century English society "were portrayed in realistic, contemporary circumstances," satirizing their social pretensions and personal foibles, while exploring the politics of female identity.

The unpublished notebook was part of the collection of Georgian literature formed by the late Paula Peyraud and recently came to light at Bloomsbury Auctions in New York. Its purchase on May 6 was made possible by funding from the B. H. Breslauer Foundation.

"The Library is extremely grateful that in these challenging financial times, such a purchase was made possible by the generous support of the Foundation," said Janine Schmidt, Trenholme Director of Libraries at McGill University. The B. H. Breslauer Foundation of New York was established and endowed by the late Dr. Bernard H. Breslauer (1918-2004), with the main purpose of giving grants to libraries that collect rare books and manuscripts in the United States and to the US affiliates of libraries elsewhere.

While it is unclear if the 40 letters in the notebook represent actual letters or simply exercises in autobiographical epistolary form, the notebook presents information about Fanny Burney at the time she developed breast cancer and her ensuing mastectomy - a period from which relatively few of her letters exist.

The notebook will be housed in the Library's Rare Books and Special Collections, where Dr. Richard Virr, Head and Curator of Manuscripts, described the price of acquiring the manuscript as "considerably lower than our estimates, and a modest sum to acquire such a unique treasure which will support the work of McGill University's Burney Centre" ( The Burney Centre, which welcomes scholars from around the world, was created in 1960 to rescue this unjustly forgotten literary pioneer from obscurity.

McGill Library also acquired a number of other manuscript letters by and to Fanny Burney as well as a significant number of early editions of her novels and other printed material. Also purchased was a manuscript of novels, plays and poems by Burney's niece Sophia Elizabeth Burney that is unknown to scholars.

Rare Books and Special Collections is one of the McGill Library's 13 branches and houses many of the McGill University Library's most important research collections including art and architecture, Canadiana, history, literature, philosophy (including an outstanding David Hume Collection), travel and exploration, and the history of the book. Gifts and purchases have formed the present holdings of more than 280,000 printed books, 12,000 prints, 6,000 maps, 1,000 manuscripts and 500 linear metres of archives and private papers. It is a true discovery library, actively supporting the teaching, learning and research needs of McGill students and faculty from all disciplines, as well as the wider scholarly community.

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