By guest blogger and author Hester Davenport
Hester Davenport, right, with Maggie Lane, both members of the Burney Society.
On Saturday 15 June a plaque was unveiled
in the gallery of St Swithin’s Church, Bath to Fanny Burney the novelist and
diary-writer, or Mme d’Arblay as she was known after her marriage. This righted
a wrong dating from 1958, when plaques to her and her half-sister Sarah Harriet
were lost. When the St Swithin’s organ was moved downstairs the church
authorities, fearing damage, sought to protect them by taking them away
beforehand – ironically they then disappeared completely.
There is a strong Burney connection with
Bath and with St Swithin’s. Fanny visited it many times and lived there with
her husband, Alexandre d’Arblay, after their return from France in 1815.
Alexandre died in 1818 and was buried at Swithin’s, and in 1837 her son
Alexander joined his father in the churchyard. Fanny, who died in London in
1840 at the age of 88, had asked in her will to be buried there too so all
three could be united in death. She had already erected a memorial plaque to
her husband in the church gallery and shortly after her own death her heirs
paid for an elaborate memorial to her. Her half-sister died in 1844, in
Cheltenham, but as she had lived for several years in Bath a memorial plaque
was placed beside Fanny’s. (She was also a novelist, and though not achieving
the fame of her sister her novel Clarentine
was read three times by Jane Austen, a recommendation indeed.)
The convoluted story does not end there. A
huge table-top tomb had been placed over the graves of Fanny and Alexander by
Burney descendants, but in 1955 the church decided to exhume the bodies and
reinter them near the church (and near the grave of Jane Austen’s father). In
the event only the massive tombstone was placed where it is today and the
bodies were, without identification, reinterred in a communal graveyard. The
tombstone had become an empty sarcophagus.
The Burney Society decided to do something
about matters. The sarcophagus was cleaned and re-engraved, and in 2005 a
ceremony was held, with onlookers scattering flower petals and the author UA Fanthorpe
reading a specially-written poem. Since that event the Society has been
fund-raising to replace the missing plaques. Marble plaques with lengthy
inscriptions cost a lot of money, and only in the summer of 2012 was the target
reached at least for Fanny’s. There was money left over, and a plaque with a
simple inscription was planned for Sarah Harriet since the original wording was
thought lost. But then a Burney scholar discovered in an obscure volume a
photograph of it! This was exciting news except that now another £2000 would be
needed for all the extra letters.
At least now Mme d’Arblay’s spirit must be
at rest. The plaque, superbly engraved by Tony Brown (at right in photo below), was unveiled by Maggie
Lane (at left in photo below with Burney Society President Bill Fraser). Maggie, well-known to members of the Jane Austen Society, was a founder
member of the Burney Society and was for many years one of its Vice-Presidents;
she is the author of A City of Palaces:
Bath through the Eyes of Fanny
But poor Sarah Harriet (Harriotte in the
baptismal register) still has no plaque and the empty space is all too obvious.
We are now fund-raising as hard as we can; donations of any size would be much
appreciated and could be sent to me: Hester Davenport (Chair British Burney
Society), 60 Church Road, Old Windsor, Berkshire SL4 2PG.