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Fanny Burney: Royal Servant

The novelist

Fanny’s appointment as Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte at the age of 35 was a surprising one for two reasons.
Evelina and Mr Villars
An illustration for Evelina by Edward Burney, showing Evelina and her guardian, Mr Villars.
© Hester Davenport
Firstly, Fanny was quite uninterested in clothes, and secondly she was a novelist, an occupation of which Queen Charlotte disapproved. Young women were discouraged from reading, let alone writing, fiction, so Fanny’s first novel, 'Evelina' (1778), had been published anonymously. However, the lively tale of a ‘Young Lady’s Entrance into the World’ aroused such interest that inevitably the secret of the authorship seeped out. The tearful 'Cecilia' (1782) was even more applauded and, having consulted a bishop, the Queen even allowed her elder daughters to read it. Both King and Queen were anxious to meet Miss Burney when she came to Windsor to stay with a mutual friend, the elderly Mrs Delany, at Christmas 1785.

The King and Queen in Windsor

Harebell
Motif of a harebell from an embroidered panel for a court gown by Mrs Delany
© Olivia Davenport
Mary Delany is a woman remembered now for her paper ‘mosaicks’, exact and beautiful flower portraits made out of cut paper shapes mounted on black backgrounds. The King and Queen had provided her with a house in St Albans Street near the Castle where they often visited her. When the painfully shy Fanny went to stay, she found it impossible to avoid meeting them. But she survived the royal encounter and even felt proud of herself, little knowing that she had been under inspection for a post in the household. Queen Charlotte needed a new Keeper of the Robes (a grand title for what amounted to no more than a dresser), and she fancied someone who could supply her with intelligent conversation during the daily dressing rituals.

The King and Queen did not live in the Castle itself, but in a house across the top of the Long Walk purpose-built for their large family (it was demolished by George IV). They were popular figures in Windsor, patronising the local tradesmen and bringing colour and interest to the town. Every Sunday evening a band played on the South Terrace and the royal family would parade there, the King chatting familiarly with locals and grandees alike. He knew many locals by name and took a fatherly interest in their affairs (less honourably he bribed Windsor voters to return his candidate at elections).

Words: Hester Davenport

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