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The Burney collection of manuscripts in the British Library

Introduction Collection &
catalogue
Burney's purchases 'Membra
disiecta'
Illuminated
manuscripts
Further reading

The life and character of Charles Burney

Early years
Education and maturity
Character
Passion for books
Significance of Burney’s library


Although Charles Burney the younger still lacks his own biography, much has already been written about his life within the many works on his father and most famous sibling, Fanny. I shall therefore restrict myself to a very brief sketch of his life and character.

Early years    Top top

Born in 1757 during a curative sojourn of his father in King’s Lynn in Norfolk, Charles Burney the younger was the fifth surviving child of Charles the elder and his wife Esther. By the age of seven Charles was effectively the eldest son, his elder brother James having left home for a career in the Navy that included voyaging twice round the world with Captain James Cook and culminated in his appointment as admiral. By the age of only five Charles had also lost his mother. Yet by all accounts, the Burney home in Poland Street, London, was a happy and high-spirited place. Together with his three elder sisters, Esther, Fanny and Susanna Elizabeth, and his younger sister, Charlotte Ann, the young Charles enjoyed family music-making, reading, and theatricals, as well as the regular society of many of the notables of London theatre and music-making.

Education and maturity    Top top

For his education Charles attended Charterhouse, Caius College, Cambridge, and King’s College, Aberdeen. (I shall return to the Aberdeen episode a little later.) From 1786 onwards he ran successive schools in Hammersmith and Greenwich. Through these well-attended establishments Charles accumulated great personal wealth and gained a reputation as a stern disciplinarian. In parallel he also established himself as one of this country’s most knowledgeable authorities on the classics and one of the greatest experts in recondite aspects of Greek language and metre. Notwithstanding his achievements as a schoolmaster, Charles relinquished his school to his son Charles Parr Burney in 1813 and sought further advancement in the Church. Already, in 1812, he had had conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Divinity. By the death of his father in 1814 Charles had become Chaplain to George III and Vicar of both St Paul’s Deptford and Herne Hill in Kent. By 1817 he had achieved the prebendary of Lincoln, and in the same year the Archbishop of Canterbury’s personal request that Charles undertake the collation of the Codex Alexandrinus for the British Museum seemed certain to ensure his elevation to bishop. Yet on Holy Innocent’s Day of that same year, aged just sixty years, Charles was struck down by apoplexy and died forthwith.

Character    Top top

Charles Burney had been born into a most distinctive family. Led by a boundlessly energetic and amazingly successful father the Burney children launched themselves into the world at full tilt. Following their father’s example each sought to exploit their individual talents through a remarkable balance of hard work and disarming amiability. Charles’s sister Fanny was inclined to believe that her brother exemplified this balance perfectly, working, as she put it, ‘in the brown study in the morning and willing to be frisky and agreeable in your vulgar tongue in an evening’. Yet, in Charles the balance was perhaps less easily achieved. Fanny continually worried about her brother’s levity and his lack of ‘penetration into Character and foresight into events’. Other more censorious members of the family grieved over the good humour which appeared to them facile and the success which they thought excessive. His father lamented Charles’s voluptuous junketings with the Duke of Norfolk and others; his sister Susanna nagged about his sumptuous table and railed against his ‘strange good fortune’ in a Church more concerned with scholarship than theology.

Passion for books    Top top

The most dramatic manifestation of that levity of character is a story that brings us to Charles Burney’s passion for books. For, while at Caius College, Burney was caught red-handed in possession of books from which he had removed the University arms and substituted his own mark. Much to the chagrin of his family he was thereupon sent down from Cambridge in disgrace, and temporary exile in Aberdeen was deemed the best for all concerned. The indulgent Fanny considered Charles’s misdeed a foolish error of youth and admired her brother’s strength of character in living down an episode that hounded both him and his family almost to Burney’s death. For her ‘the origin of that fatal deed … [was] a Mad rage for possessing a library’. Susanna, on the other hand, was more chastening in her judgement: ‘I should grieve more for him – but not be the less satisfied, if he felt [his disappointments] more deeply’. Subsequently this story has been the subject of both discrete coyness and open censure. In the present context it serves to illustrate the potentially subversive nature of Burney’s enthusiasm for books.

Significance of Burney’s library    Top top

Whatever the psychological mainsprings of his subsequent collecting of books – was it a compensating attempt to prove that he could do so without resort to theft? – Charles Burney did come to assemble one of the outstanding libraries of his time. Whereas his sister Susanna could see little worth in thirty editions of Aristotle and Fanny’s husband General d’Arblay enjoined his own son Alexander to avoid the dangers of Charles’s bibliomania, others of greater discernment recognised the unique value of Burney’s comprehensive collection. According to the scholar-cleric Thomas Burgess, it was ‘one of the most in perfect in works of Classical eminence and curiosity now existing in private hands’. In his long Latin inscription for Burney’s commemorative relief in Westminster Abbey Samuel Parr immortalised his friend Burney’s singular achievement as a collector of books. The acquisition of Burney’s library by the British Museum not only greatly enhanced its collections, but formed an important stepping stone towards a truly comprehensive and all-encompassing national library.


Introduction Collection &
catalogue
Burney's purchases 'Membra
disiecta'
Illuminated
manuscripts
Further reading
print Print this page
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site search Search British Library website
back Back
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