Tales of Fancy: The Shipwreck

About Sarah Harriet Burney


Born on 29 August 1772, Sarah Harriet Burney was the youngest child of a second marriage and her career as a writer was overshadowed by that of her half sister, Frances Burney. Her father was a well respected music teacher and various celebrities frequent of father’s house when she was very young, especially after her sister’s rise in popularity following the publication of Evelina ( Clark, xxxiv). Between 1781 and 1783, Sarah Burney was sent to Switzerland to be educated by Marie-Anne Louise Cuénod at Vevey (xxxiv). In 1796, she stayed by her mother’s side and looked after her as she lay on her death bed and the Burney children thought that their step-mother’s passing contributed to an improvement in Sarah’s character (xxxv). The second Mrs. Charles Burney was jealous that her children favored each other’s company and was “capable of imagining dark plots and ‘cabals’ against her and forming exaggerated suspicions of their motivations” (xxxvii). This quality in her step-mother influences her father’s eventual disapproval of the close relationship the Sarah maintained with her brother James (xxxvi, xxxvii); after separating from his wife and children, he and Sarah set up house together and this incident further emphasized familial suspicions of incest that already existed(xxxvi – xxxviii). Sarah’s step-sister, Maria Rishton, pronounced Sarah to be an “unfortunate girl who has plunged herself into difficulties but not into guilt” (xxxvii). Years later Sarah left her brother James when she could no longer endure his odd tempers (xli). Banking records indicate that Sarah Burney did not live with her brother out of financial security; in fact her account at Coutts show that she transferred her investment income to James over a two year period (xli – xlii). After working as a governess for a while she reconciled with her father, and looked after him, and wrote out letters that he would dictate to her (xliii).


Dr. Charles Burney

Her life at this time of reconciliation was quite restricted. Sarah detested asking her father’s permission to spend evenings out with friends (xliii). However, she managed to get along with him through flattery (xliii); when her niece Charlotte was returning a book, Sarah advised her to show as much gratitude as though he had sent a dowry for her daughter, in addition to a title and an estate for herself (xliii). Despite the care and devotion she demonstrated to her father, he left her a small inheritance of a thousand pounds her brother James Burney was virtually disinherited (xliv). Thus, due to financial reasons she chose to give lessons and write fiction (xliv).

Sarah Burney suffered from loneliness and tried to remedy this and eventually she was hired by Lord Crewe as a charge for his two granddaughters (xlvi-xlvii). She had the responsibility of hiring a governess, various masters, overseeing their education and living in Grosvenor Square in London (xlviii). However, the family had a property in the West Indies which diminished in value, as did the life led by the family (xlvii). This along with other complications in the relationship with the Crewes, some resulting from the jealousy of the youngest members of the family who received greater attentions from eligible males, led to Sarah leaving the Crewes.


Structure of The Shipwreck


The title page features the title of the volume, Tales of Fancy, the author’s first and middle initials and her last name. Though the author’s name as it appears is not indicative of her gender, contemporary audiences would have known that she was related to her popular published half-sister, Frances Burney, due to the family name. The title page also indicates that the author of the publication also is known for writing Clarentine, Geraldine Fauconberg, and Traits of Fancy. This serves as a form of advertisement that would be beneficial to the publisher, Henry Colburn, as well as to the author. Next after a line break, the title of the first volume is featured in black letter font, emphasizing the gothic aspects of this specific tale:


Next, the information provided reveals that the book was published in 1816, for Henry Colburn, and the this specific digital copy is one that was originally printed for Colburn’s the public library on Conduit Street, in Hanover Square.

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Though Colburn was notorious for having questionable publishing practices such as passing off works of other authors as those of Lord Byron (Sutherland 2), Sarah Burney was grateful that he loaned her volumes of Emma (Clark, 199) and works of Maria Edgeworth (179). However, she mentions in a letter to Henry Crabb Robinson that he delayed a publication of hers in addition to paying her by installments, making it difficult for her to afford her medical bills or pay for the expense of living in accommodations that could have improved her health (423). Hence, Colburn is painted as a rogue who did not deal fairly with the writers whose works he chose to publish.

There are two letters that Sarah Burney wrote to her niece Charlotte that she and Colburn has agreed upon “one hundred pounds per volume, and twenty-five a volume on a second edition: –  and if the first two volumes take, he is to give me three-hundred pounds for the next two…”(197). These letters are available through the database,  British Fiction 1800-1829, at Cardiff University.



Part of the paratext of the novel features a dedication to “The Right Honourable Lady Crewe,” who was a family friend and also her employer for part of her life. Through the dedication the author admits that she did not want to present a fairy tale within the story, and in order to give greater credibility to the plot, she consulted a naval officer. She includes portions of the naval officer’s letter within the dedication:



Each chapter begins with a quote from either Southey, Shakespeare, and sometimes an unknown poet, and these quotations emphasize the general mood of the chapter and nforms the reader that the chapter will be one of optimism or of impending doom.

The entire novel itself begins with a quotation from Aristotle, in Italian and in English which sets the tone of the entire book, and as an attempt to elevate the novel.


Content Analysis

Sarah Burney’s tale, The Shipwreck, starts with Lady Earlingford and her daughter Viola trying to ensure their safety as their ship runs aground upon a journey to Bengal. As they near their destination, their vessel is shipwrecked which they manage to survive. They are washed ashore upon an a fertile edenic island where they adopt a cave for shelter; the only conceivable danger is a dormant volcano. What also gets washed ashore is a trunk belonging to Edmund, Lady Earlingford’s nephew. After passing several weeks in each other’s company, they realize that they are not the only survivors from the ship; Mr. Fitz Aymer and a young child, Felix Beauchamp, also are on the island. Lady Earlingford is concerned about Fitz Aymer associating with her daughter in any way, and therefore disguises her daughter in her nephew’s clothes and presents Viola to Fitz Aymer as Edmund. Lady Earlingford’s mistrust in Fitz Aymer is based chiefly upon misunderstandings of his past behaviour with her family; he was unjustly accused of pursuing a married woman, being a gamester, and spending money without caution. However, over the course of several weeks Fitz Aymer proves himself to be a loyal, honourable and devout gentleman. Lady Fitz Aymer gives the couple their blessing with her dying breath and reveals to Fitz Aymer that the person with them in Edmund’s clothes is in fact her daughter Viola. Although pirates also make an appearance in this otherwise idyllic place, Viola, Fitz Aymer, and Felix manage to leave the island by constructing a raft from the remnants of the pirate vessel, of and are soon rescued by a ship that is bound for England. Once they are safely in their native country, Fitz Aymer presents a letter to Viola’s father from Lady Earlingford asking that all should be forgiven of Fitz Aymer and that she consents to the union of the young couple. Viola’s father does not present any objections and Fitz Aymer and Viola are married.

Burney’s narrative offers an interesting perspective on what human beings require for survival beyond food, water, and shelter. Edmund’s surviving trunk contains extra clothes, linens, cloth, amunition, guns, a chess set (143), and a selection of books: The Bible, a prayer book, Paradise Lost, Shakespeare’s Plays, Plutarch’s Lives, Anson and Cooke’s voyages, some scientific books (44), a book on Latin grammar, a Latin dictionary, and “two or three Persian and Moorish books” (66). This list of personal belongings reveals the importance of literature in the life of a young educated man. The books are emblematic of English culture and are examples of the kind of literature that have the stamina to last. Books on this island help to alleviate loneliness, provide entertainment, and provide spiritual strength. They also are what initially unite the four stranded individuals on the island; Fitz Aymer comes upon a volume of Shakespeare that Viola abandoned one day in her haste, indicating to him that he is not the only survivor from the wreck.

The Shipwreck also provides an interesting exploration of feminism. Viola and Lady Earlingford read literature that would be read by an educated male, and as such they gain entrance into the male psyche. Viola also wears Edmund’s clothes so she experiments with the idea of not relying exclusively upon her looks (117). She is uncomfortable with the idea of her beauty not being acknowledged and Fitz Aymer is uncomfortable with her lack of proficiency and endurance in physical activities that are traditionally masculine. What is being critiqued is the nineteenth century understanding of masculinity and femininity: Burney is indicating that a revision is necessary. The narrator says that the two or three scientific books are “less interesting” (66) and thus reveals a problematic feminine assessment of these specific books. Burney demonstrates that both genders can be given access to a similar if not the same education by rescuing a set of books possessed by a male character and giving them to two female characters; they at least have the choice to decide what they find appealing. Furthermore, Lady Earlingford delineates the differences between men and women. She claims that women are better suited to adversity because “they are built for retirement,” and are accustomed to tolerating challenges with poise, and possess a quiet strength (39). Lady Earlingford argues that men on the other hand are restless, competitive, domineering, and excel only at labour-intensive tasks (39). She criticizes men for not applying themselves in a meaningful manner in their leisure time, as well as relegating women to a life of frivolity that requires a dormant intellect: “Would the ardour of a truly masculine spirit contentedly support the inactive, unvarying, tenour [sic] of a life such as this” (39)? Ultimately, The Shipwreck shows that men and women need to work together to face difficulties because the text illustrates that men and women are both susceptible to disease. Lady Earlingford, Fitz Aymer, and Viola each take turns falling ill and has to rely on someone of the opposite gender to recuperate. Lady Earlingford and the older of the two pirates dies, showing that death is the great equalizer. This equality in death opposes and thus questions the inequality in life between men and women.

The Shipwreck appeals to young middle class and upper class women in the nineteenth century because it addresses the complications of choosing a marriage partner, and be a part of the kind of adventures that is usually restricted to males and male audiences. Viola is the ideal matrimonial candidate because in addition to possessing external beauty and fortune, she is kind, pious, obedient, and accomplished. Readers see kindness in her actions when she is befriending the birds of the island as well as showing compassion to Fitz Aymer and Felix, expecially when Fitz Aymer is injured. She prays regularly and encourages Felix and Fitz Aymer in the weekly worship that she observes with her mother, in the absence of an established church (163). She is obedient to her mother and is even willing to deceive others of her own gender and identity just because her mother asks her to do so. Yet, it ought to be noted that she does not lie outright regarding her identity when she is dressed as a male by allowing her mother to speak for her, and therefore still upholds moral values. She is very interested in getting her parents’ approval of whom she chooses to marry (364). Viola chooses to be an accomplished woman and not remain idle even in an uninhabited island by weaving baskets (43). Thus far, Viola follows the script that is directed towards young women just entering the marriage market. However, she subverts tradition by choosing a partner for herself and then seeking approval. Additionally, she challenges gender roles by coming to Fitz Aymer’s rescue when he is caught in a brawl with one of the pirates.

An unnerving aspect of The Shipwreck is the undercurrent of imperial values. Upon first arriving upon the island, Lady Earlingford fears being accosted by a “horde of lawless Indians” (8). This is contrasted later by Viola’s optimism, when she declares that the other humans on the island are probably a “gentle and benevolent race ready to serve” (65). Though there are not any human natives on the island, Viola tames the island’s birds to an extent and classifies them into three categories: “courtier birds”, “plotter birds”, and “social birds” (45-46) thus revealing her limiting upper class views. Both mother and daughter reveal an inherent English classicism and ethnocentrism. The literature that they bring with them, in light of these troublesome views, takes on an equally upsetting meaning: in an effort to civilize the natives, the British are exporting culture to their Indian colony which is lacking in powerful, enduring ideas and authors. These colonial nineteenth century opinions could very well be the bias of the author, or they could be a form of criticism of colonization and do not deter from an otherwise engaging story.

Reception of Sarah Burney

Jane Austen did read Burney’s first novel, Clarentine (not of The Shipwreck), which her family read aloud together and said that it is “foolish” and “full of unnatural conduct and forced difficulties, without striking merit of any kind” (Contemporary para. 10).

There is a contemporary review available online through Cardiff University which identifies the following shortcomings: that Viola faints a little too often, and that the letter that her dying mother writes from her death bed is a little too long. It also stated that the island’s volcanic mountain seemed unnecessary to the plot as a whole.


Carmen Maria Fernandez Rodriguez sees Sarah Burney’s The Shipwreck, as a work that is “poised between tradition and innovation” (37). She sees it as more than a novel of manners and can see the potential of it garnering interest today (37): the heroine learns that altering one’s sense of self is necessary for happiness (38), which I can see being a contentious issue today given the media coverage of celebrities claiming that embracing one’s authentic self is essential. Rodriguez I agree on two points: this novel promotes a Eurocentric point view with a drastically different attitude to religion that today’s audiences (38).

Inspite of some troublesome ideas that this novel reveals, I still found The Shipwreck to be an engaging read.


Works Cited

Clark. Lorna J. “A contemporary’s view of Jane Austen.” Notes and Queries 43:1 (1996) 1-2. Web. Factiva. 10 Oct 2016.

— ed. The Letters of Sarah Harriet Burney.  Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1997. Print.

Rodriguez, Carmen Maria Fernandez. “Romanticising the Robinsonade: Sarah Harriet Burney’s The Shipwrekc (1820).” Babel Afial 20 (2011): 21-39. Web. LION. 10 Oct 2016.

Sutherland, John. “Henry Colburn Publisher.” Publishing History 19:59 (1986) 1-26. Web. Proquest. 31 Oct 2016.

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