Frances Dickens (1810-1848), more commonly known as ‘Fanny‘, was the beloved older sister of Charles Dickens and the first child of John Dickens and Elizabeth Barrow following their marriage the previous year. A talented musician, Frances was one of the first students to enrol at the Royal Academy of Music but her life wascruelly cut short by tuberculosis, aged just 38.
Frances Elizabeth Dickens was born on 28 October, 1810 in Landport, and baptised on 23 November at St Mary’s Church, Portsea. She was the first of six children of John Dickens and Elizabeth Barrow who survived into adulthood.
Royal Academy of Music.
Fanny showed a talent for music in childhood and her parents decided to invest in her future by paying for attendence at the Royal Academy of Music from the age of 14, despite the often perilous family finances.
At the time, the Academy was based at 4 Tenterden Street near London’s Hanover Square, and whilst there Fanny won the Academy’s silver medal and also second prize for piano.
Three years later the family were plunged into financial difficulties and Fanny was forced to leave, but continued to study part-time in return for teaching. In 1829, the Academy could not afford to keep paying her and Fanny turned to becoming a professional musician.
On Wednesday, 13 September 1837, Fanny Dickens married Henry Burnett at St Luke’s Church, Chelsea, the same church that her brother Charles had got married in the previous year. Henry Burnett was a fellow pupil from the Royal Academy of Music and when he left, was engaged as a principal tenor at Drury Lane and Covent Garden.
They had two children together, Henry and Charles, although Henry was a weak and deformed child. The first child, Henry Augustus Burnett, Jr., was born on 25 November, 1839, and the second Charles Dickens Kneller Burnett, on 12 April, 1841. After the birth of their children, Fanny and Henry became unhappy with life in London, and moved to the Ardwick area of Manchester. Here, they both became music teachers whilst Henry also continued his work as a tenor.
Charles Dickens and Fanny Dickens.
Charles Dickens was very fond of his elder sister throughout his life. They grew up together and shared many happy memories in Portsmouth and Chatham as well as the upsets faced by their parents John and Elizabeth because of debt and constantly having to move home. Like Charles, she was full of energy and hard-working.
Charles used the character of Fanny’s weak and deformed child Henry as the inspiration behind the characters of Tiny Tim in the novella A Christmas Carol and Paul Dombey in the novel Dombey and Son.
Fanny’s husband, Henry Burnett, was somewhat disliked by Charles Dickens who ridiculed him. Henry Burnett was an Evangelical Christian and Fanny had converted under her husband’s influence.
In February 1844, Fanny and Henry accompanied Charles Dickens to Liverpool, where he had been invited to give a speech in aid of the Liverpool Mechanics’ Institution.
Fanny Dickens became ill with consumption (tuberculosis) in 1848 and moved from Manchester to London to live with family and help receive treatment. She was living at the home of Henry’s brother-in-law (Henry Austin) in Hanley Road, Hornsey when she died, aged 38, on 2 September.
Fanny was buried at Highgate Cemetery in London. The young Henry died soon after, at the age of 9, and was buried alongside his mother. Fanny’s husband Henry Burnett moved from Manchester around ten years after the death of his wife. He died in 1893, aged 82, in Titchfield, Hampshire.
What was Henry’s disability?
The younger Henry Burnett (1839-1849) had a spinal deformity.