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Sarah Burney was born at Lynn Regis (now King's Lynn), England, the youngest child of Charles Burney, a composer and musicologist, and his second wife Elizabeth Allen. She spent her early childhood with relatives of her mother in Norfolk, and was brought into the Burney household in Chelsea, London in 1775. Her much older half-siblings included Frances "Fanny" Burney and Admiral James Burney. In 1781, Sarah was sent with her brother Richard to Corsier-sur-Vevey in Switzerland, to complete her education. She studied music and drawing, and became fluent in French and Italian, enough to act as an interpreter for aristocratic French émigrés on several occasions. She worked as a governess and companion and also spent periods nursing her elderly parents. She and James took up housekeeping together in Bristol and then in London from 1798 to 1803, after which she moved back in with her father again to nurse him and serve as his amanuensis. After his death in 1814, she traveled to Italy and lived in Rome and Florence for several years. She became increasingly lonely there and returned to Britain in 1833, settling in boarding houses in Bath and Cheltenham. Sarah Burney published seven works of fiction, beginning with Clarentine (1796), a novel of manners;
Geraldine Fauconberg (1808);
Traits of Nature (1812);
Tales of Fancy: The Shipwreck (1816);
Tales of Fancy: Country Neighbours (1820);
The Romance of Private Life: The Renunciation (1839) and The Hermitage (1839). Several of them were popular enough to be translated into other languages, but did not earn her much money. Her reputation was overshadowed by that of her more-famous half-sister Fanny Burney.
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