Monday, January 05, 2009

"'Tis the most dangerous employment you can have"

I picked up Penguin's one-volume selection of the journals and letters of Fanny Burney, a novelist and friend of Samuel Johnson, after Johnson biographer Peter Martin claimed that her journal was nearly the equal of the diaries of Pepys and Boswell. I've just begun to read it, so I can't vouch for Martin's position yet, but I can already tell that it's going to provide two of my favorite literary pleasures: the revelation of how very different the thoughts and emotions of people in other ages could be from ours, and the reminder that they could also at times be nearly as recognizable and familiar as our own.

Frances Burney began her journal at age sixteen, and even knowing that the place and life of an upper-class sixteen-year-old in Georgian England were wildly different from those of any teen today, a recognizable teenage vitality and self-absorption shine through the distancing effect of the eighteenth-century prose in the early entries. What sixteen-year-old's journal hasn't opened with some entry like the following?
27 March 1768
To have some account of my thoughts, manners, acquaintance and actions, when the Hour arrive at which time is more nimble than memory, is the reason which induces me to keep a Journal: a Journal in which I must confess my every thought, must open my whole Heart!
The second entry in this selection offers even more recognizable youthful enthusiasm and drama:
July 1768
I am going to tell you something concerning myself, which, if I have not chanced to mention it before will I believe a little surprise you--it is, that I scarse wish for any thing so truly, really, and greatly, as to be in love--upon my word I am serious--and very gravely and sedately assure you that it is a real and true wish. I cannot help thinking it is a great happiness to have a strong and particular attachment to some one person, independent of duty, interest, relationship or pleasure: but I carry not my wish so far as for a mutual tendresse--No, I should be contented to love sola--and let Duets be reserved for those who have a proper sense of their superiourity. For my own part I vow and declare that the mere pleasure of having a great affection for some one person to which I was neither guided by fear, hope of profit, gratitude, respect--or any motive but mere fancy would sufficiently satisfy me, and I should not at all wish a return.
At the same time, we're reminded of the difference in eras by the vigor with which those around Burney discouraged her when they discovered her occupation. A year before starting her journal, she had sworn off writing as a waste of a woman's time, burning a manuscript containing "Elegies, Odes, Plays, Songs, Stories, Farces, Tragedies, and Epic Poems," as well as a novel, The History of Caroline Evelyn. Though her plunge into journal-keeping less than a year later may have demonstrated a change of heart on her part, it didn't reflect a change in the beliefs of her social circle, as this entry about a conversation with a friend of her mother reveals:
August 1768
I have been having a long conversation with Miss Young on journals. She has very seriously and earnestly advised me to give mine up--heighho-ho! Do you think I can bring myself to oblige her? What she says has great weight with me; but, indeed, I should be very loath to quite give my poor friend up. She says that it is the most dangerous employment young persons can have--it makes them often record things which ought not to be recorded, but instantly forgot.
The most dangerous employment young persons can have! Seems a bit quaint now, no?

But what I'm really looking forward to in the journals and letters are appearances by Johnson, Boswell, and others of their set. The account of a visit with Boswell in this long letter to her sister of October 1790 is priceless:
[Mr Guffardiere] proposed bringing [Mr Boswell] to call upon me; but this I declined, certain how little satisfaction would be given here by the entrance of a man so famous for compiling Anecdotes! But yet I really wished to see him again, for old acquaintance' sake, and unavoidable amusement from his oddity and good humour, as well as respect for the object of his constant admiration, my revered Dr Johnson.
Later, as Burney and Boswell approached the royal palace, where she was to attend to the Queen, Boswell made quite a scene:
He then told me that his Life of Dr Johnson was nearly Printed: and took a proof sheet out of his pocket to shew me! with crowds passing and re-passing, knowing me well, and staring well at him! . . . [H]e stopt me again at the Gate, and said he would read me a part of his work!

There was no refusing this: and he began,--with a Letter of Dr Johnson's to himself: he read it in strong imitation of the Doctor's manner, very well, and not caricature. But Mrs Schwellenberg was at her Window--a crowd was gathering to stand round the Rails,--and the King and Queen and Royal Family now approached from the Terrace.--I made a rather quick apology; and with a step as quick as my now weakened limbs have left in my power, I hurried to my apartment.
How fortunate we are, nearly two hundred and fifty years later, to have that scene--and to have the ability to know, intimately, through their own private accounts of their thoughts and feelings, both its actors!


  1. Lovely stuff. At the library last week I almost picked up the most recent Johnson bio, but then I reflected on having read Boswell, and Bate, and Clifford, and Wain, and thought ... life's too short. Or least I should just reread Boswell or Bate.

    But this I could excuse.:)

  2. Not strictly for the Johnsoniana, mind you - though I'd love that of course - but really just for that whole, great 18thC English vibe.

  3. Not just the 18th century - Burney lived to 1840, and there are some great twists and turns to her life. The Penguin selection stays interesting all the way to the end.

    Glad you're enjoying it.

  4. Sam,
    You won't be disappointed. I've been in a very eighteenth-century mood for about a year now, and Burney's journals and letters couldn't be better.

    And great thanks to you, Amateur Reader, for putting me on to the one-volume edition: it's exactly what I was looking for.