Saturday, 26 September 2020

'I gave him my promise, and, very heavily indeed, I left him'

 As mentioned the other day, I am reading The Diary of Fanny Burney – and I'm finding it thoroughly enjoyable. It's hugely readable (though there are some passages that can be skipped with no great loss), written with unforced wit and sparkle, and full of brilliant dialogue and pin-sharp, but never malicious, character sketches. One of the chief pleasures for a Johnsonian are the young Fanny Burney's frequent meetings with the Doctor. It is clear that, once she had got over the shock of his physical appearance – his 'almost perpetual convulsive movements, either of his hands, lips, feet or knees, and sometimes all together' – she swiftly came to love him, and he, already enchanted by Evelina (Burney's first novel), soon grew to love her. 
   The most touching of Fanny Burney's encounters with Johnson is the last, on November 25th, 1784. She goes to visit the ailing Doctor at home in Bolt Court: 

'He was in rather better spirits than I have lately seen him: but he told me he was going to see what sleeping out of town might do for him.
   "I remember," said he, "that my wife, when she was near her end, poor woman, was also advised to sleep out of town; and when she was carried to the lodgings that had been prepared for her, she complained that the staircase was in very bad condition – for the plaster was beaten off the walls in many places: 'Oh,' said the man of the house, 'that's nothing but the knocks against it of the coffins of the poor souls who have died in the lodgings!'"
   He laughed, though not without apparent secret anguish, in telling me this...'

   Later, Burney touches on the sensitive subject of Hester Thrale Piozzi (who had apparently severed all communications with the Doctor – and, indeed, Fanny) and has to make a swift retreat.  She duly steers the conversation on to Ann Yearsley, a Bristol milkmaid with no formal education who had produced a volume of poems, despite having read nothing but a little Shakespeare, Milton and Young (Night Thoughts). Pondering this, Johnson declares that "there is nothing so little comprehended among mankind as what is genius. They give it to all, when it can be but a part. Genius is nothing more than knowing the use of tools; but there must be tools for it to use: a man who has spent all his life in this room will give a very poor account of what is contained in the next."
   I saw him growing worse, and offered to go, which, for the first time I ever remember, he did not oppose; but, most kindly pressing both my hands:
   "Be not," he said, in a voice of even tenderness, "be not longer in coming again for my letting you go now."
   I assured him I would be the sooner, and was running off, but he called me back, in a solemn voice, and, in a manner the most energetic, said: 
   "Remember me in your prayers!"
   I longed to ask him to remember me, but did not dare. I gave him my promise, and, very heavily indeed, I left him.'

   Fanny Burney never saw Johnson again, and a few weeks later he was dead.


  1. Excellent! Have a good saturday


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