Sunday, 4 October 2020

'We have seen him long enough upon stilts...'

 In 1786, Fanny Burney was offered a position she would have been wise to refuse, but could hardly have done so at the time – to join the Court of George III as assistant Keeper of the Robes to his Queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strellitz. She endured four years in this surprisingly demanding and severely constraining role before falling ill and securing her release. Her diaries of this period are of great interest to historians, as Burney had a ringside seat during some very turbulent times at Court, but they are often painful to read, as she is so clearly in the wrong place and suffering decidedly shabby treatment. 
   Towards the end of her time at Court, she has an unexpected encounter, outside St George's Chapel at Windsor, with James Boswell, who loses no time in urging her to escape and resume her old life. 'His comic-serious face and manner have lost nothing of their wonted singularity,' Burney notes, 'nor yet have his mind and language.' To move the subject away from herself, she asks after 'Mr Burke's book' (Reflections on the Revolution in France). 
   '"Oh," cried he, "it will come out next week: 'tis the first book in the world, except my own, and that's coming out also very soon; only I want your help ... you must give me some of your choice little notes of the Doctor's; we have seen him long enough upon stilts; I want to show him in a new light. Grave Sam, and great Sam, and solemn Sam, and learned Sam – all these he has appeared over and over. Now I want to entwine a wreath of the graces across his brow; I want to show him as gay Sam, agreeable Sam, pleasant Sam: so you must help me with some of his beautiful billets to yourself."'
   This is Boswell as irresistible force of nature, but Fanny manages to sidestep his demands again, and he returns to the charge on the other front, exhorting her to retire immediately from the Court. And then it's back to Sam, as Boswell produces a proof sheet of his Life of Dr Johnson from his pocket to show her. When he realises she cannot admit him to her apartment, he insists on reading it to her there and then. 
   'There was no refusing this; and he began, with a letter of Dr Johnson to himself. He read it in strong imitation of the Doctor's manner, very well, and not caricature. But Mrs Schwellenberg [Fanny's tyrannical supervisor] 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 had left in my power, I hurried to my apartment.'
   Though Boswell renewed his pleas for Johnson's letters to her the next day, Burney held firm, regarding them as 'sacred' and not to be published. As a result there are but two references to Fanny in Boswell's Life of Dr Johnson – a sad lack.   


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